Yassou (Cheers) to You as I Enjoy Another Glass of Greek Wine

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One of the few shining lights in the embattled Greek economy is its wine industry. Greece has approximately 12 commercially viable, indigenous grape varieties that produce quality, unique wines out of its 250 or so native varieties. It is on this handful of natives that their wine industry has been focusing in the process of reinventing itself to become globally competitive. This has been going on since well before the GFC, when Greece’s economic problems really kicked in.

If somebody mentioned Greek wine late last century, the image it conjured up was either of Retsina or slightly oxidised dull white wines. This image has changed dramatically with the Greeks now producing many sensational crisp white wines and plenty of lighter style, delicious red wines, by coupling modern winemaking techniques with their ancient native grape varieties.

In June, I attended the excellent New Wines of Greece Roadshow in Sydney, presented by Liquid Ideas. They had a series of six masterclasses conducted by the skilled and entertaining Yiannis Karakasis and Grigoris Michailos, covering not only Greece’s hero native varieties, but also their main grapegrowing regions. Each masterclass ran for an hour and included an eye-opening tasting of nine to 10 wines.

Additionally, in a separate hall, there were on taste three wines from each of 25 different wineries. While many of these wines are already being imported into Australia, some of the wineries were there looking for an Australian importer.

Starting with the whites, Assyrtiko is Greece’s star native white variety – just like Grüner Veltliner is for Austria. Assyrtiko is believed to have originated on the island of Santorini, an extinct volcano. The soils contain almost no micro-organisms and the vines live a very long time. It is estimated that some of the vines still actively producing fruit on the island today are around 500 years old – which gives meaning to the term old vines. As the island is often blasted by hot, howling winds, the vines are trained to survive this by being laid out in the unique ‘basket’ training configuration, so-called because they look like a low-slung weaved basket. In fact, the island, with its 1,230 hectares of vines, has been described as the Jurassic Park of grapegrowing – a preserved piece of ancient history.

The yields are minute but the wines they produce are fantastic as they have masses of flavour to offset the searing acidity. Noteworthy among the Assyrtiko tasted were: Gaia Estate 2014 Wild Ferment Santorini, which had slightly Burgundian aromas, a big mouthful of textural flavours with just a hint of salinity on the mid-palate and a crisp, savoury finish; Dougos Winery 2014 Meth’imon Acacia, fermented in big old acacia barrels, giving it alluring aromas of white flowers and herbs and a softer, gentler palate; Domaine Sigalas 2014 Santorini, made from the grapes of 60 to 70 year old vines is sometimes considered as the benchmark for Assyrtiko with its citrus aromas, minerality and flintiness on the flavoursome palate and a very crisp, dry finish that makes it an ideal accompaniment to lighted style or mezzedakia (Greek anti-pasto) dishes. When Assyrtiko is matured for a short time in new oak barrels, it sheds some of its acidity and develops a toasty creaminess. When matured in older, larger oak barrels, it develops interesting, slightly oxidative stone-fruit characters.

Assyrtiko is also used quite extensively in blends, either as the backbone, in which case other varieties such as Aidani, Athiri, Malagousia or Roditis are added to soften the Assyrtiko, or alternatively, the Assyrtiko is added to one or more of these other white varieties to add more crispness and character. This blending creates wines such as the charming Enipeas Brintzikis Estate 2014 White, which is 80 percent Roditis with the 20 percent Assyrtiko giving steeliness to the tropical fruit/pineapple flavours.

In Australia, Assyrtiko was planted by Jim Barry in Clare a few years back. They have just made the first Australian Assyrtiko and it is stunning, with lovely lemon and citrus peel aromas, crisp, almost steely on the palate with great texture and a clean, crisp, lingering finish. It is an Aussie expression of this classic Greek variety with all the hallmark characteristics, but with slightly softer acidity. A sensational start for the variety in this country.

There are other native white grapes which also can make good wines, including Aidani, Athiri, Malagousia, Roditis, Robola, Savatiano and Vilana.

As for the Greek reds, Xinomavro and Agiorgitiko are the superstars. Agiorgitiko is the deeply coloured one of this pair, with lovely, deep red colour and fabulous aromatics. It has soft tannins and plenty of acidity so that it can be enjoyed as a young wine without massive grippiness, but yet will age gracefully for a long time. It reminds me a bit of a Merlot with more character. A couple of the Agiorgitiko wines that stood out in this tasting were Ktima Pavlidis 2011 Thema Red and Domaine Spiropoulos 2012 Red.

Xinomavro makes me think of a Pinot Noir that has been working out in the gym – a bit meatier and musclier, or maybe it is the Greek version of Nebbiolo – light in colour-depth like Pinot but with a stronger tannic backbone and great structure like Nebbiolo. The aromas are complex with not only red berries, but also with the savoury tones of tomatoes, olives and nuts adding to this melange of aromas. Like both Pinot and Nebbiolo, due to its tannic backbone, Xinomavro can age well. I have in the past tasted a 17 year old Kir Yanni Ramnista and it was sensational with plenty of life still in front of it.

In the Xinomavro, the wines of Kir Yanni are hard to go past, both the Kir Yanni 2011 Ramnista Red and the Kir Yanni Kali Riza 2012 Red are excellent examples of this lovely variety.

Like with the whites, there is a raft of other supporting red native varieties waiting in the wings. Varieties such as Kotsifali, Liatiko, Limnio, Mandalaria and Mavroudi. While these varieties can make good wines on their own, such as the delicious Tsantali 2010 Mavroudi, they also ‘play well’ in a blend, both with other Greeks or with classic European varieties. The superbly complex and rich Tsantali Rapsani 2011 red was made from one-third each of Xinomavro, Krasato and Stavroto, while the gorgeous Domaine Skouras 201 Megas Oenos is 80 percent Agiorgitiko with 20 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, and again these two play well together. To my knowledge there isn’t anybody as yet growing Greek red varieties in Australia.

So if you are looking for tasty, crisp whites that have more character and complexity than Sauvignon Blanc, or lighter style reds with oodles of flavour and character, then you should consider trying some of the growing number of Greek wines now available in Australia. Don’t be put off by the tongue-twisting names on the labels, because more and more Greek wine producers are simplifying the names of their wines so they are more easily pronounced and remembered. Some are even enlightened (and Aussie) enough to use screwcaps to avoid cork taint. Yassou (Cheers) to you as I enjoy another glass of lovely Greek wine.

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