Greece – great history with the best times still to come
Greece – great history with the best times still to come
Greek wine has a prestigious history and, according to its winemakers an equally great future. Terroirs from mountains to arid, dry near-desert, an abundance of indigenous varieties, and often very limited production volumes result in many rare treasures. Greece conjures up a whole host of potential superlatives. That said, its marketing has so far failed to hit the spot. How can the Greeks better bring their treasures to the world stage?
The Minoans of Crete were not only good winemakers, but also skilled craftsmen. 5,000 years ago, they used amphorae to ship their wine. The amphorae could be packed in tight and saving space. To avoid leakage, they were sealed inside with a naturally waterproof tree resin.
In retrospect, many Greek winemakers today would prefer to forget about this packaging innovation. The resin of the Aleppo Pine was far from tasteless, giving the wines their distinct retsina tone. Wine drinkers around the world often associate Greek wine first and foremost with this intense and usually rather rustic resinous flavour, obscuring the fact that the country has so much more to offer.
"The next decade," says Santorinian winemaker Yiannis Argyros, "is going to be the decade of Greek wine." It’s not a claim fabricated out of thin air, but neither is the situation so straightforward. With many limestone and volcanic soils, Greece has a solid basis. The consistently Mediterranean climate is actually pretty hot, but cooling sea breezes provide some climate control. There are plenty of high altitude sites: The whole country is traversed by mountains, with vineyards up to a thousand meters high. Even Crete, which looks out towards to the African coast, has regular snowfall. The fact that Greece is a winter sports destination is hardly suspected by the millions of tourists relaxing on the beaches of the Aegean. The high altitudes are also a trump card in the fight against climate change.
The rugged mainland stretches from the Bulgarian border to the Adriatic Sea. A total of 3,054 islands are scattered over the Aegean Sea, almost to the shores of Asia and Africa. Greece has very few major growing regions with an international reputation – it would be hard to find the nation’s equivalent to Tuscany or Burgundy.
All mod cons and a sea view
Greece is the birthplace of European wine culture. Minoans first made wine 6,000 years ago in Crete. Europe's earliest civilization boasted livestock, settlements, long-distance trade and agriculture. Its script had a hieroglyph for wine. The Minoans lived in stone buildings with toilets, sewage systems and household accouterments, wore pearl jewelry and decorated their homes with statues and murals. In central Europe at that time, by comparison, the ancestors of Wolfgang Schäuble and Jean-Claude Juncker were still scratching animal drawings on cave walls and hoarding hazelnuts in lieu of a mature economic policy.
The Greek city states created the cultural superstructure for wine. Dionysus, the god of wine, became a central religious figure and the associated rites of worship were consistently pleasurable events. At symposia, the upper classes spent their time drinking wine and discussing philosophy. Dionysia were great festivals with processions and performances. Classic Greek plays, mainstays of the classical literary canon such as "Antigone" and "Medea", had their world premieres here. The vintage was celebrated with the equivalent of an Oktoberfest. The more rustic variants even had drinking competitions. Wine was both a cult object and a part of everyday life.
The drinking and party culture of the Greeks was also well received by their Mediterranean neighbours, facilitated as the Greeks spread far across the Mediterranean to southern Italy, Sicily and Southern France, where they shared their knowledge of wine with every other civilization they encountered. In retrospect, this generous transfer of technology was perhaps the first step into insignificance. The Romans in particular greedily absorbed the know-how and began to produce their own wines across their huge empire. Greece became geopolitically sidelined, even if Greek wines continued to be regarded as premium.
Dionysus' death and a late renaissance
With the later adoption of Christianity, Dionysian faith became abruptly illegalised and a whole culture was destroyed. Even the Greek word “staphylia” for grapes refers to Staphylos the son of Dionysus. The Islamic Turks finally conquered Hellas in the 15th century and at the same time suppressed viticulture. Many indigenous grape varieties were wiped out by the phylloxera plague. During the World War II occupation, the Nazis requisitioned close to the entire production. Greece paid the highest occupation costs per capita of all the occupied countries. The subsequent civil war and military dictatorship reduced production to (at best) bulk wines from cooperatives.
With accession to the EU in 1974, a renaissance began. Wine classification laws based on the French “appellation controlée” model protected many regions. The classification is analogous to the categories table wine, land wine and wines from a delimited growing area such as AOC. Labels in Latin script made export easier. Later, a category for varietal wines without specific origin (similar to the French ‘vin de pays’) was added. EU funding paved the way for technological progress. Hygienic production, using stainless steel tanks, was a quantum leap in the 1980s for the ageing Greek wine industry.
A grubbing up program replaced poorer grape varieties with high-quality clones of better cultivars, and opened up cooler locations. Stylistically, more and more independent winegrowers, often trained in the major international wine schools, switched from producing traditional sweet wines to dry wines. On the smaller estates, much of the work is done by hand - 180,000 growers cultivate only a little more than half a hectare on average. A solid 900 of those bottle their own wine, many working with organic agriculture.
