On a previous article about the wines of this ancient country we used an adaptation of ‘Greeks bearing gifts’ as the headline. The estimable Jancis Robinson, being a more modern girl, put “Greece is the word’ on top of her recent piece outlining how that wine industry is nicely evolving.
This year we take our title from the man who recently introduced the Roadshow and Masterclass sponsored by Wines Of Greece to cheerfully receptive audiences of sippers Downunder.
Yiannis Karakasis MW opened his presentation with those words on screen. He then proceeded to explain for those of us with only a small knowledge of the gods of the ancient world the role Dionysus has in the firmament.
A tough task but one god had to do it.
Dionysus appears to have had a fairly extensive allocation of duties; if not the most important god, he was one of the busiest. His brief included ritual madness, religious ecstasy, theatre, vegetation, pleasure and festivity.
We now know him mostly for his love of the vine. But you can see how a few carafes of wine might have helped him with all those other jobs.
The Romans, who were also known to enjoy a goblet or two, called their wine god Bacchus. From there comes the term bacchanalian which really sums up the whole portfolio.
But it is the wine of the modern Greeks we a honoring today. The Wines of Greece tagline Eternally Modern forseems suitably inspired.
For many tourists a day in this part of the Med often meant several beakers of retsina and a blur of dancing. Nothing that couldn’t be fixed by a dip in the blue waters the next morning.
But there is so much more to the wines we are seeing now.
Yiannis tells us that 20 or 30 years ago someone thought that if Greek wines wished to compete on the world stage they should match the varieties the rest of the world was making. Cabernet, shiraz and chardonnay were planted.
Although some fair wines were made, wiser heads questioned the forcing of these foreigners into unfamiliar soil when so many local varieties sat on the sidelines. The natives not only had much more venerable origins but also offered a unique family of flavours to tempt the adventurous. Today the emphasis is quite rightly on indigenous vines. Their heritage, their favourite sites and their singular sensations are the focus.
A Greek Odyssey.
Before the Masterclass we wander around the main tasting room. 14 producers have travelled 20,000 kilometres with their personnel, their brochures, maps and bottles to give us some 55 wines to taste. We spot one sauvignon blanc, one cabernet, a syrah, a tempranillo and a viognier. But the rest are a delightful swirl of names we can’t pronounce but which are fulsomely described in our handbook.
10 whites and 11 reds. Some are straight varietals and some are blends of two or more. We have entered an unfamiliar treasure trove awash with decidedly fine wine but not as we know it. Naturally we search for comparisons with grapes we know and there are some. But there are more differences, and we are happy to be patient and start to learn them. One nice surprise comes from the Kechris family which is redefining retsina, using 100% native whites and reds but with just a haunting subtlety of the pine resin we overdosed on in a past life.
Serious tasting begins.
We sit in a room at our tables ready to go. Pale, straw, lemony coloured wines are already winking at us from the first seven glasses. Yiannis gets us started with a quick look at the new Greek wine industry. There are some 63,000 hectares planted to the vine, spread over hundreds of kilometres, in total less than Bordeaux.
65% are white and today some 99% are indigenous grapes. Of which there are some 220 recorded varieties of which 79 are grown in commercial quantities.
Then, with his supervision, we tasted.
Three aromatic varieties: Moschofilero from the Peloponnese which is grapey, fruity and slightly off-dry. Malagousa/assyrtiko from Meteora richer and rounder on the palate, a great wine bar favourite in Athens. Then a malogousia from Halkidiki from one of the biggest organic vineyards in Europe. Lovely sweet fruit balanced with gentle acids.
Four mainland whites: Robola of Cephalonia, showing white stone fruits, lemon drops, crisp acid. Two assyrtikos from Drama way up north, both of them with generous fruit, creamy and elegant. An assyrtiko from Thessaloniki, Greeks noblest grape is gently touched by the past with the faintest trace of steeped pine resin. A unique wine.
Four asyrtikos from Santorini: The island home of this grape, which grows doggedly in volcanic pumice sand over limestone. Some vines can live to 400 years, although today’s wines come from youngsters around 80 years. The vines are often coiled into a basket shape against the furnace heat.
Island wines are less full bodied than the mainland offerings. Paler, more elegant, minerally and intense. The recent building of tourist infrastructure has seen vineyards reduce from 3000 hectares 40 years ago to just 1200 today spread across 20 producers. These four wines are salty, sexy fleshy, tight with a citrussy tension. One of the world’s great seafood wines. Yiannis says you must pay now at least 30 euros for a good unblended example
Three indigenous reds: A xinomavro from Amyndeon in the far north-west. Reminds us of a gentle nebbiolo. Forest floor, mushrooms, rose petals. A very smart wine. From Letrini in the western Peloponnese a blend of refosco and mavrodaphne, a meaty savoury wine with elegant tannins. Finally a Grande Reserve 2010 from Rapsani at 800 metres, a blend of xinomavro, krassato and stavroto.
This is one of Greece’s classics. A strong core of fruit in a sturdy wine.
We finish with a discovery wine, a surprise. A 2009 vin santo. A smokey sweet and luscious elixir from sun-dried assyrtiko and aidani grapes.
Thanks Yiannis, we’ll retire to flop on the beach for a few hours.
The really ancient grapes of modern Greece.
We don’t expect you to remember, or even pronounce correctly, all of these. Just so you may recognise or seek them out in the future.
White grapes Red Grapes
Muscat of Alexandria Mavroudi