Greek wines are not the protagonists of wine tastings around the world, but they can reserve surprises and are a land of discovery for curious and passionate wine lovers. Greek wine production was characterized in the past especially by the production of sweet wines (the Retsina are famous), but today the panorama is more varied. A complete guide signed by Sommelier Wine Box.
Complete 10-point guide to Greek wines: vines, production areas, pairings.
The importance of wine in Greek culture
Greece is the oldest wine-growing country in Europe and here viticulture is attested as early as 2,000 BC: this is demonstrated by the archaeological finds and the centrality in the mythology of the god Bacchus, the god of wine. The Greeks used to practice the symposium, at the end of the banquets, that is, discussing politics, art and philosophy, lying on the tricliniums drinking wine.
The role played by the Greeks for world wine culture is crucial: in all the territories they conquered they exported the cultivation of vines, and the relay was then taken over by the Romans.
What did the ancient Greeks drink?
In ancient times , the Greeks drank something that we would struggle to recognize today, because they diluted the wine with water (including sea water) to lighten its alcohol content, and sometimes they also added honey, aromatic herbs or spices to improve its flavor or resins to favor its storage.
Following a complex ceremony, the symposiarch (a kind of proto-sommelier) diluted the wine, decided the quantity to drink and marked the different moments of the symposium.
Greek viticulture experienced a clear decline in the Middle Ages , when production fell almost exclusively to monasteries, and weakened further during the centuries-old Turkish occupation (from 1453), although it did not disappear completely because the production of wine was not forbidden to Christians. .
Only in the twentieth century was there a recovery in production, especially after the Second World War, and further on a qualitative improvement aided by Greece's entry into the European Union: this favored technological investments, recovery and an update of style in production, strengthening the quality and attractiveness of Greek wines on international markets.
How were vines cultivated in ancient Greece?
The Ancients used very particular systems of cultivation and pruning of the vine, such as the sapling (characterized by severe pruning) or even left to crawl on the ground.
Some of the vines grown are those that we know to be typical of Southern Italy, Magna Graecia (although it is difficult to be certain that those of today are identical to those of the past): aglianico, fiano, greco, grechetto and falanghina .
Winemaking was also very advanced in the Greek world: for example, it began immediately after harvesting, in tubs directly in the vineyard, or resin was used to protect the wine from oxidation.
What do you drink in Greece today?
If today Retsina (light wines, flavored with pine resins and honey) are no longer drunk as they once were, contemporary taste always rewards the production of passito wines , which in Greece is quite extraordinary: among these the Muscat of Samos, the Mavrodaphne of Patras and the Vin Santo of Santorini.
White wines - sweet and dry - are accompanied by reds also in modern interpretations, whereby the traditional harshness of local wines is mitigated by the introduction of international varieties and refinement in barrique .
The numbers of Greek wines
Today there are 120 Protected Geographical Indications (PGIs) and more than 30 Protected Designations of Origin (PDOs) in Greece.
In 2021 the value of Greek wine exports was around 85 million euros . Production stood at around 2.5 million hectoliters for an area of approximately 100,000 hectares of vines .
A curiosity: the largest exhibition of Greek wines was recently held in Athens (Oenorama: Athens, 12-14 March 2022), where approximately 3,000 wines, produced by 250 Greek wineries.
White wines make up 70% of production, red wines the remaining 30%. Traditional Retsina cover 30% of production, almost entirely consumed in the domestic market.
Wine consumption in Greece in 2021 was approximately 2.2 million hectoliters.
- Read also: understanding the importance of soil in wine
Terroir of Greece: climate and soil
Greece has a Mediterranean climate. The very high average temperatures, especially on the islands and in the south of the country, push us to plant vineyards at altitude, to exploit temperature variations and obtain grapes rich in aromas which are best expressed in the production of sweet wines, such as the Vin Santo of Santorini .
Rainfall is scarce and concentrated in autumn and spring: this does not cause ripening problems except sometimes in the high altitude areas of mainland Greece (Peloponnese and Macedonia).
The Cyclades Islands are characterized by volcanic soil and schist rocks which give the wines minerality.
Petrous soils are typical of the Ionian Islands: here you come across ungrafted vines, that is, those with their own, free roots, not grafted onto the roots of American plants.
The calcareous soils of Macedonia and Peloponnese are also suitable for the cultivation of black grapes. Here there is often a thin layer of clay, clay and marl which, allowing the roots to draw water, favors a slow and productive ripening of the grapes.
- To understand ungrafted vines, read also: what is phylloxera
What are the Greek grape varieties?
Ampelographers have identified around 300 native grape varieties in Greece, some for table use, others used to make wine.