Greece boasts a total of 120 designated wine regions. The most important include Macedonia in the north, the mountainous, barren Peloponnese, Attica, and Crete with its perfect vine-growing climate. A scant few of the protected designations of origin have an international profile. White wines from Patras, Santorini and Mantinia are renowned, as is Samos’s sweet Muscat. Nemea is famous for its juicy red Agiorgitiko, Naoussa for ageworthy Xinomavro and Patras again for its sweet red Mavrodaphne.
Overall, it’s not a large number out of the total. As far as branding is concerned, it ought to be a dream. Almost every region has its roots in antiquity. Homer deposits Odysseus in Thrace, for example, where he received "fiery, red wine", with which he defeated a man-eating Cyclops. It’s a marketing story that money simply can’t buy, providing the perfect background to the dense, deeply coloured Mavroudi. But Thrace today is a ‘forgotten land’, as the Thracians say, with poor access to the single market.
The potential of Greece’s wine country is still quite untapped. On Santorini, you can observe it like the sun concentrated by a magnifying glass, not least because the rays burn down over this mini archipelago in the southern Mediterranean. The volcanic soils are mostly covered with mineral-rich pumice, into which knobbly Assyrtiko vines drill their roots to suck the water out of the porous rock, so defying the heat. Here it is so dry that phylloxera never managed to take hold. Some vineyard sites are several thousand years old.
Low trained vines hug the ground, to better resist the sun. Tiny yields result in extraordinarily mineral white wines, and their crisp acidity is such that connoisseurs salivate for giant seafood platters almost instantly. Greek oenologists like to speak of the Santorini paradox – that wines from such a hot climate have such fresh acidity. In addition, these wines are durable. Some winemakers are experimenting with single vineyard bottlings, as a way to spearhead the premium end of the Greek wine sector.
Every day, many thousands of tourists and several cruise ships arrive at the 17-kilometer crescent. They visit the beautiful town of Oia, where you can admire the most beautiful sunset in the country. On a tour of the barren island landscape they pass sparkling white cottages with domed roofs and blue shutters, always within sight of the deep blue Mediterranean Sea. Almost every one is picture postcard perfect. But too few of the visitors come for the wines.
Grape varieties like grains of sand in the desert
Still, Santorini dominates the landscape, at least for the winemakers. Greece has one of the largest gene pools in the world, with around 200 indigenous grape varieties. Anyone who wants to count them may as well count "the grains of sand in the Libyan desert," groaned the Roman poet Vergil 2,000 years ago. High quality or significant varieties number only a few. Nevertheless, nine out of ten Greek wines from the three million litres produced annually are from autochthonous grapes.
As there are not yet any really influential regions and associations, individual wineries have often made their mark with new ideas. Achaia Clauss and Tsantali have been well-known names since the 1980s. The first successes were frequently based on cuvées with international varieties.
Today native grape wines are the focus of their own identity - with the usual friction points. Some winegrowers are bothered by the fact that there is no classification along the lines of Grands Crus to sell top quality wines. Others refrain entirely from origin classification because they do not want to submit to the varietal restrictions. Speaking of regulations, a winegrower's association does not exist. And when asked, most winegrowers agree that Greeks can not be regulated so easily - a mentality that will sooner or later be put to the test. In contrast to this slight obstinacy is a lovable modesty, reflected in subtle, never intrusive taste profiles.
Rare treasures heading to new shores
Production conditions are at least as complicated as the tapestry of grape varieties. The slowness of the bureaucracy is notorious, and bureaucratic corruption is always a topic. Winegrowers don’t expect too much from the state. The good Zeus would have had his lightning bolts close at hand, had he known that democracy would end up in its current condition.
The austerity measures of the EU are more than just a distraction. The tax burden increases business expenses. The sales tax is paid by small winemakers in advance for the next year, which means that the state neatly loans itself money. Only three percent of farms are larger than ten hectares. Last but not least, consumers have less and less money for luxuries such as wine. "The government must go." Such pronouncements can be heard from many winemakers and they could be saying "Politics must go", so deep is the mistrust of politicians on all sides.
Exports are becoming the order of the day for the Greeks. Greek wines regularly receive high prizes in international competitions. The US and Canada are active markets, because the price level is worthwhile. The focus is also on Japan and Korea. Nevertheless, there is still room for improvement.
The classic export market is Germany, where forty percent of exports flow. But here it’s not only the relationship to politics which is ambiguous. Thanks to the many immigrants, Greek cuisine is well established - mostly in the budget segment. Where thousands of Italian restaurateurs have an easy time of making their wine palatable to guests, Greek restaurateurs struggle. The exported quantities increase, but not the prices.
Many winemakers complain about the constant price pressure from the German market. Nevertheless, there are more and more serious Greek restaurants across Germany. With a little luck it’s possible to taste an elegant Retsina, which makes for a delicious aperitif with its fresh acidity and subtle flavour.
Konstantinos Lazarakis, MW and expert in the wines of his homeland, sees a glimmer of hope for his compatriots: “Greek wine is rare. In addition, the Greeks drink most of it themselves, so the quantities for export are limited. Many top international wines have better availability than most top Greek crus. And rarity is known to increase demand.” The next decade will tell.