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The history of Greek wines is so robust, VinePair’s tastings director Keith Beavers decided to dedicate two separate podcast episodes to it. In this first segment, Greek white wines take center stage.
Beavers gets into the history, varieties, and need-to-know information about Greek white wines available on U.S. shelves. He breaks down several of the varieties that are already popping up in the U.S., including Assyrtiko, Moschofilero, and Malagousia. Plus, there are several regions to be on the lookout for as their wines make their way onto shelves.
Tune in to Episode 3 of the bonus season of “Wine 101” to learn more about Greek white wines.
OR CHECK OUT THE CONVERSATION HERE
Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers. Does soup actually have a season? When does one soup season end and one soup season begin? Is there, like, a gray area?
What’s going on, wine lovers? Welcome to Episode 3 of VinePair’s “Wine 101” podcast bonus season. My name is Keith Beavers, and I am the tastings director of VinePair. How are you doing? Guys, Greece and Greek wine is so damn cool, we had to put it in two episodes. This is our Greek white wine episode. We’re going to get nice. You’ve got to get into Greek wines. Let’s do it.
Wine lovers, I’ve been in the wine industry for a while — I think like 20 years — and in my time in the wine industry, I’ve seen a couple of things evolve. One was the organic movements of South African wine. But, Greek wine was actually one of those places in the world that I experienced on the American market. I watched the perception change from “Oh. Greek wine? Cool.” to “OH! Greek wine? COOL.” That second perception is what it should always be, because Greek wine is so good. It is shrouded in mystery, and there’s so much awesomeness there. I’ll get into that in a second. There are varieties of wine grapes in Greece that make the most unique wines. These are wines that you can kind of compare to other wines in the world. They do have similarities to other wines in the world. But, they’re so Greek.
Now, this is crazy. The thing about Greek wine grapes is that they’re so old, DNA profiling cannot find the origins of these varieties. There are varieties around the world, specifically in the Mediterranean and mostly in Italy, with names that are either a reference to Greece, or just “Greek” or “Grecco,” because they don’t know the origins of those varieties. The DNA profiling can’t catch it because they’re so old. They assume — because those grapes are so old — that they must be Greek, so they give them Greek names. That’s crazy.
I find it so wild that a place in the world, a culture, a country, is a place with history and antiquity that is so rooted in the vine. Wine was everything to the Greeks. Wine was part of their diet. The grape itself was part of their diet, along with olive oil and bread. They had a god that was dedicated to wine. Dionysus was also dedicated to other things, like hedonism and drama. He was such a big deal that they had an actual festival dedicated to him. On that day, slaves were freed for one day to drink to excess. If you puked, you won. That’s crazy. The Spartans and the Peloponnese would actually wash their newborn babies in wine. Two of the most famous poets of the time, Hession and Homer, used wine for everything in their stories, whether it’s for sacrifice, recreation, or prayer. They even used it to seal the deal for agreements. Of course, it was also used for medicinal or therapeutic purposes. Hephaestus, who made the shield for Achilles in myth, made sure that the shield itself depicted a vineyard that encapsulates human life. Even the Cyclops drank wine, and the dude got drunk. Of course, for the Trojans and Greeks, this was their feast drink. It was the drink for humans. The gods would drink nectar. Humans drank wine.
When the Greeks began to colonize the Mediterranean, they would take vines to places like Sicily and southern Italy, which they called Oenotria. It means “the land under vine.” They were doing some good work there. They also brought vines to the southern part of France and around the Black Sea. Their exports of wine actually went to places like Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. The Egyptians actually drank beer. The Greeks didn’t want the beer, but they were happy to sell wine to the Egyptians. They thought beer was more of a barbarian’s drink. The Greeks also always diluted their wines with water. They thought that if you didn’t do that, you were a savage or a barbarian. There are stories of these characters in myth that take full swigs of undiluted wine and they get so drunk, they fall down and everyone laughs at them. The Greeks would even take the must after fermentation, re-moisten it, and re-trod it with their feet, and make this very simple, low-quality, bubbly wine they called Deuterias, which means “derived from” or “second pressing.” Today, we call that wine piquette. We have an episode on that is coming up in this bonus season.
