High quality wines from Greek grape varieties are finding more and more fans – economic crisis is creating problems, however
Actually, all the experts agree that Greek wine never was as good as it is now. After many years in which gastronomy in Greece as well as its foreign offshoots were typified by cheap Retsina table wines and red blends in big bottles, over the course of the last two decades the quality of Greek wines has improved significantly. Names such as Chateau Carras, Lazaridi, Hatzmichalis, Gerovassiliou and Sigalas were the pioneers in the change towards internationally fully competitive quality wines, with many others having followed their lead. And also the big names in the sector such as Tsantali, Boutari, Kourtaki and Achaia Clauss are now producing high quality wines in addition to the mass market versions. The ‘new wines’ from Macedonia, Attica, Nemea, Crete and those from the islands have yet to be properly discovered by consumers in Germany, however. “At the moment, there are at least two handfuls of producers in Greece who are making genuinely iconic wines,” explains Hamburg master sommelier Hendrik Thoma, “but almost nobody knows them. Greece is not Bordeaux or the Napa Valley, after all.”
Moreover, the conditions for the high quality wines in Hellas are very good. On the approximately 70,000 hectares of vineyards which are used for wine production (along with another 50,000 hectares for table grapes and raisins), there is a wide range of indigenous varieties, currently amounting to around 300, each with a distinctive character and very individual style. Depending on the year, they yield between 3.5 and four million hectolitres. The terroirs and microclimates are as varied as the whole country, with long hours of unbroken sunshine and a tradition stretching back over millennia going hand in hand. Indeed, there is evidence that there has been a wide dissemination of the grape in the early Bronze Age. Archaeological digs on the island of Crete attest to the pre-Hellenic history of wine growing there, and in Vathypetro, a site near Archanes, one of the oldest wine presses in the world can be visited. The unearthed stone wine presses and the many clay pots from the Minoan culture prove that Crete was the cradle of commercial Greek wine growing. The Retsina, which remains very popular in Greece to this day, may well have had its origins in the preservation measures of those times, when the walls of the amphorae were sealed with resin. Incidentally, there is some very good Retsina nowadays. An expert in this field is Stelios Kechris from Thessaloniki.
"The remedy is to be found in exports"
Winegrowing came to a standstill for almost 500 years due to the Turkish occupation. It was only after the end of the military dictatorship in 1974 that a modern wine industry began to develop. While around 80 per cent of the wine was consumed by local people and tourists until only a few years ago, the economic crisis in Greece has forced many producers to make radical changes. Those who can, are realigning themselves and are looking for new markets – as summarised succinctly by Rudof Knoll, a German writer and expert on wine as well as on Greece: "The remedy is to be found in exports." Star winegrower Evangelos Gerovassiliou from Epanomi near the Macedonian metropolis of Thessaloniki explains how the crisis has seen him lose half of his Greek customers – "in return, we have increased our overseas exports, adding 100 per cent to our sales to Great Britain in 2011." Among others, Gerovassilious' model company is also home to an attractive wine museum with more than 2,600 ancient corkscrews and many other utensils.
While the taverns on the Aegean and Ionian Sea, in Thessaly, Western Thrace, Epirus and on the Peloponnese mostly serve cheap wines with their Mezedes, Tsatsiki, Souvlaki, grilled fish or oven roasted lamb, more and more Greek producers are now exporting their high quality wines abroad. Due to the current lack of financial support from the government for large promotional campaigns, they have been left to take their own initiative. For instance, the Tsantali winery, situated in Agios Pavlos on the Chalkidiki peninsula, has been active in its most important export market of Germany for several years, holding presentations in gastronomy with Greek cuisine, at trade fairs and in retail – including sales campaigns and competitions offering prizes such as flights and holiday packages to luxury hotels on Chalkidiki, which naturally include tours and tastings at the vineyard. Despite the sustained economic crisis, Vice President Dr. Georgios Tsantali explains that “we will continue to expand our marketing activities in 2013 compared with last year to further raise our profile."
In this context, the no.1 Greek winegrower is also making use of synergies with others when it is feasible: In the run up to the third "Mount Athos Gourmet Festival" from 15 May – 15 June 2013, which will attract gourmets and wine freaks from all over Europe to the 'monastic republic' of Athos, culinary presentations recently took place in Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Munich and Berlin, with "Metochi Chromitsa" cellar wine and fine wines from Patre Epifanios' five hectare vineyard, Mylopotamos. The event saw Friar Epifanios cooking for journalists and other invited guests at top restaurants with Greek cuisine from old recipes from the cloister cuisine. There could not be a better publicity for the country.