80% of Greek vines are white grapes, in particular:
- assyrtiko , a vine native to Santorini (Cyclades Islands), rather well-known, which gives rise to both great white wines with notes of tropical fruit and spices, also suitable for aging in wood, and to fresh wines scented with fruit and white flowers and to sweet Vin Santo with hints of honey, carob and dates;
- roditis , particularly widespread in the Peloponnese and at high altitudes. Often used in blends for the typical spicy note (in purity it can be compared to some Riesling);
- robola , probably originally from Kefalonia (Ionian Islands), here expresses concentrated wines with fragrant notes of citrus fruits, cooked apples and plums; it is thought to be the ancestor of Ribolla Gialla, introduced into Italy by the Venetians;
- athiri , excellent for producing fresh and non-complex dry white wines. In the Cyclades it is also used to obtain Vin Santo, while in Rhodes Classic method sparkling wines, blended with Chardonnay, which are characterized by hints of pineapple and grapefruit, hazelnut and toasted bread;
- malvasia or monemvasia, is found only in the Cyclades (especially in Paros and Syros), where it gives rise to dry or sweet wines, with aromatic, floral and fruity accents. It is the ancestor of the Malvasias of other Mediterranean countries and takes its name from the city of Monemvasia, in Laconia, which in Greek means "single passage" due to the bridge that connects it with the mainland;
- savatiano , widespread in arid and sunny climates and especially in Attica, where it finds the ideal conditions to produce wines of discreet softness, with notes of white flowers and peach. It is historically used for the production of Retsina;
- moskofilero , the most cultivated variety, especially in Mantinia (Peloponnese) where it is grown at more than 700 meters above sea level. It is very recognizable and appreciated throughout the world for delicate wines, with lively acidity and pleasant spicy and mineral notes.
Among the Greek black grape varieties the following stand out:
- aghiorghitiko , the most widespread, especially in the Peloponnese, where it is used to produce the famous Nemean wines, with an intense ruby color and concentrated notes of plum, cherry, liquorice and leather;
- xinomavro , literally “black and bitter”. A high quality vine but not easy to grow and make wine (it suffers from a lack of water and tends to have high acidity and sharp tannins), which grows well in the Naoussa district. It is characterized by aromas of strawberry, cherry, black cherry, blueberry, blackcurrant... with the passage in barrique, cinnamon, white liquorice, eucalyptus, mineral hints, fruit in alcohol, lacquer and coffee emerge. It has a good tannic component and excellent persistence. Often vinified in blend with Merlot or Cabernet.
- mandelari , is the most cultivated grape variety in the Aegean islands. In Crete, in particular, it gives rise to wines with very bright colours, aromas of berries, freshness and a powerful and rough tannin, often "softened" with Malvasia;
- mavrodafne , originally from Patras, where it is almost exclusively bred, is fundamental in the production of the fortified wine of the same name characterized by its dense and deep purple colour, intense aromas of cassis and black pepper, red flowers and cherry. In the Ionian islands it is used in the production of some dry wines, blended with other native vines;
- kotsifali , widespread on the island of Crete, stands out for the production of interesting wines from blends with mandelari, syrah and carignan, for wines scented with berries and Mediterranean scrub;
- limnio , native to the island of Lemnos, is a late-ripening grape variety that can offer concentrated wines, with aromas of blackberry and myrtle, and a powerful alcoholic note and vigorous tannins. It is often used in blends with international varieties, to modulate its character;
- the international cabernet , merlot and syrah .
How does the Greek wine quality system work?
The Greek system recognizes specific wine regions, individual grape varieties and cultivation and winemaking procedures as quality.
Greek wines are divided into:
- Wines without geographical indication;
- PGI wines, divided into three levels (8 regional wines, 37 district wines, 58 area wines). Among the PGIs there are Traditional Designation Wines (15 Retsina and Verdea from Zante);
- PDO wines, divided into two subcategories: 21 Superior Quality Designation of Origin (OPAP) and 8 Controlled Designation of Origin (OPE).
To obtain the “Riserva” mention on the label:
- The white must have at least 2 years of aging and a minimum of 6 months in barrel
- The red must have at least 3 years of aging and a minimum of 6 months in barrel.
To obtain the “Gran Riserva” mention:
- The white must have at least three years of aging and a minimum of 12 months in barrel
- The red must have at least 4 years of aging and 2 in barrel.
- Read also: how do you do a blind tasting?
What are the Greek wine-growing areas?
The main Greek wine-growing regions are 11: the Peloponnese, Central Greece and Euboea (which includes Attica and Boeotia), the Dodecanese, Macedonia, Thessaly, Thrace, Epirus, Crete, the Aegean Islands, the Ionian and Cycladic Islands.
In the Peloponnese there is almost half of the Greek vineyard:
- OPAP Nemea produces an excellent red wine, made from aghiorghitiko, whose imposing tannin is smoothed by the blend with cabernet sauvignon and merlot.
- in the OPAP Mantinia, the moskofilero (which is grown up to 1,000 meters above sea level) offers pleasant white wines, with good acidity, aromas of rose and apple, peach and pear, also excellent as a base for sparkling wine. The color tends towards golden in the most important winemakings, and the aroma is enriched with vanilla and toast, caramel and honey.
- in Patras the famous Mavrodaphne of Patras is vinified, a fortified wine obtained from at least 50% mavrodaphne with the addition of korinthiaki, a native black grape from Corinth. The color is dark ruby red; the aromas are reminiscent of spices, coffee, chocolate, caramel and light oxidized notes; sweet and persistent, with a light bitter note. Patras is also famous for the production of two OPE white Moscato wines: Moscato Passito and Moscato di Rione.
