Greek Wine, from Yuck to Yum


By David Kiley When Plato and Aristotle were leading discussions on life, love, and politics with their followers, plenty of wine was around, and it was no Yellow Tail shiraz from Down Under or even a French merlot. No, it was local wine. Greece, of course, is the cradle of most of what passes for civilization, and wine is no exception. Some scholars point to evidence of Greek winemaking as far back as 8,000 B.C., and the vinters of that era exported their knowhow, not to mention their grapes, to Sicily and Continental Europe.

Once the Ottomans took over Greece in the 1400s, wines became a kind of Greek tragedy. The Turks levied burdensome taxes and drove most winemaking into the monasteries. Even after Greek independence in 1821, Greek wine remained largely a local business, thanks to disease and a displacement of grapes in the late 1800s and early 1900s by more sought-after currant crops. What wine was available to locals was largely unregulated and bought from barrels at wineries.

But things are improving. More than 200,000 cases of Greek wine will come to the U.S. this year. Some of that, of course, is retsina, a classic Greek white table wine that's laced with pine resin as a sentimental nod to tradition. Retsina was born centuries ago of the need to preserve and ship wines in vessels sealed with pine pitch. Ancient wines varied substantially in quality and tended to spoil, so the whiff of pine was an indicator that the wine hadn't gone off.

GROWING POPULARITY. Thankfully, there's more to Greek wine than retsina. Wines have been improving as vineyards and winemaking methods have been upgraded by second-generation Greeks who have studied in France and gone to the homeland.

More than 300 native varietals are grown in the Greece's wine regions -- Assyrtiko, Moschofilero, Agiorgitiko, and Xynomavro are the top four. They're familiar to Greeks but are an adventure for most foreigners. And therein lies the fun.

Estimates are that between 60% and 75% of Greek wine sold in the U.S. is through restaurants, according to Nestor Imports, one of the top importers of Greek wine in the U.S. But as word spreads, more are becoming available in retail stores. Among recent vintages, 2000, 2001, and 2003 were all good years, while 2002 wasn't. Reds enjoyed an especially good 2000, and whites did very well in 2003.

I sampled a flock of Greek wines recently, both on their own and also accompanying some excellent Greek-inspired dishes at New York City restaurant Onera. These wines can be found at better wine stores in major markets like New York, Detroit, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, Toronto, and increasingly in second-tier cities with strong first- and second-generation Greek populations such as Austin and Las Vegas. Here are my impressions:

Retsina Kourtaki, $3 to $6

Kourtaki

Inexpensive enough to try even if you dislike it as much as I do. Some consider the pine-resin accent an acquired taste. I find it a rejected taste. If you like it, it's always a bargain.

Distributor: Nestor Imports, New York, N.Y.

Dom. Constantin Lazaridi, $30

2001 Drama Amethystos Cava Cabernet Sauvignon

Tannins are prominent. Smoky. Could be paired with a steak. But a wine of Drama? O.K., I know it denotes the place. But I can't help thinking this cab doesn't hold up to the billing or price.

Distributor: Nestor Imports, New York, N.Y.

Boutari , $12

2003 Nemea Agiorgitiko Boutari

Spicy and smooth. Perhaps better in another year or two. But a good value and a good match with lamb and a Greek salad full of olives.

Distributor: Paterno Wines, Lake Bluff, Ill.

Minos, $7 to $9

2002, Cretan Local Wine

Pineapple notes came through in this white made of Cretan Vilana grapes. A good bargain and a nice match for seafood such as sole or octopus. Stands up to salty Greek cheeses as well.

Distributor: Amerikus Importers, New York, N.Y.

Haggipavlu, $12 to $14

2002 Moschofilero

A strong seller for this winery, and for good reason. A bit oaky by design. Rich ruby color. Some leather and green pepper notes. Good with a steak and a good value. A worthwhile change from ubiquitous merlots.

Distributor: Amerikus Importers

Megapanos, $9 to $12

2003 Savatiano

From Central Greece, a dry white and all-purpose wine for most Greek seafood dishes. Middling finish on its own. Better matched with food.

Distributor: Amerikus Importers

Techni Alipias, $23

2001 Cabernet Sauvignon

This is a wine that Lufthansa selected to serve on its flights during the 2004 Olympics in Athens. (I wish it would have chosen a wine made with a grape native to Greece, but....) It's a well-structured wine, a blend of cabernet and merlot that has been aged for a year in French oak barrels. The Greeks have gotten big on aging in French oak. It has trouble standing up to more mature cabs and merlots from South Africa, let alone France.

Distributor: Amerikus Importers

Vatistas, $27 to $30

2003 Kydonitsa

A dry white wine from a native Greek variety grown in Monemvasia. Fruity with the taste of quince. Complex and quite good, especially with shellfish. Pricey, but unique enough to justify it against less expensive chardonays.

Distributor: Amerikus Importers

Agros, $9

Muscat of Patra of Rio

This dessert wine is a good bargain, especially as so many muscats and late-harvest dessert wines are topping $20 these days. A bit jammy as Greek muscats tend to be, but I like it, especially served very cold.

Distributor: Amerikus Importers

Kourtaki $6 to $8

Muscat of Samos

This Muscat, fortified to 15% alcohol, is also a forward wine tempting some to even drink it on ice. Served very cold, it's a very good, reliable value.

Distributor: Nestor Imports

Etko, $14

St. Nicholas Commandaria, Limmassol

This dessert wine, fortified to 15% alcohol, is made in Cyprus from the local grape varieties mavro and xinisteri. This is said to be one of the oldest-traded wines in the world, and it's even referenced in the Old Testament. Very plummy with notes of blackberries. If you like this type of wine, it's worth trying and keeping in the cupboard, or giving as a holiday gift.

Distributor: Nestor Imports

By Kiley is BusinessWeek's Marketing editor in New York


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