Tourists flock to Greece every year to enjoy the region's uplifting scenery, food and hospitality, but its fine wines have been harder to unearth. NICO MANESSIS reveals the best Greek destinations for wine loving sun seekers.
For most tourists, Greece is all about lying on the beach, book in one hand, glass of ouzo in the other, enjoying the cooling sea breeze. But there is a new wind blowing through Hellenic vineyards, and it is a wind of change. Young, talented winemakers are emerging in modern wineries in several Greek regions, each with different soils and a clutch of lesser-known grapes. The result, from the country whose language made us all oenologists, is the latest buzzword – oenotourismos.
Cephalonia is the largest and least spoilt of the Ionian islands. Dominating its landscape is the 1,630m-high Mount Aenos, a designated national park with high plateaus and thick woods brimming with a unique species of Cephalonian fir tree.
The capital, Argostoli, has several museums that return visitors to the lively, structured society of the island prior to the devastating 1953 earthquakes. Fiscardo, on the north-eastern shoreline, was the only village to survive the quakes and is now a cosmopolitan playground with first-rate restaurants on the sheltered harbour.
There are three main categories of Cephalonian wine: crisp whites from the Robola grape; fragrant, sweet Muscats; and full-bodied red wines from the Mavrodaphne grape (these are in this instance dry and not to be confused with their sweet, port-like namesake from the Patras region).
Gentilini: British winemaker Gabrielle Beamish makes top-notch, terroir-driven wines at this pioneering boutique winery and vineyard in Minies. The lemon-scented, minerally Robola is a good expression of this low-yielding, ungrafted Cephalonian specialty. The 2001 Syrah has a very dark colour and ripe, peppery fruit in an off-beat blend with 15% Mavrodaphne.
By appointment: Tel +30 267 104 1618. www.gentilini.gr
Sclavos: On the south-west peninsula of Paliki, this winery draws on clay-based soil. Orgion is a terrific, cask-aged wine from Mavrodaphne. The 2000 is one to lay down and bears no resemblance to any other Greek wine made from this grape. Idis is a floral Muscat from sun-dried grapes.
By appointment: Tel +30 267 109 1930.
White Rocks, Lassi: Five-star resort hotel above a sandy beach, with restaurants and a decent pool.
Tel +30 267 102 8322
www.tapestryholidays.co.uk: Unusual accommodation for the discerning tourist. Some is adults only.
Kiani Akti (Argostoli): On a platform that extends over the sea. Specialises in fish and shellfish. Good wine list.
Tel +30 267 102 6680
Vasso’s (Fiscardo): Top quality fish and Cephalonian specialties. Broad wine list with many of the island’s rarer labels. For dessert, try plain yoghurt topped with the sublime island honey.
Tel +30 267 404 1276
Tassia (Fiscardo): The island’s most famous restaurant. Chef turned food writer Tassia Dendrinou has them queuing up.
Tel +30 267 404 1205
A windswept island overlooking extinct volcanoes in the cobalt blue Aegean, Santorini is an unlikely source of fine wine. Its soils are laced with deep red iron oxides and white pumice stones. Their pale cream, greyish flavour is favoured by the vines, and low in organic matter. The vines, ungrafted and 80 years old, are ground-hugging and pruned like a woven basket.
The island boasts two appellations. The first, Santorini, is bone dry and from Assyrtiko, arguably Greece’s finest white cultivar. The luscious Santorini Vinsanto, from Assyrtiko, has small amounts of the rare, remarkably fruity Aidani.
Canava Arghyros, Episkopi: The 2001 Ktima Arghyrou Santorini strikes a fine balance between the searing acidity of Assyrtiko and its long, mineral aftertaste. Arghyros is also home to the finest, oldest and priciest Vinsanto reserves. The current vintage, 1983, with 20 years in cask and mahogany colouring, has the appearance of an elixir rather than a wine.
Open daily, 9am–2pm and 6–9pm: Tel +30 228 603 1489
J.Boutari & Son Wineries, Megalohori: The cask-aged 2001 Kallisti Santorini has a polished, cosmopolitan gloss and will improve until 2005. The 1998 Vinsanto is well priced, and reveals another style of this historic wine.
Open daily, 10am– 7pm, April to October: Tel +30 228 608 1011
Gaia, Monolithos: Few wineries can claim to be a stone’s throw from a volcanic black beach. Yet star winemaker Yiannis Paraskevopoulos’ vat-fermented Thalassitis Santorini reflects the freakish soils and unusual micro-climate of this unique island vineyard. The 2001 Thalassitis is citrussy, vibrant and with a smoky palate.
