Greek Wines: How Do You Sell a Mouthful Like 'Agiorgitiko?'

Photograph by Landon Nordeman

The words Xinomavro (Ksee no’ ma vro) and Agiorgitiko (Ah yor yee’ ti ko)—grapes commonly used to make Greek wine—are intimidating enough to trip up most English-speakers before they get to the end of this sentence. Not that “Sauvignon Blanc” or “Montepulciano” roll trippingly off the tongue, but U.S. wine drinkers have been practicing pronouncing the names of those French and Italian varietals for several decades.

While Greece has been making wine for 4,000 years by some accounts—and even celebrates a god of wine, Dionysus—its bottles have yet to gain recognition in the international market.

“The biggest obstacle isn’t the quality of wine; it’s the names,” says Jennifer O’Flanagan, a spokesperson for All About Greek Wine, a consulting company that specializes in Greek wine and spirits, at the New York Wine Expo.

The show, which was held at New York’s Jacob K. Javits Convention Center from March 2-4, welcomed business owners and consumers to try and to buy the latest from winemakers.

The expo presented 130 wineries representing 12 countries to about 4,000 attendees, says show director Ed Hurley. Eleven wineries from Greece participated in the event, pouring samples from bottles that retail for about $15 to $25. Additional Greek varieties that could tie tongues, especially after a glass or two, included: Moschofilero (Mos ko fee’ le ro), Malagousia (Mah lah gou zya’), and Assyrtiko (A seer’ tee ko); click here for pronunciations.

Globalization and pop culture have been putting forth such odes to wine making as the 2008 film Bottle Shock, and this has prodded Americans to develop a taste for wine from all parts of the world—France, Italy, Spain, and New World regions like Australia, Chile, and South Africa. Greece fell through the cracks, even as U.S. imbibers, steeped in a long tradition of beer-drinking, started switching from cans to decanters.

According to a 2009 report for the European Association of Agricultural Economists, barriers faced by Greek vintners include strong international competition, prices, ineffective communication with overseas distributors, inadequate promotion, lack of export-marketing research, delayed payments by overseas distributors, and lack of government help to overcome export problems. New Wines of Greece, a national campaign for Greek wine, has been promoting in the U.S. since 2010 and is making a bigger push this year, says O’Flanagan.

Last year, the U.S. imported $10.1 million of Greek wine and wine products, show data provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service. That puts Greece in 17th place among exporters to the U.S., behind such countries as Canada and Ireland—neither famed for wines.

Producers at the expo like to see young attendees, who they hope will become lifelong consumers, Hurley says. It’s a chance to make a new generation of Americans comfortable saying Xinomavro earlier in their drinking lives—and something to inspire a toast from Greek winemakers.

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