Our pairing choices, all with a Greek taste: smoked Salmon, Moussaka, artichoke hearts in olive oil, chicken breast stuffed with herbed zucchini, pita chips and Greek dip,decadent chocolate, and Sykomaitha, spiced fig cakes. Surprisingly, only the pita chips missed the mark with these wines. The fig cake, spiced with fennel and Ouzo, while strong, brought out the spices in the wines, and could pair with any of them, in small bites.
Let’s pronounce these varietals. Assyrtiko (A seer tee ko); Athiri (Ah thee ree); Xinomavro (Ksee no ma vro). The first two varietals are most associated with the arid Isle of Santorini, 180 miles southeast of Athens; Xinomavro is most often grown in rainy northern Greece, about 180 miles northeast of Athens, but just 17 miles or so from the coast. In our tasting, all but one were from northern Greece. Drink the whites young, the red Xinomavro (literally “acid black”) after aging up to 12-15 years. Let the red wine breathe--2 or 3 hours is best. These varietals are uniquely Greek, are clearly influenced by the sea, and taste of their locale. They are not Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, or Nebbiolo. They were a blend of rustic and sophistication, with the reds exhibiting a bit of dustiness. You can taste Greek civilization in every sip. These you can drink without roughing it--they are worldly civilized.
Evidence of grape wine making in Greece can be dated back to at least 4,500 BCE. Dionysus’ cult reached its peak around 700 BCE, 400 years before Alexander the Great conquered most of the known world. With all that history, Greek wine was, until after I came of age, a uniquelyacquired taste. I no longer slumber the night away on the sandy beach, I prefer a nice bed, with maid service. So, whatever should I drink when I return toGreece? Are the newer Greek wines, once purely local but emerging on the world stage, still best in situ in a carafe? The Wine Council set out to answer this modern day question, tasting five Greek wines, with varietal names that defied easy pronunciation. Two millennia after Retsina appeared, we found five Greek wines worth seeking out.
When I was 20, Jimmy Carter was President and I summered in Greece, sleeping on the beaches, drinking Retsina wine, gobbling Moussaka. Retsina has been around for 2000 years, evolving from the practice of sealing wine casks with pine resin. It is, to say the least, an acquired taste. In the 1970s, Retsina was synonymous with Greek wine, and remains the EU’s name for the Greek Appellation. Greek vintner Alexander Megapanos says wine is a product of its civilization, and should “represent its area, terrain, and people.” When I was 20, Retsina certainly filled that bill.
After Millennia, Greek Wine Comes of Age
Our wines, in the order of our favorites:
Biblia Chora Estate Ovilos 2010 ($20), half Assyrtiko and half Semillon. Grown in the foothills of the Pangeon Mountains in northern Greece, ancient home to Dionysus’ cult, the Semillon’s apricot and honey flavors blend with the Assyrtiko’s citrus. Aged in oak for about six months, this wine can be cellared for a while. It pairs best with seafood or salad. It has a beautiful gold color and smooth, Rosanne type mouth feel. Looks oaky, but is not. Fittingly for its association with Dionysus, this was the council’s favorite of the night. Best pairings: chicken stuffed with herbed zucchini.
Thymiopoulous Vineyards Uranos Xinomavro 2008 ($27). This is a brawny wine, native to Macedonia, now northern Greece, expect stone fruit and spice aromas, and tastes of berries, sun dried tomatoes, and spices. This vineyard is in Naoussa, Greece, further inland and to the west of Drama. Complex and tannic, Xinomavro is said to make Greek’s finest red wines. The tangy acidity is most pronounced when first opened, let it breathe an hour and it mellows to an even keel. Flavors of strawberries, blackberries and spice, aromas of stone fruits and spice cake. Best pairing: Spiced fig cakes, Moussaka, chocolate.
Pavlidis Vineyards Thema 2012 ($15), half Sauvignon Blanc, half Assyrtiko, a variety indigenous to Santorini, but here, grown in Drama, in northeastern Greece. Assyrtiko is acidic, is usually quite sweet (being picked late), and often is found in Retsina. In this blend the citrus was balanced by Sauvignon Blanc’s softer fruit, and rounder mouth feel. Think lemon crème and lime zest. This is a crisp, balanced, nuanced alternative to Sauvignon Blanc. Best pairing: chicken with herbed stuffing and seasoned artichokes.
Domain Sigalas Assyrtiko-Athiri ($18). This blend hails from Santorini, grown in the island’s volcanic soil, curled to protect the fruit from the wind. The wine is fragrant, with pronounced citrus, and a long minerally finish. The Assyrtiko’s acidity is balanced and softened by the sweet Athiri. Best pairings: spiced fig cake, smoked Salmon, Moussaka (the eggplant compliments the wine’s minerality).
Tired of everyday Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, or Nebbiolo? Try these for variety and surprise. These wines can be harder to find, but they are worth seeking out for an assertive change of pace. Any will pair with the salty fare of the sea, pastas, kafka or moussaka.
Grande Reserve Boutari Naoussa 2007, ($25). Barrel and bottle aging soften the Xinomavro’s tannins. The “Grande Reserve” designation means the wine is aged at least two years in the barrel, and at least another two years in the bottle. Boutari recommends serving this wine at 64°, almost like a white wine. Gentled by the oak, the wine is herbaceous, chalky, and full of minerals. Rustically Greek. Best pairing: Spiced fig cakes, Moussaka, chocolate.