Wine in Greece: rediscovered country
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George Skouras’s winery, a sleek modern building set among trim rows of vines near the village of Nemea, is a popular stop on tours of the wine-growing regions of the northern Peloponnese. The nearby hillsides are home to the Agiorgitiko grape variety that Skouras, who studied winemaking at Dijon’s Burgundy university, has cultivated for more than 30 years.
To many Greeks, Skouras is the vintner who put Greek wine on the international map. Agiorgitiko, a versatile red wine grape believed to have been grown in the Nemea region for more than 3,000 years, was the variety he chose to make a high-quality wine for export.
“We used a mix of Agiorgitiko and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes grown in an upland valley where the temperatures were cooler. The wine was aged in French oak barrels, which was quite an innovation at the time,” he says.
Launched in 1986, Megas Oenos (ancient Greek for “great wine”) is still one of Skouras’s top sellers. About 45 per cent of his annual production is sold abroad, mostly in the US, Canada and Germany.
Skouras’s portfolio also includes medium-priced wines for export and a cheaper range sold in Greek supermarkets and restaurants catering to tourists. “We have a brand with a screw top that retails for about €6 a bottle. It’s a very drinkable wine,” he says.
Greece’s wine industry has changed dramatically since Skouras started his business in the mid-1980s. Then, there were 70 wineries in the country, many owned by local co-operatives that sold wine in bulk to households and restaurants. By 2008 — the year the recession began — that number had risen to 500, and mid-priced Greek wines could be found in specialist wine stores across Europe. As the economy went into free fall, there was explosive growth in new wineries, many on Aegean islands where winemaking had been all but abandoned. More than 1,400 Greek wineries are now in operation.
“Several big producers collapsed and closed because of the crisis, so there was space for more small growers to join the market,” says Skouras. “They’re shaking up the industry in a positive way, trying out different grape varieties and exporting on a small scale.”
The FT’s wine columnist Jancis Robinson says of Greek wine today: “You only have to look at a wine list in Greece to see what treasures (and unfamiliar names) it has to offer the curious wine drinker.”
Greek wineries produce about 300m litres a year, compared with 650m in Portugal, a similar-sized economy with a long tradition of winemaking. Greece’s wine revenues total some €900m a year, against €1.6bn for Portugal.
“The crisis encouraged different kinds of people to try their hand at winemaking and several years of rapid tourist growth gave them a ready-made market,” says Konstantinos Lazarakis, Greece’s first master of wine.
A typical new grower might be a former banker or businessperson investing their redundancy payment in a vineyard, or a pair of jobless young graduates moving to the countryside to plant vines on family-owned land, Lazarakis explains. Greece has plenty of local agronomists to provide advice to novice growers plus a growing cohort of professional winemakers with experience of working in Italy, France or Australia.
The crisis has also given a push to Greece’s reputation as a maker of high-quality wines. Established producers facing financial pressure ramped up exports, while smaller operations had to sell abroad to survive. “Prices became more competitive and consumers abroad realised just how good Greek wine has become,” says Lazarakis.
In the 1990s Greek winemakers believed it was important to work with international varieties such as Cabernet, Syrah and Chardonnay to prove that a Mediterranean newcomer could compete with established New World producers. But as their confidence grew, winemakers began blending local with international varieties, creating distinctive flavours that appealed to local and foreign consumers.
“There still wasn’t a lot of trust in the quality of the Greek varieties. It was felt blending made them more reliable,” says Leonidas Nasiakos, a winemaker at Semeli, a high-end producer near Nemea.
Over the past decade, however, the proportion of Greek to international varieties has been reversed. “We use 90 per cent indigenous varieties now,” says Nasiakos. One reason is that the quality of wine from indigenous grapes improved as winemakers adopted modern cultivation methods, moving to low yields and acquiring new machinery.
Terroir has become important, too: in Nemea the most sought-after slopes for planting new vines are 700 metres above sea level, yielding wines with higher acidity and greater potential for ageing, says Nasiakos.
Another reason is that many more varieties have entered commercial production as Greek producers explore the country’s exceptionally rich heritage of indigenous wine grapes, following a worldwide trend among growers to recover long-forgotten “exotic” varieties that can produce distinctive new wines.
Kostas Bakasietas, the owner of Greece’s largest vine nursery, near Nemea, has identified 180 indigenous varieties that had fallen out of use and “rediscovered” another 60 whose names have been forgotten. “It’s endless: the more you explore, the more you find. I think we’re still at the very beginning of this process,” he says.
Armed with a degree in viticulture from the University of Montpellier in France, Bakasietas started travelling around Greece 14 years ago, scouring neglected vineyards for rare and unknown grape varieties. “An elderly farmer would point out a rogue vine in a corner of his vineyard, or you might spot an unusual-looking vine leaf in a monastery garden,” he says.
Bakasietas’ research includes trawling through old winery records, books and manuscripts. He notes that the earliest written description he knows of Agiorgitiko came from a sixth-century Byzantine text. Asked to name some of the 40 forgotten varieties he has experimented with that have commercial potential, Bakasietas mentions two white varieties, Zakynthino and Makripodia from the Ionian Islands, and Mavrostifo, a red wine grape from the northern Peloponnese.
However, Greece’s four flagship varieties — Agiorgitiko; Xinomavro, another versatile red wine grape grown mainly in northern Greece; and two aromatic white grapes, Assyrtiko from the volcanic island of Santorini and Moschofilero from the Peloponnese — are unlikely to be displaced quickly.
Assyrtiko is now grown in several regions of mainland Greece and has become the first Greek variety to acquire an international reputation: growers in Turkey, South Africa and Australia have planted the drought-resistant vine.
Other varieties have become more widely known. Roxane Matsa, the owner of a small organic vineyard north-east of Athens, was among the first growers to experiment with Malagousia, a dry white wine grape variety that was on the brink of extinction when it was rediscovered by a professor of oenology in the 1970s.
Matsa contributed to its revival over the following decade by distributing thousands of cuttings to other growers. “I was convinced it was a variety for the future, one that could be successful on an international scale,” she says. The vine is now widely cultivated in Greece and ranks close behind Assyrtiko as the country’s most sought-after white grape variety.
Then there is retsina — a white wine laced with resin from the Aleppo pine as a preservative — which gave Greek winemaking an unenviable reputation for decades. Dismissed by many as “paint-thinner”, traditional retsina is now hard to find in Greek supermarkets. But new retsinas — made from Assyrtiko and the widely grown white wine grape Roditis, rather than the traditional Savatiano grape, and containing only a hint of resin — are popular with many who decried the original version.
Meanwhile, the separate qualities of Savatiano, native to the Attica region around Athens, have been rediscovered. “Savatiano is a wonderful grape, with an excellent aroma. It’s making a welcome comeback,” says Matsa.
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The Mediterranean nation is emerging from an unprecedented economic crisis and is looking to pull off a sustained recovery — a prospect that was buoyed by a return to international capital markets. We analyse the challenges and opportunities presented by Greece’s revival