At the beach, I’m doing my bit to boost the Greek economy by sipping a refreshing Domaine Sigalas Assyrtiko, a salty, smoky white wine from the romantic, volcanic island of Santorini. Just so you know, this is not just altruism—Greek wines have been on an upward quality trajectory for years, and they’re better than ever despite the debt-ridden country’s financial woes.
Luckily, now that the banks have reopened, wineries may be able to pay for the bottles, corks, and equipment they need for the 2015 harvest, which starts next month. Because of capital controls imposed in June, though, that will be complicated. Suppliers are demanding cash upfront.
So boost sales and drink up.
Not a Greek wine fan? You should be.
I first fell in love with Greek wines a decade ago when I served as a judge at a wine competition in Thessaloniki and spent a week tasting, touring, and trying to perfect my pronunciation of local grapes like agiorgitiko. (A tongue-twisting name has long been a clue that the wine will be a bargain.)
Three hundred or so native varieties grow in Greece, but despite the country’s several thousand years of winemaking history, many had nearly died out by the end of the 19th century. Vineyard taxation and Muslim prohibition of alcohol during the four-century-long Ottoman occupation almost did them in.
Then, in the early 1980s, along came committed grape rescuers like pioneer Evangelos Gerovassiliou, who started his eponymous winery in 1981 on a peninsula southeast of Thessaloniki. He revived the white grape malagousia after a professor found the last remaining vine in a remote mountain village (or so goes the tale).
A quick Greek grape lesson: The four major varieties besides malagousia are two other whites—light, fragrant moschofilero and salty, minerally assyrtiko—and two reds: fruity, elegant agiorgitiko and spicy, earthy xinomavro.
One of Greece’s best wineries, Alpha Estate, is a knockout producer of xinomavro. When I first visited this bright pink winery in the windy northwest region of Amyndeon, about 25 miles from the Albanian border, winemaker Angelos Iatridis described how he’d tracked down dozens of owners in order to buy 85 small plots of land. Piece by piece, he assembled one single large block of vineyards for the winery. It’s a model of the latest developments in what’s called “precision” viticulture. A sensor system in the vineyard continuously monitors the moisture content in each patch of soil.
Alpha Estate was created from scratch in the late 1990s, and received 40 percent of its total investment in machinery and construction from the European Union, and older wineries have relied on EU subsidies to modernize. You could say the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) helped kick-start the wine revolution in Greece after the country joined in 1981. CAP implements subsidies for some kinds of vine research, vineyard replanting, construction projects, and even equipment purchases like tractors.
Alpha Estate benefits from being part of an EU-funded agrotourism network and also from CAP subsidies for 50 percent of the cost of wine promotion outside the EU, extremely helpful as one immediate effect of the financial crisis was shrinking local demand. People didn’t have enough money to go to restaurants, so more wine bars sprang up, serving wine by the glass. (But since imported wines were no longer affordable, Greeks did begin to try the country’s own indigenous varieties.)
Wineries that began exporting a decade ago are in the best position, and many more have turned to export markets since 2009, when, fortunately, consumers in places like the U.S. became highly interested in unusual grapes that offered good value. According to Sofia Perpera, director of the Greek Wine Bureau-North America, U.S. imports of the wines are up 25 percent over the last five years.
Now, Greece is in the throes of a second revolution, as talented young winemakers experiment with single-vineyard wines, special cuvees, even sparkling wines. The up-and-coming white grapes are vidiano from Crete, the latest regional hot spot, and robola from Cephalonia, in the Ionian islands; the hot reds are limnio, Greece’s oldest grape, and mavrodaphne, which used to make only sweet wines.
Of the country’s diverse wine regions, the one now having its New York moment is spare, white-washed Santorini, one of the Cyclades Islands in the Aegean Sea. Its striking assyrtikos, the best whites in Greece in my opinion, have captured many of the city’s top sommeliers (like Michael Madrigale of Boulud Sud) with their lemony, mineral, summer-perfect freshness.
The Santorini vines, trained in basket-like coils to hide the grapes from the hot Mediterranean sun, grow in ash, gray-white pumice stone, and lava deposited by a massive volcanic eruption bigger than Krakatoa some 3,000 years ago. Since I first explored the island five years ago, three new wineries have opened.
As part of EU promotion efforts, more than 50 Greek winemakers descended on New York a couple of months ago to show off their latest vintages. I liked more whites than reds. Here are my picks of those most worth trying.
2014 Domaine Gerovassiliou Single Vineyard Malagousia ($25). With the zesty scent of citrus and sun-ripened peaches, this white has a lively freshness that’s perfect for a summer aperitif.
2014 Domaine Sigalas Assyrtiko ($25). Knife-like acidity and citrusy flavors with a salty tang give this refreshing Santorini white a taste of the sea. Owner Paris Sigalas, a mathematician trained in Paris, founded the winery in 1991.
2014 Argyros Estate Assyrtiko ($20). Another brilliant version of this grape from Santorini, this is all lemon, minerals, and spice, with more complexity than the Sigalas.
2014 Gentilini Robola ($18). From Cefalonia, in the Ionian Islands, this light-bodied dry white from a very rare grape variety is fresh, pure, and vibrant, with flowery aromas and a hint of minerality.
2013 Douloufakis Dafnios White ($15). This delicious, charming white is made on Crete from an ancient variety, vidiano, and is ideal for beach drinking.
2012 Gentilini Eclipse ($26). This silky-textured, intense red is from mavrodaphne grapes grown in a high-altitude vineyard on the slopes of Mt. Enos on Cephalonia.
2010 Alpha Estate Xinomavro Reserve Vieilles Vignes ($22). A velvety red from 90-year-old high-altitude vines in the Tortoise Nest subregion, this may be the country’s best xinomavro, deep, rich, and subtle.
2013 Thymiopoulos Young Vines Xinomavro ($20). From the Naoussa region, this light-bodied red, with its bright cherry fruit, reminds me of a charming Beaujolais. Winemaker Apostolos Thymiopoulos is one of Greece’s rising stars.
2010 Gai’a Estate Red ($30). Fragrant agiorgitiko is an amazingly versatile grape, made in a variety of styles. This one, from Greece’s most important red wine appellation, Nemea, is distinctively spicy and cedary.