You’re getting a sense of how important the vine and wine was to the Greeks, right? Yes, it was more of a luxury item for the elite. Yes, some of the lower-quality stuff was for the plebes. StIll, this was such an important part of their culture. It’s just so crazy that today, we are not immersed in Greek wine. We are immersed in French wine. We see the French as the beginning of the quality wine movement. They created the appellation system and all of that stuff. Other great wine was being made around the world, but the French were focused, and so was the world. As the French were building their wine culture, the Greeks were under Ottoman-Turkish rule, so the wine industry couldn’t thrive there because that culture did not drink wine. They allowed it to be sold but not to be consumed. It was very complicated. It’s in the ’60s and ’70s where things begin to change for the modern Greek era. That civil war happened, which messed a lot of stuff up. But, during that time, there was a lot of wine being made on the quantity side rather than the quality side. In the 1980s, a lot of these winemakers that worked for these big companies went out on their own and started doing their own smaller-production wines. That’s where Greek wine started really coming into itself. Today, we’re lucky enough to enjoy the fruits of their labor, and it’s awesome.
So, let’s get you guys familiar with Greek wines so that you can go out there, grab them, and enjoy the hell out of them. They’re there, on shelves, ready for you. There’s more Greek wine on the American market now than there ever has been. There’s more diversity in that market and it’s crazy cool. Let’s get into it. Let’s start with Greek white wine. I would love to get into all the geography, which I will in the next episode. I’d also love to get into all of the appellations, which I really can’t because there’s so many of them. For us to enjoy and understand Greek wine, we should understand the varieties and the wines made from them. Then, we can get into more of the appellation stuff. There are certain varieties that thrive in certain areas, or are from certain areas, but those areas also make wines from other grapes as well. It can get complicated.
Let’s talk about the varieties, because I want you guys to start drinking Greek wine. I want to get you excited about it. There’s quite a long list of white wine varieties in Greece, with a little over a dozen of them made regularly into wine. There’s a handful of those that we’re starting to see on the American market, so it’s very exciting. If you’re into Greek wine, you’ve probably heard of the grape Assyrtiko. We’ll start there. Assyrtiko is the white wine from Greece that we’ve been seeing on our market since the 1980s. Although it’s grown throughout Greece — not everywhere, but throughout — it’s primarily grown on the island of Santorini. Most of us might know Santorini as a great tourist spot in Greece, but it’s also an ancient volcanic island. In the 17th century B.C., that volcano erupted and submerged the majority of the island into the Aegean Sea. It destroyed the Minoan civilization and the civilization of the neighboring larger island, Crete. I know Santorini doesn’t sound very Greek because, at one time, it was ruled by the Venetian empire. It was then named after Saint Irene. Today, it’s called Santorini, but it’s actually officially back to being called Thira. Because of the popularity of this island, its beauty, and its attraction through tourism, the wines of this island are popular on our market. We love to go to Greece. The grape Assyrtiko does very well in the volcanic soils of Santorini. These are volcanic soils that have never seen the phylloxera louse. That’s right. These are all phylloxera-immune vines. Because it’s so windy on this island, vineyards do this thing they used to do back in the day. They train the vines into a basket-like shape so that the vines can produce fruit and not be crushed by the wind. It’s called basket training.
With that volcanic soil and all that wind, what we get are these beautiful, sometimes small-production white wines that are just razor sharp with acidity. They smell like lemons and pears. They go, of course, wonderfully with seafood. Assyrtiko might just be the No. 1 seafood wine in the world. I mean, maybe not. But, man, it’s good. There’s a lot of affordable Assyrtiko on the market out there. If you see Assyrtiko from Santorini that’s a little bit more expensive than usual, give it a try. It’s in a concentrated yield, and they want to show you what this grape can do. It’s worth the spend. We’re talking like $30 to $40.
