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In this companion episode to “Wine 101: Greek White Wines,” VinePair’s tastings director Keith Beavers breaks down the Greek wine regions and grapes consumers can find on the U.S. market. There are two main red varieties to look out for, and while the list is shorter for Greek reds than it is for whites, these grapes still pack a punch.
Tune in to Episode 4 of the bonus season of “Wine 101” to learn more about Greek red wines.
OR CHECK OUT THE CONVERSATION HERE
Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers, and we just installed a fire pit in our backyard. It’s very exciting. Hey, Siri, how do you build a fire?
What’s going on, wine lovers? Welcome to VinePair’s “Wine 101” podcast, the bonus season. My name is Keith Beavers. I am the tastings director of VinePair. How you doing?
Last week, we were all about those Greek whites. Today, we need to talk about Greece’s red wine. Guys, it’s special. You have to know about it. You have to get into it. It’s awesome. Let’s get into it.
OK. Now that we’re familiar with the white wines of Greece, we’ve got to get familiar with the red wines of Greece. I’m just stoked talking about Greece right now, wine lovers, because this is a moment for Greece. There is more Greek wine on the American market than there ever has been. The focus on quality and structure is just awesome. Of course, Santorini and Assyrtiko have been on the market for a long time. But, like we talked about last episode, Malagousia, Moschofilero, and Rhoditis are wines that are just available now. How long of a list is that? It’s just cool. There’s all this stuff to explore. It’s a brand new country. If you’ve never had Greek wine before, this is the time.
The red wine situation in Greece is just as exciting. The list is just a lot shorter: shorter as in two grapes — two varieties. That’s a bit of a lie because there are other varieties that make red wine in Greece, but they’re mostly used for blending right now. If they are 100 percent, we’re not really seeing a lot of it on the American market.
With Greece and with this moment we’re in right now, that’s probably only temporary because there are winemakers out there trying to make wine with all the grapes. In the next 10 years, we could see another red wine grape pop up and be really popular. For now, the two varieties that make red wine in Greece that we’re going to see on the American market is a grape called Xinomavro and a grape called Agiorgitiko.
Greece is such a tourist destination and the coastal regions of Greece are just mind blowingly beautiful. They’re some of the most beautiful places on Earth. What’s sometimes not known, though, is that the interior of Greece and the northern part of Greece is very mountainous. It’s in these mountainous regions where we find the red wine varieties of Greece.
Even though Greece is mostly a Mediterranean climate — meaning a climate influenced by the Mediterranean or a large body of water — it also has a continental climate, which means a climate not influenced by any body of water. An example of that would be Burgundy, right in the middle of France.
In the “Oxford Wine Companion,” Jedi Wine Master Jancis Robinson splits Greece up into parts. There is the northern part of Greece, which is the mountainous northern part of northeastern Greece. It’s northeast of the peninsula. It’s the area of Macedonia and Thrace. Then, you have central Greece, which is a very mountainous region. Below that you have the Peloponnese, famous for the Spartans. Then, you have the islands.
It’s in the northern part of Greece and the central part of Greece that we get these two varieties. Up in the northern part of Greece, where Thrace and Macedonia are, this is the home of the grape Xinomavro. When you’re looking for Xinomavro in the wine shop, just know it’s spelled with an X, not a Z. The name means “acid black” because it has a very high acidity. In this area, there’s a wine region that exists around a mountain called Mount Vermio. On the southeastern slopes of Mount Vermio is an area called Naoussa. You’re going to see a lot of Xinomavro from Naoussa on the American market.
I know I’ve said in the past on this podcast that there’s a very short list of wines out there that are age-worthy. Usually, we’re just drinking wines for a Tuesday night. Xinomavro is on that list of age-worthy wines. These wines can go for 30 years and they just get better and better.
On the slopes of Mount Vermio, the soil is very poor. These vines really struggle for water and they get this nice concentration of fruit, even though it has high acidity. It usually sees about a year in oak. The result is almost — I’m going to say this — it’s almost like Nebbiolo or Barolo. It really is. It has an elegance to it. It has a powerfulness to it. It has a focus to it. It’s undeniable. They’re often nicely framed with good tannin structure. They go well with all the things that bigger, more powerful wines would go with, like steak, duck, pork, and heavy pastas. If you like big, bold red wines, this is your new friend, this is the new wine you’ve been looking for.
It’s not only in Naoussa that Xinomavro’s grown. It’s grown all over Greece, but it’s from this area. This is where it’s more concentrated and where it’s being focused on more than other places. What’s really cool — we’re not going to see a lot of it right now, but eventually we will — is that on the northwest slope of the same mountain, Mount Vermio, is a region called Amyndeo. They make sparkling Xinomavro, which is awesome.
Just east of these wine regions is another wine region called Goumenissa. I’m only mentioning it because they blend Xinomavro with a grape called Negoska. Negoska is Slavic for Naoussa. Again, you’re not going to see a lot of those right now, but I’m sure we will in the future. I just found it interesting that Negoska and Naoussa are connected. This is how all these varieties are. Their origins are unknown, so they just name them after the areas they’re from. This grape was obviously from Naoussa, which is the home of Xinomavro. I know. It’s crazy.
