- Steven Kolpan
- Steven Kolpan is Professor and Chair of Wine Studies at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, NY. Steven is co-author of Exploring Wine, which has sold more than 125,000 copies, and was nominated as Best Wine and Spirits Book by the James Beard Foundation. Steven is also co-author of WineWise, a consumer-friendly guide to the wines of the world, which won both the 2009 James Beard Foundation Award for Best Beverage Book and the 2009 Georges Duboeuf Award for Best Wine Book of the Year. He is also the author of A Sense of Place, a history of Napa Valley's Niebaum-Coppola / Rubicon Winery (foreword by Francis Ford Coppola) that received the prestigious Versailles Award for Best American Wine Book in 2000. He is a contributing editor and the wine columnist for The Valley Table and Salon.com. In 2007, Steven Kolpan was named Wine Educator of the Year by the European Wine Council. He has been a member of Slow Food International for 20 years. Steven Kolpan lives just outside of Woodstock, New York.
Greece: Old Vines and New Bottles
It is by now almost a cliché to discuss the importance of wine in ancient Greece. Greek mythology, history, and archeology are rife with allusions to the celebrated product of the vine and its potency in the ancient world, both real and imagined. But, in today’s world of wine drinkers, and especially for those of us weaned on the wines of France and the New World, there is a widely held belief that the best days of Greece have come and gone. We might eschew Retsina – the only Greek wine we vaguely know - as undrinkable, and think of the rest of Greece as making charmless wines for its tourist trade.
So it may come as a surprise to learn that some of the finest wines being produced in the world today not only originate in the vineyards of Greece’s premier wine regions – Macedonia, Peloponnese, Epirus, Sterea Ellada, and the Aegean and Ionian islands – but are made from ancient Greek varietals - including Xinomavro and Agiorghitiko for red wines; Assyrtiko, Malagousia, Robola, and Moschfilero for whites.
The Greek philosopher, Socrates could have been speaking about the modern Greek wine industry when he said, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Over the last 20 years, the extraordinarily gifted wine producers of Greece have examined their wines, corrected and eliminated many of the problems in their vineyards and wineries, and have breathed new life into what was a moribund and neglected industry.
The modern wines of Greece run the gamut from vibrant and fresh dry whites to strawberry-redolent dry rosés to ageworthy complex reds. During the past few weeks I have had the golden opportunity to taste about three dozen Greek wines and have come away mightily impressed with the quality of the wines. I am even more knocked out by how well these wines pair with food. The lightest wines enhance even the simplest dishes, the medium-bodied whites and reds serve as another flavor element in the dish – a spice, a sauce – and the full-bodied reds bathe the palate in luxurious, velvety tannin-tinged black fruits and earthy smoke that challenge and elevate even the most elaborate meals.
Navigating Greek wine labels takes patience and experience. Some of the best wines have Greek language labels with English translations only on the back label. Even those that use English characters to name the wines still may be difficult to fathom because very few of us will readily recognize the names of Greek grapes (e.g., Malagousia, Robola) or growing regions (e.g., Naoussa, Nemea), much less be able to distinguish one from the other. Add to this the fact that many of the wines have proprietary labels (e.g., Amethystos, Ramnista), and that some regions are controlled appellations (25 “OPAP” regions for dry wines and seven “OPE” regions for sweet wines), some are vin de pays-equivalents (139 “Topikos Inos” regions), some are high quality vin de table (“Epitrapezios Inos,” made by terroir-driven mavericks who feel handcuffed by most government regulation) and you can see that understanding Greek wines is not easy for the American wine consumer. For help, seek the help of a savvy and enthusiastic wine merchant or sommelier, and be sure to check out www.greekwinemakers.com, which can be a tremendous help in understanding grape types and regions.
I should note that Greece also produces good quality wines made from international grape varietals (Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvigon, Syrah, etc.) with labels that are far easier to decipher. But it is the wines produced from little-known native Greek varieties that will bring excitement to the table. Everything ancient is new again.
Perhaps the best way to approach Greek wines is by thinking about the qualities we like in wines from other, more familiar parts of the world. For most American wine drinkers that means thinking about favorite varietal-based wines (e.g., Sauvignon Blanc or Syrah) and/or wines from a particular growing region of the world (e.g., Barolo or Barbaresco from Piemonte, Italy). Can we find Greek wines that will slake our thirst, taste reassuringly familiar, pair well with our favorite foods, deliver good value, and open our eyes to something new? The answer is decidedly yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes.
