Greek wine has been a passion of mine for years, as a DWWA judge for Greece up to 2012 and through visiting different regions of Greece every year of my adult life. I love recommending Greek wines for their unique balance of standout character and tremendous value.
Greek wines almost always exceed expectation, which is partly why they are so warmly received. Their grape varieties – whites, in particular – can reach exceptional heights. This is the reason that, aside from England, Greece is the place where I most often dream of planting a vineyard of my own.
Scroll down to see tasting notes and scores for Olly Smith’s 14 Greek wine recommendations
I was particularly thrilled to pick out a Xinomavro from Apostolos Thymiopoulos on BBC1’s Saturday Kitchen, which led to Majestic reporting a sales rise of over 1,300% – equivalent to three months’ sales in a single morning.
So I leapt at the chance recently to visit some top-notch Greek wine producers, from Santorini in the Aegean to the Peloponnese peninsula on the mainland. While I only saw a fraction of this nation’s regional jigsaw of vineyard gems, it was fantastic to connect with a new generation and some fresh ideas: a heady combination that’s invigorating the Greek wine scene.
Just over two hours’ drive north, but still in Peloponnese, are the vineyards of Nemea, where Agiorgitiko is another local grape currently making big changes. Seeing idyllic, sun-soaked vineyards surrounded by olive trees and orange groves, I was tempted to think of Nemea as a baby California. But after a few days, it seemed far closer to Rioja, thanks to Nemea’s secret weapon: altitude. The largest appellation in Greece with some 3,000ha of vines, according to Yiannis Paraskevopoulos at Gaia, and ranging from 250m-1,050m in altitude, Nemea is about to burgeon as a wine route. Hotels are being built and a wealth of old vines are dotted through the 17 wine villages of the region.The real breakthrough is in the vineyards themselves; clonal selection is changing the game for Agiorgitiko. With more seamless fruitiness and voluptuous depth to this red gem, the barrel samples and early bottlings I tasted from these new young vineyards are at times almost as heady as the violet fragrance of high-altitude Malbec from Argentina.Wherever I looked in Nemea, it felt like the word ‘pioneer’ was falling from the sky. With so many micro-wineries springing up, it’s important to remember the early planters such as George Skouras, a living powerhouse of Greek wine. Skouras famously began as a real ‘garagiste’ – making wine in an actual garage. As he showed me around his favourite corners of Nemea, it struck me that he is still brimming with that same zeal today, ably assisted by his talented son and partner in wine, Dimitris. The two of them took me to the top of a mountain vineyard where George ‘planted me as a vine’ to explain the way he orients his vineyards east to west, to shelter the grapes from sunburn. Using the vine canopy above to keep the fruit and ground cool promotes elegance in his final composition.
Falling silent for a while, we were basking in the feeling of being vines when George opened one eye and said: ‘Silence is where the work is done.’ A thinker, a time-taker and a living dynamo of ideas, it’s to his credit that the winery is still proudly innovating, as seen in the Peplo rosé recommended below.
I’m tempted to put down roots here myself, and I asked Dimitris about local vineyards. His smartphone alive with dots across Nemea, this young wine talent already has his eye on the best plots and his ambition is as playful as it is determined. And if you ever get the chance, I warmly recommend enjoying Skouras wines at Kavos restaurant overlooking the Corinth canal, run by Mrs Pagona since 1964 and more recently her son Tasos – genuinely one of the best seafood meals of my life. George could see I was transfixed by the ocean, the wine, the moment and gently reminded me: ‘It’s all about freshness and simplicity, my friend.’
Nearby, in Nemea, Evangelia Palivou is also bringing fresh ideas to Palivou Estate, a winery with organic ambitions and well-established pedigree thanks to the legacy of her father Giorgos. One of my pet peeves with Greece is international grape varieties. Why bother with them when the local grapes numbering into the hundreds are so characterful and impressive?
But at Palivou, I’m happy to make an exception. Viognier already has some stellar quality in the country, notably from Gerovassiliou in Epanomi, and Palivou is also doing a good job with its Barrel Fermented Viognier 2021, mineral bright with sensual silky texture and discreetly scented fruit that’s more on the melon side than apricot.
