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It's All Greek to Me....

One of my wine resolutions was to get outside my comfort zone and the "same old, same old" routine. Worthy...but easier said than done. Now and then we need a stimulus to broaden our horizons.

So when a friend suggested Greece as a theme for a tasting/dinner I welcomed it. I've done Greek wine dinners once or twice before--but not recently. And I've visited a few Greek wineries--but only on Santorini...the island which is so iconically beautiful that keeping your focus on wine is a challenge. So for this dinner, I was back in the books.

Bottom Line Up Front--to use a phrase. It was really a pleasant evening. There was no one wine or one course that blew our socks off. But the sum total of it was charming...which, come to think of it, sounds like Greece to me (I only visit--I don't have to focus on solving their macro-economic problems).

Given all the history in the region, it's no surprise that wine production in Greece goes back thousands of years. Some of that--retsina, for example (a resinated wine dating back to the classical times when the Greeks sealed amphorae with pine resin to keep air out)--is an acquired taste (to be generous). But there are several hundred grapes native to Greece--many of them found nowhere else.

Until recently, Greek wines have been pretty much ignored by the global wine community. That is definitely changing. There are international grapes planted in Greece--sauvignon blanc, syrah, etc--but it's the native grapes that are leading the renaissance.

Three wine regions are generating particular interest. Macedonia (the mountainous region of northern Greece, not the Balkan country with the same name) is best known for producing reds from the xinomavro grape. The name translates as "acid black"--implying a medium-bodied red wine with lots of acid backbone. The best frame it in a way that's balanced and food-friendly.

Nemea is in the Peloponnese--close to where the peninsula joins mainland Greece. Nemea is known for reds made agiorgitiko--which tend to be softer and rounder than those made from xinomavro.

And Santorini is the sundrenched, windswept volcanic island known for the lovely whitewashed, blue roofed buildings which cling to the hillsides overlooking the water. The dominant grape on the island is assyrtiko. Many of the vines are very old--bush vines trained to grow inward to protect the grapes against the wind. They're really quite unique looking. The wine is bracing and fresh, with good fruit, strong acids and marked minerality and salinity. While most are dry, there is also a thriving production of sun-dried vinsanto.

One challenge associated with venturing off the "cabernet-chardonnay superhighway" is that it can be challenging to find good selections of wines from places like Greece and Hungary. They exist--but it takes real effort to find them. In DC I was able to find a number of good assyrtikos and xinomavros--but finding agiorgitiko that I had confidence in was more difficult.

My wine of the night, when we gathered, was the 2013 Sigalas Santorini Assrytiko (from a winery I visited five years ago). I slightly preferred it to the Gai'a Thalassitis Assyrtiko shown above--but both were excellent...and very food friendly. I wasn't surprised that they went well with the Greek salad or the Greek Marinated Chicken Kebabs. But I was really surprised to find they went pretty well with the moussaka. The versatility of acid and freshness, I guess.

Our two reds--the 2010 Alpha Estate Xinomavro Hedgehog Vineyard and the 2011 Oenos Naoussa (also xinomavro)--were an even better with moussaka. Vibrant and earthy--just what the dish called for.

For variety, we had a white made from the malagouzia grape--recently "re-discovered" and gaining popularity in Greece. It showed rich and ripe...but, to my taste, was less interesting than the assyrtikos.

I can remember lots of wines that, individually, were more impressive than these. But I can't remember many evenings that were more enjoyable. Exploring good wines and good food with good friends--isn't that what we should be doing more often?

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