While native Greek varieties are growing in popularity, it will be the familiar, international grapes that put the country on the map, says GEOFF ADAMS.
Greece’s wealth of indigenous varieties – of which Xinomavro, Assyrtiko, Aghiorghitiko, Savatiano, Roditis and Moschofilero are but a small selection – are fast gaining a reputation that can only grow once consumers are ready to embrace their diversity. Until then, the country’s winemakers have been diligently working with some better-known varietals – French cultivars that are exciting both producers and the international market. ‘Cabernet Sauvignon is a wonderful variety,’ enthuses Evanghelos Gerovassiliou, the Macedonian producer behind great Bordeaux blends made under the guidance of Professor Emile Peynaud at Domaine Carras in the 1970s. ‘Syrah, though, has the best future here as the variety adapts so well to our climate. Greek producers have learned that the two most important factors are humidity and altitude.’
As a Grecophile I need little convincing about the quality of the wine that is at last emerging from the upper echelon of Greek wineries. But for those who need some encouragement, the choice of cellar-worthy wines from the last five excellent vintages (1998 suffered somewhat due to a heatwave during July and August, but some excellent wines were produced nonetheless) and early-drinking wines from the last two should force critics and consumers alike to sit up and take notice. Greek wines can no longer be dismissed as overpriced in comparison with their New World counterparts, with whom they share a certain fruit-driven quality. And, when compared with Old World equivalents, a similar structure becomes apparent. But Greece’s Cabernet Sauvignons, Syrahs, Merlots, Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs not only possess quality, they also have a delightful and distinctive terroir character – a feature that some New World competitors seem to lack – that is unmistakably Greek.’Because we have quite a wide variation in climate from north to south, and different altitudes, there are definite regional differences that you can clearly taste,’ reveals Anne Kokotos of Attica’s Domaine G Kokatos.
As much of Greece is so hot, Cabernet Sauvignon mainly prospers at altitude, and is at its most successful in semi-mountainous and mountainous regions, where it benefits from a longer ripening period. Greece’s Chardonnay seems to be showing its character best in central and northern areas, where some truly world-beating examples are being made. ’We’ve seen a lot of very good Syrahs coming through lately from northern Greece. They’re very full bodied, showing a lot of the character of the grape,’ says Kokotos, former president of the Greek Women of Wine. ‘Sauvignon Blanc is also an excellent variety for Greece because it really retains its acidity, which is what gives the wine such wonderful backbone.’ The brilliant ex-Constantin Lazaridi oenologist Vassilis Tsaktsarlis has teamed up with Gerovassiliou to form what must count as one of the most exciting partnerships in Greek winemaking today, combining their skills at the brand new Ktima (Estate) Biblia Chora, which is situated at the foot of Mount Pageon, near Kavala in Macedonia.’Foreign/indigenous blends are also playing a big part in catching the interest of the international consumer,’ explains Tsaktsarlis. ‘These give buyers the typicity of a familiar grape, with the distinctiveness of one that is unique to Greece. Nowhere else in the world will you find blends like these,’ he says.
Some truly pioneering work is being done by the giant Boutari company with Greece’s flagship native grape, Xinomavro, in what may be a turning point for the variety. Boutari has just released its latest Naoussa (vintage 2000). New wave in style, it has avoided the astringent tannins – leaving just enough for structure and ageing – that are so characteristic of the variety. As well as increasing fruit levels, the Boutari winemakers have cleverly managed to retain all the wonderful characteristics that make the grape so distinctively Greek. The result makes this variety just as appealing to international consumers as the softer and more rounded Aghiorghitiko.
While distinctiveness is undoubtedly one of Greece’s trump cards, the question of price often arises when discussing the region’s top labels. When I raised the issue with Harris Antoniou of Attica’s Evharis his answer was unequivocal. ‘Bottle for bottle, on a quality-to-price ratio, Greek wines are certainly no more expensive than those produced in the rest of Europe. ’In general, we are more expensive than our New World counterparts for one very good reason: across the board our grape yield per hectare is far lower than you will find in most New World regions while the average quality of Greek wine is frankly far higher than that of most of the volume-driven labels these countries export. I believe that within the next five to six years the quality of our red wines will hit the level of the top grand cru French wines. I also think that our Syrahs and Merlots have already overtaken France.’When Greece eventually solves its image problem, the sky will be the limit. The general consensus among producers is that, given time, indigenous varieties will secure Greece’s future in the world market, but now that foreign varieties are in place they will always play a significant role in winemaking. And with a new generation of hugely talented young producers who are prepared to use the lure of French bait, Greece should soon succeed in reeling in the international consumer.
Geoff Adams is author of ‘Greek Wines: A Comprehensive Guide’ (£7.99, Winemaster).
Written by GEOFF ADAMS