Central Greece and the island of Euboea mainly produce Retsina, obtained from roditis and saviathan with the addition of Aleppo pine resin. It is the most famous wine of Greece, an Athenian tavern wine. In the region, today wines obtained from native and international grape varieties are also produced.
In the Dodecanese , particularly in Rhodes, various OPAPs are produced (white wines from Athiri and red wines from Mandelari, here called Amorgiano), and OPE from white Muscat, which are very aromatic. From the vineyards at altitude (up to 1,200 metres) high quality wines are obtained, including Classic method sparkling wines (from athiri and chardonnay).
Macedonia, Thessaly and Thrace are in the north-eastern area of Greece: here the black grape varieties xinomavro, cabernet sauvignon and limnio prevail:
- In Macedonia, OPAP Naoussa produces a xinomavro wine with a very intense colour, with mineral and undergrowth aromas, fruit in alcohol, lacquer and coffee, capable of maintaining freshness for a long time, tasty and not too tannic. The most famous OPAP in the region is Playes Melitonos (Côtes du Meliton) where the native limnio is often used in blends with cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc. Finally, on Mount Athos, OPAP Agioritikos is almost exclusively owned by the Hourmistas monastery, where cabernet sauvignon and limnio are grown.
- In Thessaly, the Tirnabos area stands out (with many table grapes) and the OPAP Rapsani, at the foot of Olympus, with red wines from xinomavro, trassato and stravoto.
- In Thrace, Pagghioritiki wines are made from roditis assyrtiko, cabernet sauvignon and merlot. The whites are fresh and simple, the reds rather structured.
Epirus is the coldest and most mountainous part of Greece. On the slopes of Mount Pindus, Zitsa is produced, one of the few sparkling wines in the country: it is a quality white OPAP from the local Debina grape variety, also in the sparkling version. The Appellation around Metsovo instead produces robust wines from cabernet sauvignon.
In Crete, production focuses on seedless rasaki (very sweet sultanas) and table grapes. In the north of the island, where the mountains protect the vineyards from the hot African winds, grapes for quality wines are grown. There are 4 OPAPs on the island: in the city of Sitia both fresh and fragrant white wines from vilana and thrapsathiri and red wines from liatiko are produced; Dafnes produces red wines from liatiko; Peza white wines from Vilana and reds from Kotsifali and Mandelari; Archanes makes medium-bodied wines from kotsifali and mandelari.
Samos ( Aegean Islands ) is famous for the muscat of the same name, from petits grains grapes grown on terraces which, from sea level, reach up to 800 meters above sea level. For this reason, here the wine matures between the end of August and late October, with extended harvests. Samos Moscato has a fresh and dynamic taste: it is aromatic, sweet and fruity, with orange blossom, yellow peach and apricot. On the island of Lemnos, in addition to red wine from Limnio, sweet wines from muscat of Alexandria are produced which add musky notes to the floral and fruity nuances.
In the Ionian Islands the most important vine is the Kefalonian robola, excellent for the production of dry and sweet liqueur wines. Two OPEs stand out: the red Mavrodaphne from Kefalonia and the white liqueur Moscato from Kefalonia. Verdea di Zante is instead a wine with a Traditional Denomination.
The Cyclades produce both excellent white wines (from assyrtiko, athiri, aidani and malvasia) and reds from mandelari, often toned down with white grapes.
The OPAP of Paros is famous for white wines from Malvasia and red wines from Mandelari.
In Santorini an OPAP is distinguished from assyrtiko, aidani and athiri. But the lion's share belongs to Vin Santo or Xantos Wine: it is generally obtained from assyrtiko, athiri and aidani, it expresses smoky and mineral notes of candied fruit, hazelnut and vanilla, as well as a fresh and pleasant flavour. Another well-known passito, Liastos, is also produced on the island, from assyrtiko and aidani.
How to pair Greek wine?
Territorial pairing for the white wines of Greece
Fresh wines made from Moskofilero (similar to muscat) pair beautifully with moussaka (aubergine bake).
Cycladic Assyrtiko, especially in its more structured versions, finds a perfect match with dolmades (vine leaves stuffed with rice and minced meat).
For those who want to dare, the Retsina from Attica is accompanied by the famous and summery Greek salad (horiatiki), in which feta is served with tomatoes, onions, peppers, cucumbers and black olives and seasoned with tzatziki, made with yogurt, cucumbers and garlic.
Territorial pairing for the red wines of Greece
Red wines, such as Nemea from the Peloponnese, go well with souvlaki, traditional lamb skewers.
- Read also: how to pair food and wine
Territorial pairing for the sweet wines of Greece
Greek sweet wine pairs perfectly with puff pastry-based desserts: Malvasia is to be tried with baklava (chopped almonds and honey), Santorini's Vin Santo with galaktoboureko (with cream), kataifi (with chopped almonds and syrup ), with kourambiédes (biscuits with dried fruit and honey).