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.
Wine geeks have been enjoying these new-age Greek wines for quite some time and gradually they are becoming more readily available. While they are now found more frequently on on-trend restaurant wine lists, supermarkets are still a bit slow on the uptake so they do need some sniffing out. 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…
Tetramythos Retsina (£8.50, thewinesociety.com)
Although fermented with wild yeasts in amphorae, this is a modern take on retsina, its pine notes being gently herbaceous rather than aggressive. Try it with our smoked aubergine, pepper and walnut salad.
Ionos Roditis Moschato (£8.50, M&S)
A lovely wine for sunny weather, the roditis grape making it fresh and zesty, with the moschato (muscat) grape lending its distinctive floral fragrance. Drink it alone or with our poached chicken with spring onion and ginger sauce.
BBR 2017 Domaine Lyrarakis Assyrtiko (£12.95, Berry Bros & Rudd)
The assyrtiko grape is native to the volcanic island of Santorini but this comes from the limestone soils of mountainous Crete, which give it a green apple crispness with a saline twang. Fab with anything fishy, or with carrot, halloumi and dill balls.
Waitrose ATMA Xinomavro (£11.99, Waitrose Cellar)
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.