As we move from northern Greece into central Greece, I want to mention central Greece, because this is where Mount Olympus is. There is a wine region on the slopes of Mount Olympus. It’s called Rapsani. I’m starting to see more Rapsani wines on the American market, so I wanted to let you guys know about it. They do make Xinomavro, but they also blend it with two other native varieties from that area. There’s a grape called Krasato and a grape called Stavroto. It’s kind of cool because these wines age as well, but now we have two other varieties being used to help build a blend that will age for a long time. A true Greek blend. It’s pretty awesome.
When we go south of Rapsani, we pass Athens and that peninsula, and we cross the Corinth Canal, so we are now into the Peloponnese. Right when we get in the northern part of the Peloponnese, there is a wine region called Nemea. It’s just north of Mantinia, which is famous for Moschofilero, the awesome pink-skin wine we talked about in the last episode.
In Nemea, there is this tiny chapel. It’s a chapel to St. George. There’s a variety that grows in this area and is from this area that they call St. George. In Greek, St. George is Agiorgitiko. This is a very mountainous region. Vineyards are upwards of well over 2,000 feet above sea level. It’s something like 2,300 feet above sea level.
Agiorgitiko can be this very dark and powerful red wine, but it can also be kind of medium and light, depending on where in this area that it’s grown. Sometimes in the lower-lying areas, it doesn’t ripen well enough and they make it into a sweet wine.
Again, it’s grown all over Greece, but if it’s from Nemea, it’s going to be more concentrated. It’s here where Agiorgitiko has a lower yield in some areas, so you get this more direct, intense, fruity wine. They’re wonderful. I don’t know if they age as much as Xinomavro, but they have this juicy intensity to them. There are lighter styles as the production levels go up. When I think about Agiorgitiko, the first thing I think about is lamb. It is a Greek food wine. It is absolutely a match made in heaven. Full stop. Agiorgitiko.
And that, wine lovers, is basically the red wines of Greece. Yes, there are other varieties. There is one called Mavrodaphne and one called Moschomavro, which is basically just Black Muscat. It’s just a really sweet, red grape. There are also international varieties. The Greeks are doing all kinds of stuff. They are being true to their regions and origins, but they are also bringing in international varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, and stuff like that. They will also blend those, sometimes, into their wines. For us to get a sense of what Greece is, I think it’s much more fun to just explore the indigenous varieties that we assume are from Greece, but they’re so old that we don’t know. I keep on saying that. I find it fascinating.
Now, I would be remiss if I did not mention a wine from Greece that has had a particular stigma. I don’t know what to say. It’s a curiosity. What I love about it is that it’s a testament to the history of Greece, and it’s having a renaissance where people are making it into more focused wine. It’s a white wine, so it should be in the other episode. I wasn’t going to talk about it, but I think I need to mention it because there’s something going on here.
I mentioned Malagousia, that variety that is from the northern part of Greece. Well, Malagousia and other grapes, like Rhoditis, were often used to make a particular wine called Retsina. The word Retsina kind of sounds like resin. I’m not really sure what the word Retsina means, but it is a white wine that is infused with pine oil or pine resin, so that it emulates the way wine must have been in antiquity. You’re drinking a white wine, but instead of smelling your typical pear, maybe some apples, maybe some flowers, you’re smelling pine.
The old-school stuff was pretty intense. My father-in-law is Greek and when I first met him, we went out to dinner at a Greek restaurant. He asked me if I wanted some Retsina. Me, wanting to impress my father-in-law, I said, “Of course I want some retsina. What’s that?” I took a sip of this wine and my senses went on a red-flag alert, like, “What is this stuff?” I’ve got to say, I didn’t 100 percent enjoy it. It wasn’t that awesome.
But, as I got into the wine world, started learning about wine, had a wine shop, started buying wine, and started buying Greek wine, I thought, “You know what? Let’s go back and see what Retsina’s all about.” I tried it again and I found out that there is good Retsina. There’s a few brands out there. And there’s these new generations of winemakers all over Europe right now. Greece is included in that. There are younger winemakers in northern Greece right now that are making Retsina and doing the work to make it actually balanced.
What we’re seeing here is a curiosity from the past that had a bit of a stigma behind it — it’s a wine that tastes like pine resin. I tried a new Retsina a few years ago, and I was pleasantly surprised. The pine aroma is integrated into the wine. You get the pears, apples, and flowers, then there’s this little hint of pine that runs through it. It’s not offensive. The old stuff will attack your senses, and it might be offensive to you guys. You should try it, though, because it’s wild.
Nowadays, there’s Retsina coming on the market that is actually blended with the resin, and it’s balanced. I just find it really interesting that we have this wine from this country and it’s a manipulated wine. They are infusing something into the wine, but it is a pride, somewhat, of the area. Now, we’re starting to see better versions of it. Greece is creating its own wine that’s beyond the indigenous varieties. Am I making sense? I just find it crazy cool. I’ll tell you right now: Some good Retsina with some lemon potatoes and tzatziki? I mean, opa! Am I right?
So, there you have it. That’s a nice two-episode breakdown on Greek wines. Now, there’s more out there, but this is going to get you started. This is going to get you familiar with Greece. This is going to get you into Greek wine, I think.
Even though the names might not be familiar, the mouthfeels, aromas, and the way you interact with these wines is going to be very familiar, especially if you like European wine. This is a European country that makes European wine, they have their own varieties, and they’re really great. So, go out there, buy a bunch of Greek wine. Buy a bunch of Greek food. We’ve got all kinds of Greek food in our markets these days. Have yourself some fun. Get into Greek wines. They’re so cool. I’m going to go have a Moschofilero.
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And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darbi Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.