About Greek wine
I know that crime shouldn’t pay but when I was 13 I cheated in a Latin exam for which my punishment was being banished from the class and made to study Greek civilisation instead. I hated Latin anyway but Greek Civ soon became my favourite subject and it’s a country that fascinates me still. Until relatively recently, however, I didn’t love its wine.
Wine ran through the veins of ancient Greek culture: it was central to religious ritual and to everyday life. The Greek god of wine Dionysus, also known as Bacchus by the Romans, gave his name to Bacchanalian rituals which, as depicted on so many antiquities, were basically parties in which heavy drinking was combined with singing, dancing and lots of sex. Mortals duly followed suit and wine was enjoyed as a social lubricant by all social classes, and by women as well as men. Wine was also an important trading commodity and was exported all over the ancient world. It was stored in clay vessels called amphorae that were sometimes sealed with a pine resin which imparted its flavour into the wine – a drink that is still alive today in the form of retsina.
I travelled to Greece often in my youth and retsina appears in many happy memories. In those days, Greek wine was generally pretty rough and relatively expensive, so beer and retsina were the order of the day (and night) in tavernas and on the beach. The retsina smelled and tasted of wine mixed with toilet cleaner but it was very cheap and it kept us very cheerful. Thankfully, retsina, along with all Greek wine, has come a very long way since then.
Improved techniques and careful growing of indigenous grapes with exotic names – assyrtiko, malagousia, kydonitsa – have led to a thriving new Greek culture producing wines of real quality and character at very good prices. As well as making modern wines in modern ways, Greek winemakers are also reviving ancient know-how and using clay amphorae to age and/or ferment their wines, as their forefathers did – a welcome trend that is now becoming popular around the world.
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Wine geeks have been enjoying these new-age Greek wines for quite some time and gradually they are becoming more readily available. Good online retailers include maltbyandgreek.com, southernwineroads.com and thewinesociety.com, or try switched-on independent wine shops.
Greek civilisation goes back more than 6,000 years and my love affair with the country continues, and I’m very happy that now includes its wine as well.
The best Greek wines to try…
Supple, fruity red from this highly respected maker. Aged in used French oak barrels to give it a little muscly structure and some warming spice, it makes easy autumnal drinking with comforting autumn food.
Dafni is an ancient grape from the island of Crete. This wonderful wine has distinctive aromas of bay leaves and ginger along with heady floral notes and a zesty, savoury finish.
Xinomavro is the most important native Greek grape, likened to nebbiolo for its delicacy that’s underlined with vibrant tannins. Here it’s made into a dark rosé, with ripe strawberry and cherry fruits, rose petals and a bracing, herbaceous freshness. It’s darker than summery Provence-style rosés; unfashionable maybe, but it packs more of a flavour punch and is a great wine for a barbecue.
Fermented with wild yeasts in clay amphorae, as is the traditional way, this is a world away from cheap retsina we know from our holidays. Made with organic grapes, its pine notes are herbaceous rather than aggressive and it has a lovely, delicate freshness. Brilliant with all those deep-fried dishes you’d expect to find in a bar on a Greek island.
Great value for this luscious, silky sweet wine from the island of Samos. Made with the muscat grape, this has a wonderful scents of honeysuckle and apricot jam and makes a great finish to a meal served chilled with fruity puddings or a cheeseboard.
Xinomavro is often compared to Italy’s nebbiolo grape, with elegant acidity and assertive tannins that cry out for robust flavours. This is a cracking example – perfect with crusted lamb skewers with dill flatbreads and garlic yogurt.