5 Greek Wine Regions and the Native Grapes That Grow There

From what seems like the beginning of time, wine has been at the heart of every cultural aspect of Greek society. From 17th-century B.C. literature and historical texts to ancient Greek religions that celebrated Dionysus, the god of wine, to poets famously describing how the Greeks drank local wine to celebrate, wine is deeply woven into every aspect of life in this country. The ancient devotion to wine is still palpable in contemporary winemaking.

As one of the world’s oldest wine-producing regions, Greece is also home to one of the most diverse viticultural scenes. Winemakers are using indigenous grapes to craft a variety of wine styles at a much more affordable rate than in neighboring countries. Despite this long history, Greek wine is often unfamiliar to those of us who do not have the pleasure of living in the small mountainous country.

We have broken down the winemaking regions, along with the grapes native to each region, to offer an overview of the county’s wine landscape and a suggestion on what to buy next time you are in the mood to drink like an ancient Greek god. Each region, along with its suggested bottle, is recognized by law as a Protected Designation of Origin with the indication PDO or PGI. This distinction is reserved for wines produced from selected grapes grown in a specific way in an approved vine-growing zone.

Greek Wines

PDO Amyndeon

Main Grape: Xinomavro
Bottles: Alpha Estate Xinomavro Reserve, Kir Yianni L’ Esprit du Lac

Winemaking in the Amyndeon region of northern Greece dates back to the third century B.C. when winemakers in the ancient city of Kella were famed for producing exceptional wine. Today the high-altitude vineyards surrounded by the Kaimaktsalan and Vitsi mountain ranges still produce the grapes that make some of Greece’s best wine.

As the coolest climate in northern Greece, the altitude and moderate temperatures combine to produce an ideal terroir to grow the indigenous Xinomavro grape. Breaking away from the popular wispy white wines of the islands, Xinomavro is a high-density grape that is almost red-black in color. Don’t let the fact that Xinomavro translates as acidic and dark scare you off. This grape can produce approachable medium- to medium-full-body wines with firm tannins and high acidity. Nicknamed the “Barolo of Greece” because of its similarity, the wine shares a remarkably similar taste with dark cherry fruit, licorice, and allspice to Nebbiolo. In fact, VinePair rated Alpha Estate’s Xinomavro Reserve as the Best Wine of 2020 in part because the wine’s flavor was so similar to a Barolo at a much better value.

“This wine practically defines balance: The acidity is nearly perfect, letting the tart fruit flavors sing without overwhelming the palate; the texture is rich yet refreshing and not overly tannic; and it hugs the palate with notes of fruit and pepper,” said the review.

In addition to Alpha Estate, Kir-Yianni is another winery focused on making premium wines from the indigenous Xinomavro grape. However, Kir-Yianni mixes it up by using 100 percent Xinomavro grapes to create a light-body rosé wine. L’ Esprit du Lac or “the spirit of the lake” is full of fresh acidity, peach, and strawberry aromas, and a palate of strawberry minerality making it the perfect bottle for an afternoon barbecue or pre-dinner drink on a patio.

PGI Florina

Main Grape: Malagousia
Bottles: Kir-Yianni’s Paranga White, Alpha Estate Malagouzia “Turtles” Vineyard

Alpha Estate
Sitting on the northern edge of Greece bordering Bulgaria and Albania, Florina is the country’s coldest wine region. The region is home to mostly white wine production. Grapes that grow especially well here include Assyrtiko, Malagousia, and Sauvignon Blanc. Malagousia is an indigenous white varietal that was on the brink of extinction until the mid-’70s. After painstaking work from professors and modern growers, the grape is going through a modern renaissance.

Today it is known as a highly successful aromatic white that is full of vibrancy and complexity. Kir-Yianni’s Paranga White is a Malagousia and Roditis blend. The Malagousia gives the wine intense but refined muscat aromas of jasmine, white peach, and apricot. Malagousia wines are typically complex and powerful while remaining pleasantly refreshing.

Alpha Estate Malagouzia Turtles Single Vineyard is made with 100 percent Malagousia (also known as Malagouzia). The richly textured wine gives floral and sweet spices on the nose, yet has a round palate with high alcohol. The classy wine pairs nicely with green salads, baked vegetables, and a wide variety of Greek seafood.

PDO Santorini

Main Grape: Assyrtiko
Bottle: Domaine Sigalas Santorini (100 percent Assyrtiko)

Santorini might be one of the most beautiful islands in the world. Not in the traditional turquoise-water-as-far-as-the-eye-can-see way, but in the hill-covered-in-white-washed-buildings-overlooking-the-Mediterranean-Sea type of way.

