An Overview of Greek Wine

  • By Terry Kandylis
  • 20 Oct 2020
  • 7 MIN
  • Level 101

Greece’s location in southern Europe strategically positions it between three continents. Although the country has enjoyed a long history of winemaking that dates back millenia, modern drinkers have only just started to discover the country’s vinous treasures. The poor homemade wines that were to be found in every corner of the country’s taverns and the cheap exports of the past certainly didn’t help the country’s image; however, the winds of change that have constantly blown over the last 30 years have finally brought international attention to the wines of Greece. There is one single factor that has defined this revolution, and that is the country’s native grapes. Greece’s indigenous varieties, all 300+ of them, exemplify the uniqueness of Greek wine and are the torch that illuminates the path to Greece’s bright wine future.

Greece ranks 17th with regards to total annual global wine production, producing on average 2.5 million hectolitres of wine. Around 61,500 hectares of land are under vine, with just under 1,300 wineries spread out across the country. Almost one third of the total plantings are to be found in Peloponnese alone, with Nemea being not only Greece’s but the Balkans biggest region. Attica and Central Greece come second in terms of acreage, followed by Macedonia and Thrace. Crete and the Aegean islands combined together account for almost 22%.

The country exports around 13% of its total production, bringing in a revenue of some 82.6 million Euros (128.5 million Canadian Dollars). Looking at Greece’s export markets, Germany has the lion’s share with just over 38% of total exports. The United States and France are second and third respectively, with the growth in Canada increasing significantly in recent years. The UK is currently responsible for 3.6% of the export market, with steady growth over the last five to seven years; as a Greek living in London I couldn’t be more proud to be experiencing this first hand.

Let’s take a brief look at Greece and explain a few more of the key characteristics that shape the regions and styles of wines. If I were to ask you what is the most mountainous country in Europe, what would your answer be? Switzerland, right? Correct. Are you ready for a surprise or two? Europe’s second most mountainous country is Spain, followed by Greece. Perhaps the country is famous for its picturesque white and blue houses and wonderful islands that host millions of tourists every summer, though the country’s morphology is mainly shaped by high mountains and peaks of more than 2000m above sea level. In geological terms, Greece was formed fairly recently through volcanic and tectonic activity in the early Cenozoic era, which explains the country’s rough peaks and mountains that are unweathered by time. On that note, most vineyards are found on slopes that make mechanization impossible. High altitude vineyards are common, which, combined with the constant breeze from the Mediterranean sea, moderates the warmth and heat. In the Aegean islands winds during summer can be so fierce that vine trellising on wires becomes problematic, hence Santorini’s unique basket-shaped or “kouloura” training system that protects the vine from the winds and the eventual grapes from the strong UV. Sunshine is abundant and the climate is essentially Mediterranean, with most precipitation focused throughout the winter months. The majority of the vineyards are dry farmed and many varieties are drought resistant, bringing lots of international attention in recent years; countries that are experiencing global heating have been looking elsewhere for vine material, as plantings of Assyrtiko in Australia and South Africa can demonstrate.

Speaking of varieties, Assyrtiko has definitely brought international acclaim to the country, becoming its best ambassador, even though it accounts for less than 3.15% of total plantings. Savatiano is the most-planted grape, followed by the pink-skinned Roditis, with both grapes being strongly linked to the production of Retsina. Agiorgitiko is the most-planted red variety, which accounts for almost  5.3% of total acreage under vine. Not far behind is the other important red varietal, Xinomavro. These last two grapes  are considered by many wine professionals to be Greece’s strongest cards in terms of noble red grapes. The former with its juicy,  fruit-driven nature, the latter with its red-fruited character, firm structure, and ability to age, exuding an unmistakable tomato character that develops with ageing in bottle. There is constant experimentation with indigenous varieties and many success stories such as Malagousia and Limniona, varieties that were almost extinct only a few decades ago that are now the focus of wine producers who have discovered their unique identity and characteristics.

Putting things into perspective, the important appellation of Naousa found on the slopes of Vermio mountain in northern Greece, which allows only Xinomavro for its PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status, is no more than 700 hectares in size. This means that one of Greece’s most important appellations is the size of Pomerol on Bordeaux’s Right Bank, and smaller than St. Julien, just one of the communes on the Left Bank. Average vineyard holdings are around one hectare per grower. In Santorini there are many similarities that could be drawn with Champagne in terms of the structure of the market, with many grape growers owning the vineyards and the wineries purchasing the fruit from them.

Despite having some rather challenging pronunciations, varieties that have adapted well to their respective terroirs over the centuries are offering the uniqueness that today’s wine lover seeks. In recent years Greece has managed to turn the page and blow people’s minds with the quality, craftsmanship and diversity of her wines. Get ready to set off on a gustatory trip as rich and authentic as the country’s ancient history.

 

 

Kouroula training from Santorini - Credit : Courtesy of Terry Kandylis