Ultimate Guide to Greek Wines

Dionysus, depicted here, is the Greek god of wine -- as well as drunkenness, parties and madness.
UniversalImagesGroup/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When you think of Greece's contributions to civilization, you might think of democracy and philosophy, literature and architecture -- but probably not wine. Yet wine is deeply rooted in Greek culture. Ancient Greeks considered it a gift from the god Dionysus (who, judging from the festivals held in his honor, never heard the phrase "drink responsibly"). Wine even facilitated the learned debates of the famed Greek symposia, where it was diluted to promote inspiration without inebriation.

Wine was an economic force for Greece as well, exported throughout the Mediterranean. By 400 B.C., the Greeks had developed appellations of origin, a set of standards that defined different varieties of wine, to protect the quality of the product and the industry's integrity.


So what happened? War. Conquest. Insurrection. Christianity tamed the more hedonistic practices involving wine. Yet it was Christian monks who sustained the winemaking tradition for 400 years under the Ottoman Empire, when Muslim rulers would have let the art die on the vine or taxed it to death (drinking alcohol violates Islamic law). In the first half of the 20th century, two world wars and Greece's own civil war limited winemaking to small vineyards producing rustic wines for local markets.

Today Greek wines are enjoying a resurgence at home and growing interest abroad. State-of-the-art wineries employ advanced techniques of viticulture learned from winemakers in Bordeaux and scientists at University of California-Davis. Greece, together with the European Union, has resurrected the appellations of origin, now called Protected Geographical Status. Only wines from native grapes qualify. Criteria include the altitude of the vineyard, maximum yield per hectare, aging time and winery location, and dessert wines are further defined by the process used to sweeten them. As Greece's economic crisis shrinks domestic sales, vintners are making a concerted effort to introduce Americans to their best bottlings via retailers and restaurants.

So if you're unfamiliar with Greek wines, now is the time to get acquainted. To help you get started, we'll begin at the scholarly roots of the subject: the geography and earth science of Greece, and how they shape the country's main wine-producing regions.


Greek Wine-Producing Regions

A vineyard in Corinth, a city in the Peloponnese region of Greece.

Agriculturally, Greece is no Garden of Eden. Its geography is mountainous and its growing season short. Yet wine grapes thrive there. The rocky soil drains well. Overall cool temperatures keep grapes small. The resulting skin-to-pulp ratio produces high levels of tannins, which age into refreshing tartness. Cabernet and other international varieties are sometimes added to smooth the native grapes' rougher edges.

Vineyards carved from the mountainside are necessarily compact. They produce distinctive vintages due to the microclimates found at different altitudes and in different regions. For instance, a vineyard in the central district of Nemea located at 1,000 feet (300 meters) may get milder winters and produce more mellow grapes than a neighboring vineyard at 1,500 feet (450 meters).


We set out on our survey of some of Greece's main wine-producing regions in the North with Macedonia. This landlocked area experiences comfortably warm summers and decidedly cold winters. The soil of fine clay and limestone grows two dominant grape varieties: the dark, tannin-rich xynomavro (zee-NO-mahv-ro) and its sweeter cousin, negoska.

Farther south is the central region of the Peloponnese. The soil here is mostly rocky, although finer, sandier deposits collect in the valleys. The more moderate Peloponnese climate produces more tempered grapes. agiorgitiko (ah-yor-YEE-ti-ko) is honored among Greek oenophiles, called "lion's blood" for its deep red color. It appears in many a dry wine. In contrast, the lightly blushed moschofilero (mos-co-FEE-le-ro) is favored for dry white wines. Meanwhile, the red malagousia and white rhoditis are more citrusy, but still not sweet.

Sprawled across the Mediterranean are the Greek islands, including Crete, Rhodes, Samos and Santorini. The soil here is volcanic, rich in ash and somewhat heavier than that of the mainland. It holds water better, sustaining the vines in this dry climate. The islands' mild winters and hot summers produce sweeter grapes. They are prime producers of muscat, a grape used to make raisins. However, their dominant grape, assyrtiko (ah-SEER-ti-ko), is widely considered the finest Greek variety for making dry white wine.

With so many regions and varieties, how can you find the best Greek wine for you and your friends to try? Check the next page for tips on choosing a Greek wine.


Types of Greek Wines

Knowing about the popular varieties of Greek grapes will help you choose the type of wine to try. It helps to compare them to more familiar international counterparts. For instance, if a Burgundy is your hearty red of choice, try a xinomavro. Fond of merlot? You might be interested in an agiorgitiko. On the other hand, if you want a lighter white wine like a riesling, an assyrtiko from Santorini might amuse. You might start with wines that blend Greek and international grapes to help you learn the particular qualities of the Greek varieties.

Also learn to recognize the label names of the most respected winemakers and their vineyards. For example, the Boutari family is one of the founding families of modern Greek viticulture. They've become something of an empire, the Boutari Group, with six wineries. Their labels bear their own name or that of Kir-Yianni, one of their smaller holdings. The equally venerable Mercouri Estates was founded in 1860. Its signature vintage still uses the Italian cultivar imported in 1870.