In addition to providing countless selfie backdrops, Santorini’s volcanic-rich soil, warm days, and cool nights make it an exceptional location for wine production. The island’s most popular white wine grape, Assyrtiko, remains one of the oldest DNA varieties in the world. The grape that thrives in the volcanic-ash soil of the island produces a crisp white wine that typically produces passion fruit, flint, and lemon flavors with saltiness on the finish.

One of the most famous Assyrtiko producers in Santorini is Domaine Sigalas. The intensely aromatic wines start in vineyards dating back more than 3,000 years. The result is a liquid reflection of the island — a bright aromatic wine with clean, sunny lemon flavors, high acidity, and a salty, full-flavor finish.

You can have fun with a bottle of Domaine Sigalas Santorini. This is the wine to bring to an afternoon get-together with your girlfriends. The tingling acidity pairs perfectly with a chopped Greek salad or grilled shrimp kabobs.

PGI Crete

Main Grape: Liatiko
Bottle: Douloufakis “Dafnios” Liatiko

Crete is not just another Greek island with a long history of winemaking, it was the birthplace of winemaking in Europe. The ancient Minoans were an Aegean civilization that lived on the island during the Bronze Age. The Minoans traded with nearby Egypt for goods, including grapevines. They were the first European civilizations to produce and trade wine, changing the course of the continent forever.

As time went on the Romans became especially enamored with the sweet Cretan wine starting in the medieval era. Crete’s most noble indigenous red grape — Liatiko — produces a wine with a unique aroma of red fruit and warm spices. It was historically used for sun-dried sweet wines, though more and more wineries are using it to produce dry table reds.

One of those wineries is Douloufakis Winery. Since 1930 the Douloufakis have been producing traditional Cretan wine in their privately owned vineyards. Today Douloufakis is one of the highest-quality small producers on Greece’s largest island.

Douloufakis Liatiko is a delicate, light ruby-colored wine with concentrated aromas of fresh red fruits, herbs, and light floral aromas. Like most elegant wines, it has the ability to age. As the years go by it develops a unique bouquet of ripe fruits, leather, and spices. Earthy smoke, leather, and cranberry flavors tend to round out the palate profile. The light body, good acidity, and soft and delicious tannins can accompany a complex food menu or just a special relaxing moment. Warm spices make it a great match for spiced dishes and braised meats. Spiced Moroccan meatballs, ginger-roasted carrots, or wine-braised short ribs.

While Liatiko is one of the more classic red varieties of the Dafnes region in Crete, Vidiano is the island’s rising star. The grape produces some of the most age-worthy whites on the island. A round varietal with excellent mouthfeel and luscious stone fruit characteristics, this ancient Cretan grape is becoming sought after by the biggest fans of Greece’s more obscure grapes.

PDO Nemea

Main Grape:Agiorgitiko
Bottle: Domaine Skouras “St. George”

The Nemea appellation in the northeast corner of the Peloponnese peninsula is arguably Greece’s most important red-wine appellation. Area winemakers have been producing wine for centuries thanks to the native Agiorgitiko grape. Wine made with this grape is known as the “blood of Hercules” because, according to ancient mythology, the Greek hero was able to slay a lion after drinking the local wine.

Today, wineries like Domaine Skouras are still crafting high-quality wines in the mountains and valleys surrounding the small village of Nemea. As the flagship grape variety, Agiorgitiko can be used to make a wide range of styles from rich, age-worthy dry wines to lighter, sweeter wines.

One of the best expressions of this grape is in the Domaine Skouras “St. George” bottle. Using 100 percent Agiorgitiko, the bright-cherry red wine smells like a bowl of blackberries, raspberries, and ripe strawberries sprinkled with clove or cinnamon. The medium-bodied wine’s elegant structure, balanced acidity, and smooth tannins make it an easy-drinking red that doesn’t demand to be accompanied by food. Red fruits dominate the finish, followed by sweet vanilla and black pepper.

While Domaine Skouras produces wine that can hold its own against any Pinot Noir, you will be able to pick up a bottle at a much more reasonable price than your average Burgundy. A bottle of Domaine Skouras along with spinach and feta Greek burgers is a great way to fancy up your next backyard barbecue.

If you ever find yourself questioning if you should have that glass, remind yourself you are drinking the wine of ancient Greek gods. What would they do?

The wines discussed in this article are available from Diamond Wine Importers.