"We need far more positive public relations work for Greek wine!"
In general, wine producers in the northern areas of Hellas appear to be more willing to join forces than those elsewhere. For some years, the 39 member companies of the "Wines of North Greece" association, representing a region which stretches all the way from the Ionian Sea in the West to the Evros River in the East and down to the Olympus in the South, have been combining their efforts and working together to promote their wines, with the protected designations of origin of g.g.A. and g.U., both at home and abroad. From 24 – 27 March, 17 members of the "Wines of North Greece" will use ProWein 2013 to convince retailers, importers, restaurateurs, sommeliers and journalists of the quality of the new Greek wines. Some of the companies are set to be represented with their own stands in Hall 6, others will be attending the community stand of the "Hellenic Foreign Trade Board" (HEPO). The "Wines of North Greece" is also seeking to develop contacts with new customers in Düsseldorf, with an information-counter on the wine routes in northern Greece. President Stelios Kechris is expecting that over the next five years, exports will be able to "compensate for the majority of our losses in our home market." With the help of the EU, his association has already realised a programme for promoting the wines of northern Greece in Ukraine – for six months, another third country campaign has been running for the USA, China and Switzerland with a three-year-programme.
The extent to which exports have become such a big issue in Greece is evident from the number of exhibitors from Hellas attending the ProWein fair in 2013, which has increased to a record of 65, compared with 55 last year and 42 in 2011. After a very positive development between 2009 and 2011, when the value of Greek wine imports to Germany climbed from 23.1 to 29.5 million Euros, 2012 saw a fall of over 20 per cent, back to 2009 levels. Incidentally, the Italians also saw a 15 per cent fall in sales. In total, Germany imported 6.9 per cent less wine.
It is hard to say to which extent the recent German-Greek rapports are reflected in this fall, with tabloid mud-slinging in both countries. Berlin wine dealer Christos Tziolis does not buy into this theory: "Many of my customers have been to Greece and they know that the reports in the tabloid press have no bearing on reality." Of greater relevance is the suspicion that currently many of the winegrowing estates simply do not dispose of the funds to invest more in their export marketing. And little help can be expected from the state. Nikos Topalidis from Mykonos Weinhof in Solingen sees things the same way: "We need far more positive public relations work for Greek wine!"
Quality improvement in Greek vineyards
In this context, as Exports Manager Thomas Kunstmann of the Greek Wine Cellars D. Kourtakis reports, a small but promising elite Greek gastronomy sector seems to be developing in Germany – the basis for more sales and acclaim in the future. And according to a recent market research study, Greek gastronomy now comes in at second place after Italy in terms of popularity in Germany. It may, however, be a while, until white Assyrtiko from the volcanic island of Santorini, aromatic Moschofilero from the north of the Peloponnese, Malagousia, Agiorgitiko from Nema or the especially characterful Xinomavro from Naoussa, Amynteon, Rapsani and other parts of Macedonia are discussed on an equal footing with their counterparts from the Bourgogne, Bordeaux, Brunello or Barolo.
And yet the significant quality improvement in Greek vineyards seems set to continue. For some years, companies such as Palivos, Katogi & Strofilia, Gaia Wines, Hatzidakis, Ktima Alpha, Kir Yianni, Skouras, Biblia Chora, Pavlidis, Katsaros, Tselepos and the Claudia Papayanni domain have been winning one prize after another at the big international competitions, gaining in acclaim and writing a genuine success story. For example, Claudia Papayanni, whose mother comes from Germany, has been on the market with her wines from Arnea on Chalkidiki since 2007, and has gained a considerable amount of respect among her associates over the last five years.
Over the long term, many professionals, journalists, retailers and sommeliers see Greek wines making further progress thanks to their individual profile and unique nature. "Ambitious winegrowers are rising to the challenge of crisis," reported the "Spiegel" in June 2012 in its situation report from Greece. Maria Triatafylou from the "National Organisation for Vine and Wine" is therefore convinced that in addition to their exports to Germany, France and Canada, the producers from Hellas will "also be able to increase their exports to China and to other new markets."
When it comes to the destinations of the Tsantali wines, Germany is in first place, with Canada in second and Russia in third, followed by Belgium and Holland. Despite the economic crisis and the huge problems in Greece, this particular business maintained a stable turnover in 2012. "If we Greeks had more money, we could make the high quality of our wines known to consumers abroad much more quickly," highlights Dr. Georgios Tsantali.
It is certainly the case that those attending ProWein 2013 from 24 – 26 March will have every opportunity to discover new and exciting wines at Hellas in Hall 6.