Open daily, 9am–2pm and 6–9pm: Tel +30 694 577 7814
Sigalas, Kampos Oia: The finest of the dry, barrel-fermented Santorinis is the 2001 Sigalas Bareli – yeasty, honeyed and with a faint trace of iodine. The Vinsanto and Mezzo (sweet but not aged as long as Vinsanto) are light and fresh.
Open daily, 10am–6pm, April to October: Tel +30 697 770 6930
Perivolas Apartments (Oia): Overlooking the caldera, and immaculately kept.
Tel +30 228 607 1308
Katikies (Oia): Superb views, high-end services. Wine tastings plus smart-casual or gourmet dining.
Tel + 30 228 607 1401; www.katikies.com
Altana Apartments (Imerovigli): The highest point overlooking the caldera. Less ritzy, with homey furnishings.
Tel +30 228 602 3240; www.exploresantorini.com
1800 (Oia): Local and Cycladic dishes plus a more international selection. Wine list championing the island’s best producers.
Tel +30 228 607 1485
Domata (Monolithos): Cool, casual, by the beach. Chef Chrisanthos serves modern Greek and fusion cuisine with a difference. Limited but well-chosen wine list.
Tel +30 22 8603 2069
Vanilia (Firostefani): Cosy and romantic, with traditional, non-touristy, re-invented dishes.
Tel +30 22 8602 5631 Crete
Beyond the overbuilt northern shoreline of Crete lies a different facet to the largest Greek island. Here, a land of snow-capped mountains and rugged canyons beckons to be discovered. Its fauna is one of the richest in the Mediterranean. Above the ruins of the Minoan Palace in Knossos, the rolling hills around Peza and Archanes are the source of some of Crete’s finest olive oils. They are now also home to emerging modern wineries.
Crete is the latest Greek wine region to join the quality revolution. The wines are improving with each vintage and by far the most convincing are the aromatic new-wave whites from the indigenous Vilana, found mainly around Peza. The widely planted red grapes Kotsifali and Mandelari are usually blended in an 80/20 ratio, resulting in a variety of styles, from tannic and rustic to smooth and modern. The pale, red-brown Liatiko is best suited to sweet wines. Syrah is a recent arrival on the island.
J. Boutari & Son Wineries, Skalani: The soils here are high in limestone and densely planted with local and international varieties. The Sauvignon Blanc is a paragon of varietal expression, while the all-Cretan specialties offer a more unique drinking experience. The red Kotsifali-Mandelari blends are improving, and the sun-dried Liatiko grape provides a fine example of the dessert wine. Look out for the Malvasia Aromatica and the rare Muscat Spinas.
Open every day in summer, 10am–7pm: Tel +30 28 1073 1617
Creta-Olympias, Kounavi: This forward-thinking winery has invested in technology and people. Viticulturist Niki Tavernaraki is at the forefront of research into the potential of Cretan grape varieties. The 2002 Xerolithia (white), made from Vilana, is packed with character despite the difficult vintage. The 2001 Mirambelo (red), bursting with juicy fruit, is made from Kotsifali and Mandelari.
Open seven days a week in summer, 9am–2pm: Tel +30 281 074 1383
Hotel Mythos (Rethymno): Renovated Venetian.
Tel +30 283 105 3917; www.mythos-crete.gr
Casa Delfino: (Chania, in the old town). Renovated Venetian.
Tel +30 282 109 3098
The Agioklima (Heraklio): Renovated rustic charm.
Tel +30 281 022 3861
Taverna o Platanos (Vrahasi at Lasithi, eastern Crete) Home cooking and seasonal vegetable dishes unique to the Cretan countryside.
Tel +30 284 103 3137
Taverna o neos Omalos: (Chania, western Crete) A marvel of unusual dishes, such as bitter, pickled bulbs from the Hyacinth family.
Tel +30 282 205 1569
Taverna o Hriasomenos: (Heraklio, central Crete) Off the track, this rich kitchen features such delights as rabbit stew with onions, cloves and laurel.
Tel +30 281 032 4008
Separated from the mainland by the Corinth Canal, the Peloponnese boasts the largest area of quality Greek vineyard. This mountainous spot produces a fantastic diversity of styles from over 30 indigenous grapes. There are two appellations: Mantinia surrounds the town of Tripoli and a cool-climate Mediterranean profile makes this high plateau (650m) perfect for the late-ripening, pink-skinned Moschofilero grape. A young drinking, crisp, floral wine, this variety is fast gaining recognition abroad. Less than an hour’s drive north-east lies Nemea, planted solely with Agiorgitiko, of dark colour and soft tannins. A versatile grape, it can produce early drinking, soft, fruity styles and serious, structured wines for ageing. The region is leading quality Greek wine out of anonymity.
