Greece hasn’t historically been a place that immediately comes to mind when people mention the great wines of the world. While the country has cemented itself as the birthplace of democracy, the source of the world’s greatest mythological tales, and of course, a destination for honeymooners, its wine has always been an afterthought.
We can mostly blame this on the Greeks themselves. Unlike the French, the Italians and the Spanish, Greeks have never been fantastic marketers when it comes to their wines. While they’ve been producing wine for just as long–and in some cases, even longer than most of the world’s great wine regions–the country has often focused on outwardly projecting its cuisine and historic sites while allowing its wines to take a back seat.
And that’s a real shame, because presently there’s great wine coming out of the country. And not just the Assyrtiko that the collective industry claims will be the next big white wine to absolutely explode on the American market. We’re talking about delicious, affordable, ageable reds that will appeal to anyone who loves great old world wines such as Bordeaux, the Rhône and the wines of Tuscany. All one has to do is look to the ancient wine region of Nemea and ask for a bottle of Agiorgitiko.
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Located in the northeastern part of the Peloponnese, Nemea is mostly known as the home of the Nemean Lion, a mythical beast whose golden hair was impervious to human weapons and whose claws could cut through armor. As the first of Hercules’s twelve labors that he must complete for King Eurystheus, he is instructed to travel to Nemea and slay the lion. When Hercules arrives he lures the lion to his lair and once cornered, strangles the beast with his bare hands.
Besides this mythological tale, not much else is mentioned about the region of Nemea, but it’s been Greece’s most important red wine region for centuries, with production tracing all the way back to the fifth century. The region is dotted with vines and olive groves, and is composed of three distinct areas: flat lands, sloping hills and tall mountains, with the best wines of the region said to come from the highest altitudes.
A little over an hour’s drive from the center of Athens, Nemea is an ideal place to stop and enjoy a taste of Greek wine country, as well as to pick up a few bottles to take home.
The first stop on your visit should be to the winery that has helped to put the region on the radar of American wine consumers, Domaine Skouras. Since it produces over a million bottles of wine a year, a visit to Domaine Skouras will feel very much like a visit to many other great high-end wineries around the world. Known for its Agiorgitiko as well as Megas Oenos, a blend of Agiorgitiko with Cabernet Sauvignon, and its white Moschofilero, Domaine Skouras was one of the first wineries in the region to bring French technique to Greek wine. In doing so, the winery helped modernize the industry by creating wines that are incredibly appealing to the American palate.
After getting your first taste of superb Greek wine, head from Domaine Skouras into the center of Ancient Nemea for a visit to two wineries, Ktima Palivos and Papaioannou. Ktima Palivos should be your first stop, and while it’s much smaller in size and production than Domaine Skouras, it produces wines of similar quality and brilliance. Also, by utilizing French technique, the winery produces both a single varietal Agiorgitiko along with blends that incorporate Syrah, Cabernet and other French varietals. A visit to Papaioannou, on the other hand, is a study in all that is possible in this fertile land. Producing a mind boggling 20 different wines, all from organic vineyards, Papaioannou proves that he region’s native Agiorgitiko varietal isn’t the only one that thrives here.
Finally, travel up the hill to Gaia, a Greek winery that is pushing the boundaries of what Greek wines can be. Famous for their winery in Santorini that produces breathtaking whites made from Assyrtiko, the winery in Nemea focuses on Agiorgitiko, producing a dry rosé, a single varietal and a blend that includes Syrah. The ultra-modern facility is a site to behold, but just be aware that unlike the other wineries where you can walk right in, here you need to make an appointment.
Whether or not you can physically make it to Greece, more and more of these delicious wines are now showing up on the American market, and most can still be found for under $20 a bottle. It’s an outstanding deal for the quality. Think of the wines of Nemea like you would any of the other great old world regions before they became massive. Eventually these bottles are going to be discovered by all, but until then, you get to be in on an incredible secret.