In any other decade, I would have told you, “That’s it. That’s all the Greek wine we have on our market.” Not today, though. We have other white varieties to talk about. You’re stoked. I can feel it. Of course, Santorini isn’t the only island in the Aegean Sea making wine. There are other islands like Lemnos, Samos, Paros, Rhodes, and Crete. We’re not seeing a lot of those in the American market yet. We are, but it’s just a dabble. So, we’re going to move on for the sake of helping you guys find what’s actually around in abundance. In a central part of the Peloponnese, which is the southern part of the Greek peninsula, there is a wine region called Mantinia. This wine region is where one of my favorite white wines is made. It’s a grape called Moschofilero. It’s a pink-skin grape. It makes these pinkish-toned white wines. You can actually do some skin contact and make a rosé out of it. You’re doing the orange wine thing, but you’re going to make a rosé out of it. The coolest thing about these wines is that they’re crispy and have a ton of acidity, but they’re also a little bit sweet. Imagine drinking a very crisp, very clean, very refreshing Pinot Grigio with a slight note of Moscato sweetness and a hint of a little bit of fizziness on the tongue. They’re awesome wines. If you can find the Moschofilero, grab it. Don’t look back. You’re welcome. These are two of the varieties you’re going to see mostly on the American market. Assyrtiko is basically everywhere and Moschofilero is popping up more.
Beyond that, there’s another white wine grape called Malagousia that is from the northern part of Greece in the Macedonia area. This wine makes really awesome, soft, low-acidity, easy-drinking, concentrated-at-times, white wines. The reason why it’s exciting is because at one time, Malagousia was one of the varieties used to make a white wine from Greece called Retsina. Retsina is a traditional wine made to give an homage to the way wine was made in antiquity, in that the wine is infused with pine resin. Back in the day, when Greek wine was rough, Retsina was rough. You were basically just drinking pine resin. Today, younger winemakers are taking that task and making it a more concentrated, balanced wine. It’s awesome. Malagousia is also being made into single-variety, dry white wine. If you get a chance, you should definitely try it. This is a great seafood wine as well. It also goes well with light meats because it has a little bit of weight to it.
There’s one more island that I want to talk about called Kefalonia. It’s off the western coast of Greece. There is a grape there that’s being grown and made into wine called Robola. It’s not at all related to Ribolla Gialla from northeastern Italy. It’s its own thing. You’re starting to see a little bit of it come onto the American market. It’s another one of those very clean, beautiful, easy-drinking, pear-driven white wines. You’re going to see it around, but not as much.
There are more white wine varieties out there that I should mention because we’re in the middle of it, wine lovers. We’re in the middle of these wines coming on to our market. I’ve had the opportunity to taste some of them, and they’re really awesome. I’m going to throw down some of these names. Here we go: Assyrtiko, Moschofilero, and Malagousia, we know. Other wines you might be seeing soon are wines from Roditis, Athiri, and Debina. Sometimes wines are blended, sometimes not. We’re starting to see all of that coming on to the American market. Sometimes, Assyrtiko, Malagousia, and Moschofilero are blended together. Sometimes, Assyrtiko is blended with Sauvignon Blanc, because Greece does have some international varieties. We’re focusing on the indigenous here, though. Savatiano, Mandilaria, Vilana, Mavrodaphne, Mavrud, and the list goes on.
I just think this is so cool. The varieties are shrouded in mystery, only because they’re so old that DNA profiling can’t find the origins. When I’m researching grapes, there’s always a story of where people think a grape came from. There’s always different names and pathways. For Greek wines, all they can say is where they think the grape is from. Wow. That’s amazing. What’s cool is that there’s all this mystery surrounding wine, only because these grapes are indigenous. They don’t really grow outside of Greece, and they have no real origin story except from Greece. Sometimes, because the Greek language is difficult, the grapes are difficult to say. That’s it. Other than that, everything is absolutely amazing.
If you’ve never gotten into Greek wine, I hope this episode gets you excited about the Greek white wines. Next week, we’re going to get into the red wines. If you think the white wines are exciting, the red wines are absolutely exciting as well. We’ll do a little geography, a little bit more history, and get you up to speed on that. So, go out, buy Greek white wine, enjoy the hell out of it, and I’ll talk to you next week.
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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 everyday. See you next week.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.