For those who equate Greek wine with palate-chafing retsina, traditionally laced with pine resin, it's high time to go exploring. Greece, which began exporting its winemaking methods to France and Italy as far back as the eighth century B.C., is trying hard to make a comeback. Greek winemaking was interrupted by 400 years of rule -- ending in 1821 -- by the Ottomans, whose taxes on wine suppressed grape cultivation, and later by diseases that wiped out vineyards. Later, two world wars took attention away from serious winemaking.
Wine exports from Greece to the U.S. have been slowly climbing as better wine has hit the market. Greek vintners have shipped more than 200,000 cases to the U.S. this year, up about 25% from 2000. In general, the better whites come from the southern regions -- the Peloponnese, the Aegean islands, and Crete -- where they complement the abundant seafood diet, while Macedonia, Thessaly, and Thrace in the North produce more reds. In all, Greece is home to some 300 native grape varieties.
Improvements in the wines go hand in hand with the increasing sophistication of Greek cuisine. At Onera, a restaurant on Manhattan's Upper West Side, executive chef Michael Psilakis carries some 200 Greek wines in his cellar. Psilakis pairs his "deconstructed" moussaka -- which is made with braised goat and truffle oil -- with a pinot noir-like xynomavro from the Boutari winery. His skipjack tuna served almost raw with radish and black olive salad, tomato oil, and goat milk yogurt goes surprisingly well with a red varietal wine, agiorgitiko, also known as St. George, produced by the Kouros winery. "There is a spiritual connection between pairing Greek varietals with Greek dishes, but these wines are increasingly able to stand up to non-Greek food, too," says Psilakis.
Because Greek vintners face a marketing handicap -- the varieties of grapes are unfamiliar, and the labels often contain Greek characters -- you can find many excellent values. A 2001 blend of kotsifali and mandalaria grapes from the Minos region of Crete, aged in oak for 10 months, costs just $13. The blend is reminiscent of pinot noir and tastes good with lamb or a big-flavored Greek cheese such as Ladotiri of Mitilini, made from sheep's or goat's milk and preserved in olive oil.
SWEET AS HONEY
Red and white table wines from Amethystos Wines, priced at $15 to $20 a bottle, stand up well against comparable Italian wines. The $20 dry white is a blend of sauvignon blanc with semillon and assyrtiko grapes from Macedonia and is a fine match with octopus. At about $7 a bottle, a muscat from winemaker Kourtakis on the Aegean island of Samos offers an extraordinary value. I liked its unabashed honey taste compared with some Italian and California muscats that try to restrain the sweetness.
Greece is also turning out cabernets and merlots from French vines planted in the past 20 years. These are less interesting -- compared with competitors from France or even California. Then again, why turn to Greece for French and Italian-style wines when you can taste native varieties of the type enjoyed by Homer and Plato?
By David Kiley