Tselepos: The leader of the Mantinia pack with an intense, grapey derivative, Tselepos produces an improving dry sparkling wine (Villa Amalia) as well as a nicely-perfumed Gewurztraminer. The single vineyard Kokkinomylos Merlot from the 2000 vintage is a stand-out red.
Open daily, 9am–3pm: Tel +30 271 054 4440
Spiropoulos: Ode Panos is a tasty sparkling wine, the red 2001 Porfyros a toothsome blend of Agiorgitiko, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Some Spiropoulos labels are organic, while it also produces a lean, austere Mantinia.
Open daily, 9am–3pm: Tel +30 279 606 1400
Gaia: This winery is home to the best, most modern wines in Nemea. Bursting with cherry fruit, the 2001 Notios red is playful and fun. The fine 2001 Nemea is velvety smooth and stylish, while the flagship 2000 Gaia Estate is more structured and unfiltered – a lovely wine now but likely to age to 2012.
Open daily, 9am–3pm: Tel + 30 27 5102 3688
Skouras: A more conservative approach to winemaking is adopted at Skouras. Its great-value, consistent Agiorgitiko, and the lithe 2000 Grande Cuvée are worth a try. The 2000 Megas Oenos is a big, cask-aged Agiorgitiko blended with 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. This falls outside Nemea’s official classification due to the blend, but has a great intensity and a smoky aftertaste.
Open daily, 9am–3pm: Tel +30 275 102 3688
Argolikos Helios: Luxury, set on a Venetian castle with stunning views. Two restaurants with a excellent wine list.
Tel +30 275 202 8981-5
Byron Hotel: Small, neo-classical hotel in the old town. Breakfast served in a delightful courtyard.
Tel +30 275 202 2351
Pension Marianna: Below the castle walls. Serves a great breakfast.
Tel +30 275 202 4256
Restaurants & Tavernas: Noufara Restaurant: Italian and modern Greek cuisine, with views of the castle.
Tel: +30 275 202 3648
To Omorfo Tavernaki: Neigbourhood taverna. Great mezze. Good house wine.
Tel:+30 275 202 5944
Karonis Wine Shop: 400 Greek labels and 150 foreign. Tutored tastings by arrangement. English, French and Italian spoken. Amalias 5, Naufplio.
Tel +30 275 202 4446
It may be Greece’s second largest town, but Thessaloniki is still only a third of the size of Athens. Despite its ancient roots, it’s a cosmopolitan city with a modern outlook. The city has a rich architectural heritage, with ancient Greek, Roman and Byzantine influences.
The wine here is mostly white, with the pear-drop, soft Roditis grape the most widely planted, but the crisp Assyrtiko and aromatic Malagousia are both growing in profile. Reds have followed an international route, through deeply coloured Merlot and rich tasting Syrah, either monovarietals or blends.
Ktima Gerovassiliou: Located in Epanomi, 30 minutes from the city. Its white 2002 Ktima Gerovassiliou is a blend of Assyrtiko and Malagousia, vibrant with citrus flavours. The 2001 red is a rich, cask-aged spicy Syrah and Merlot blend. Gerovassiliou also makes a fat Viognier, a honeyed Chardonnay from 20-year-old vines and a blockbuster Sauvignon Blanc.
By appointment: Tel +30 239 204 4567
Andromeda Thessaloniki: Small, luxury hotel in renovated 1920s four-storey building. Central.
Tel +30 231 037 3700
Bristol Capsis Hotel: Elegant luxury in a 19th-century building in the trendy Ladadika district.
Tel +30 231 050 6500
Electra Palace: Recently renovated, luxurious hotel in a neo-classical building overlooking the town’s main square.
Tel+30 231 023 2219
Mandragoras (Mitropoleos 98): Elegant bar-restaurant, boasting a classical menu of Mediterranean cuisine and an up-to-date wine list.
Tel +30 231 028 5372
Michou-Michou (Stratigou Kalari 9): Small, trendy with minimalist décor and a light touch in the kitchen. Boutique winery wine list.
Tel +30 231 027 2778
Orient (Komninon 18): The town’s most ‘in’ meze-bar has good food in a classic Middle Eastern atmosphere complete with belly dancers.
Tel: +30 231 024 4623