From Macedonia: Full bodied reds are produced from the Xinomavro grape in the Naoussa region. The wines are wonderfully earthy, reminiscent of a blend of Syrah from France’s northern Rhône Valley and Nebbiolo from Italy’s Piedmont. An extraordinary example is the 1999 Naoussa Single Vineyard Xinomavro from Kir-Yianni ($30), owned by Yiannis Boutaris, scion of the famous Boutari family of Greek wine négociants, who went off on his own in 1996 to make artisan wines. His son and vineyard manager Mihalis, is a UC Davis graduate. Other Kir-Yianni standouts: 1999 Ramnista, also 100% Xinomavro, is approachable and harmonious, and sure to appeal to Barbaresco fans. If you enjoy Spanish rosé from Navarra, try Kir-Yianni’s deliciously dry 2002 Akakies, made from Xinomavro ($10). The 2001 Yianakohori ($19), named for the estate on which the wine’s Xinomavro and Merlot grapes are grown, has become a flagship wine for Kir-Yianni, and will appeal to Bordeaux (especially Graves) drinkers.
Eponymous wines from the Biblia Chora Estate on the slopes of Mount Pangeon, are made by Evangelos Gerovassiliou, who was the chief winemaker at the esteemed Carras Estate and worked with Emile Peynaud in Bordeaux. He also who has his own project - Domaine Gerovassiliou - underway in his hometown of Epanomi. These are excellent examples of international varietals wines: an attractive Syrah rosé ($10), an approachable Cabernet/Merlot blend ($24), and a charming white that is 50% Sauvignon Blanc/50% Assyrtiko ($14); all 2002. One of the best whites I tasted, which will charm lovers of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc as well as Riesling aficionados, is Domaine Gerovassiliou’s 2002 varietal Malagousia ($15). His Syrah is a down-to-earth Rhône style winner ($24).
From Peloponnese: The Greek epic poet Homer first called this region “Ampeloessa,” which means “full of vines.” Here, close to the legendary Olympia, is the Mercouri Estate, now owned by the fourth generation of the Mercouri family. I love the white 2002 Foloï ($13), which is a fresh and fruity but ultimately dry wine that will please Loire Valley adherents, especially those who admire the complex Chenin Blanc-based wines of the Middle Loire. The red 2001 Domaine Mercouri ($??), made from 85% Refosco (originally imported from Friuli in Italy in the 19th century) and 15% Mavrodaphne, is full-bodied and complex, layered with tannins and black fruits, driven by a peppery minerality, and will appeal to those of us who wish they could drink Grand Cru Burgundy.
Other wonderful wines from Peloponnese include: Domaine Spiropoulos 2000 Red Stag ($14), which is made from 100% Agiorghitiko by UC Davis graduate Apostolos Spiropoulos, and is reminiscent of Merlot-rich “right bank” Bordeaux. Spiropoulos also produces the white 2001 Mantinia ($10), from the Moschofilero grape grown in certified organic vineyards. Wonderful with richer fish dishes, such as grilled tuna with a nut crust, Mantinia will no doubt please Viognier drinkers. Finally, look for the easy-drinking 2002 Patras white and the 2000 Nemea red ($8 each) from the Kouros Estate; good wines and good value.
•From the Ionian Islands: Gentilini. Look for two whites: 2002 Classico ($11) and 2002 Robola of Cephalonia ($13). Both fresh, fruit-driven, refreshing wines with just enough complexity to generously enhance fish and vegetable dishes.
Other quality Greek wine producers with wide distribution in the United States include: Boutari, Oenofros, Tselepos, Skouras, Château Carras, Karyda, Ktima, and Costa Lazaridis. Greek wine prices start at under $10, with most under $25. Of course, if you want to splurge on a Macedonian classic, the rare Cabernet-rich 1990 Château Carras Reserve will cost about $120.
So, taste the fine wines of Greece, especially now when the wines have never been better. When it comes to beautifully-crafted, food-friendly, and even surprising wines, I am happy to say that is all Greek to me.