Newer faces on the scene include Evangelos Gerovalliou and George Skouras. Both vintners are known for their fresh approach to using Greek-grown, French-origin varieties. Look for labels carrying their name. Wines from Carras Estate wines also show Gerovalliou's influence: He was its chief vintner until 1999.

Wines are usually chosen to go with certain foods, of course. You can serve Greek wines with any type of food, applying the general rule of pairing lighter wines with lighter-flavored foods and more assertive vintages with stronger-flavored dishes. However, Greek wines are a natural partner for Greek cuisine. A dry white moscofilero balances oil-rich appetizers like calamari and baked feta cheese. A more complex main dish, like the challenging mix of onion, garlic, eggplant, lamb, cinnamon and bechamel sauce in a traditional moussaka, calls for a full-bodied red like a xynomavro. Pair a vinsanto or other dessert wine with a Greek spice cake.


Greek Wines: Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • The Ultimate Wine Tour Quiz
  • What will global warming do to the wine industry?
  • Grilling Lamb

  • All About Greek Wine. "Aegean Islands." (July 22, 2011) http://wwwlallaboutgreek wine.com/regions/aegean.htm
  • All About Greek Wine. "History." (July 8, 2011) http://www.allaboutgreekwine.com/history.htm
  • Baiocchi, Talia. "Greek winemakers' best chance to grab US market." San Francisco Chronicle, June 26, 2011) (July 19, 2011) http://articles.sfgate.com/2011-06-26/food/29701721_1_greek-wines-greek-vintners-greek-restaurants
  • Costantino, Rob. "Greek Wines Go Native in the Peloponnese." Isante, April 8, 2011 (July 11, 2011) http://www.isantemagazine.com/article/greek-wines-go-native-peloponneseApril
  • Elloinos. "The new Greek wine legislation." Dec. 13. 2010. (July 14, 2011) http://www.elloinos.com/wine-legislation/the-new-greek-wine-legislation
  • Greek Wine Federation. "History of Greek Wines." (July 13, 2011) http://greekwinefederation.gr/en/content/show/&tid=26
  • Greekwinemakers.com "Boutari Group." (July 18, 2011) http://www.greekwinemakers.com/czone/winemakers/boutari.shtml
  • Greekwinemakers.com. "Chief Varieties Employed in the Commercial Production of Red Wine." (July 18, 2011) http://www.greekwinemakers.com/czone/varieties/redvar.shtml
  • Greekwinemakers.com. "Chief Varieties Employed in the Commercial Production of White Wine." (July 18, 2011) http://www.greekwinemakers.com/czone/varieties/whitevar.shtml
  • Greekwinemakers.com. "Cooperative of Samos." (July 18, 2011). http://www.greekwinemakers.com/czone/winemakers/Co-op_Samos.shtml
  • Greekwinemakers.com. "Evangelos Gerovassiliou." (July 18, 2011) http://www.greekwinemakers.com/czone/winemakers/Gerovassiliou.shtml
  • Greekwinemakers.com. "George Skouras." (July 18, 2011) http://www.greekwinemakers.com/czone/winemakers/Skouras.shtml
  • Greekwinemakers.com. "Mercouri Estate." (July 18, 2011). http://www.greekwinemakers.com/czone/winemakers/Merkouri.shtml
  • Kolpan, Steven. "Greek wines ditch their tragic past." Salon.com, Jan. 28, 2010 (July 12, 2011) http://www.salon.com/food/2010/01/28/kolpan_greek_wine_ext2010
  • Kolpan, Steven. "Wine and Global Warming: An Inconvenient Truth." May, 2011 (July 12, 2011) http://stevenkolpanonwine.blogspot.com
  • Lazarakis, Konstantinos. "Greek wine history Part I." July 11, 2011 (July 14, 2011) http://www.elloinos.com/lazarakis-mw/greek-wine-history-part-1
  • Nestor Imports. "Food Pairings." (July 8, 2011) http://www.nestorimports.com/food-pairings/
  • New Wines of Greece. "PDO Wines of Greece." (July 9, 2011) http://www.newwinesofgreece.com/en/oinoi_pop_tis_elladas/index.html
  • New Wines of Greece. "Retsina." (July 19, 2011) http://www.newwinesofgreece.com/retsina/en_retsina.html
  • Restaurants-guide4u.com. "Protopapas Estate: Vineyard in Kavala." (July 22, 2011) http://www.restaurants-guide4u.com/vineyard.asp?id=15671
  • Stefanakos, Victoria Scanlon. "World's Weirdest Wines." Food & Wine. (July 19, 2011) http://foodandwine.com/articles/worlds-weirdest-wines
  • Thegreekwine.com. "Regions with Superior Quality Wines." (July 8, 2011) http://www.thegreekwine.com/vqprd.html
  • TheTheoi.com. "Dionysus." (July 18, 2011) http://www.theoi.com/Summary/Dionysos.html