But it’s Evangelia’s La Vie en Rose (see below), made from 100% Moschofilero, which gets me going. Surreptitiously scented with a whiff of lemon Turkish delight, this pale pink wine is all sheen and brilliance on the palate, gleaming like a pear polished to a diamond finish and costing about €10 – what a steal it is.
I’d love to see more of this playfulness in Greek wine, making irresistible wines that people cannot help but fall in love with. And I’d love to encourage more risk-taking with Greek blends. Something tells me I won’t be waiting long with talent like Evangelia working as hard as she does.
From the sea
The white wines of Greece are increasingly respected for their thrilling vitality in youth as well as their world-class capacity for evolution. None more so than Assyrtiko from Santorini, which I have been buying and collecting for years. It began for me with Gaia’s Thalassitis (meaning ‘from the sea’), still a wine whose salty verve takes my breath away (2020, £26.95 Fintry Wines, Shelved Wine) – it’s like the laser-guided nimble elf-twin of Spain’s manzanilla.
Gaia’s Wild Ferment (see below) is another wine of intriguing depth, character and beauty, and winemaker Yiannis Paraskevopoulos has even experimented with ageing his Assrytiko underwater, with scrumptious results. Swimming across the thermal currents from Santorini’s volcano together is one of the happiest memories of my wine life – literally feeling the mysterious power rising from the deep beneath us.
His latest wine, Ammonite (100% Assyrtiko), was made in partnership with his daughter Leto, who is steadily bringing her impressive knowledge to current and future vintages. It’s monolithic in impact and a noteworthy achievement, which, together with Yiannis’ open-handed approach and partnership with Steve Daniel of specialist merchant Novum Wines, has inspired so many of us in the UK to fall in love with Greek wine.
On such a small island, Yiannis is by no means alone in reaching for the pinnacles of pleasure. Argyros has long impressed me with its Cuvee Monsignori – in fact I’ve just ordered a case of the 2018 vintage (see below) from The Wine Society. It’s also a beautiful winery to visit, along with fourth-generation Matthaios (Matthew) Argyros’ new venture Pure, which takes Santorini Assyrtiko to new heights.
A renovated 1700s wine cave is home to a bijou winery devoted to spontaneous small-batch Assyrtiko fermentation in cement. The porous nature allows a micro-oxygenation, and the wine then spends 14 months on its fine lees and is held back for two years before release. The result is so taut and fine that I bought three bottles of the 2017 on the spot. It’s a wine of extraordinary citrus delicacy, saline precision, powerful depth and the first curls of dried thyme drifting into a Riesling-like evolution.
Every wine lover should book an appointment to taste the recent vintages in situ; it’s a remarkable setting of tranquillity and focus and the wines more than live up to the hype.
The next chapter
For value in the UK, I’d direct every trade buyer to work with the Santo cooperative on Santorini. The view from the winery over the sun-drenched ocean frames the caldera perfectly. It’s a huge favourite with tourists – I’m told it’s Greece’s biggest site for wine tourism (600,000 in 2019) with some 1,200 active grower-members on the island.
With a further 40ha under its control on the smaller island of Thirasia, this cooperative is responsible for about one third of the island’s wine production. Its pristine, entry-level Cuvée Selection Assyrtiko 2020 (2019, £25.39 Vida Wines), which spends 13 months on lees, is a delight.
Instrumental to the UNESCO bid for site protection for Santorini’s vineyards, the power of the co-op is focused on protecting the remaining 1,200ha of vineyards that are under threat from development. When you think that just a few decades ago in the 1980s there was estimated to be 2,500ha, Santo’s proud shield logo is needed now more than ever. We may need further wine avengers to assemble, too, in a bid to stave off any more ancient vineyard loss.
With the immense impact of Santorini’s white wines comes the question, what next? I mulled this over from Apanemo, a set of suites in Akrotiri overlooking the Santorini caldera and run by Spiros Apanemo, who is almost certainly the best – and definitely the friendliest – hotel manager in the world. With his warm laughter ringing in my ears, my eyes lifted up over the brim of the island to the next chapter in Greek wine.
For me, it begins with altitude. From Crete to Epirus in the north, it’s in the higher hills and mountains that future treasure lies for fans of Greek wine.
Cooler, stonier, with aspects to suit their full range of local varieties, the top spots are already being eyed up by canny growers – and I’ve even got my eye on a corner of Nemea. You never know, perhaps my tiny plot might become a little footnote in the new story of Greek wine.