Greece's financial woes have thrust the country into the news lately. But amid the noise over that turmoil, Greece's winemakers are quietly producing wines that are better than ever.
Most Americans don't know much about Greek wines. They may have heard about retsina, the pine resin-flavored wine that's been a staple in inexpensive Greek restaurants, but that's about the extent of it. It's no wonder: With names like assyrtiko, moschofilero or xinomavro, the grape varieties aren't exactly household words, and some labels are at least partly in Greek.
Learning more about Greek wines can be a challenge, especially on the West Coast. A lot of wines that make it to the United States don't get this far. Those that are sold here are available mostly in restaurants.
Still, it's a challenge worth tackling, especially if you're looking for something new. The whites, in particular, can be especially attractive and refreshing during the warm days of summer.
I got my first good look at this new wave of Greek wines about eight years ago, at a San Francisco tasting. A few years later, I made a trip to the wine-producing areas of the Peloponnese and Crete. In addition, I got up to date on the most recent releases at a San Francisco tasting held by New Wines of Greece, a government-funded organization.
Sofia Perpera, who represents the Greek wine industry in the United States, says that "we are delighted with what we see now in the U.S." Many top restaurants -- not just those that serve Greek food -- now have a few Greek wines on their lists, she says, and "serious" importers are handling the wines.
"For us, this is the biggest news, because Greek wine becomes more mainstream," she says. U.S. imports of Greek wines, she adds, rose more than 6 percent in 2011.
Perpera thinks Greek wines have a lot to offer U.S. consumers. They represent good value for the price; they are extremely food friendly, with good acidity (despite Greece's hot climate), and they are unique, because they are made mostly from indigenous grapes.
Wine has been a part of Greek culture for 4,000 years, but it's only been in the past 20 years or so, after Greece entered the European Union, that the country has become a player -- albeit a small one -- on the modern wine stage. Winemakers began to travel and study abroad. Perpera, for example, studied oenology in Bordeaux; George Skouras of Domaine Skouras in Nemea was trained in Burgundy. Small boutique wineries started popping up.
Although some vintners planted international varieties, such as cabernet sauvignon and merlot, most have found their greatest success by using the indigenous grapes. In the Peloponnese -- the large peninsula west of Athens that is widely considered to be Greece's most important growing area -- that means whites such as moschofilero and roditis and the red grape agiorgitiko.
Moschofilero (sometimes spelled Moscofilero) is a pink-skinned grape used to make white wines that are fresh and racy, with citrus and green apple flavors, sometimes accented by floral notes. For example, the 2011 Domaine Skouras Moscofilero ($17) offers racy citrus and almond paste flavors with a hint of mineral. Tselepos also makes an attractive version, the 2011 Mantinia ($22). The large Boutari winery makes a moschofilero ($17) that's quite floral.
As for reds from the Peloponnese, one of the best is the Gaia Estate, made from agiorgitiko grown in a hilly, low-yielding vineyard in the Koutsi area of Nemea. The 2007 ($35) offers ripe, spicy plum and blueberry fruit and finishes with fine tannins. The 2007 Domaine Skouras Grand Cuvee ($30), also made from agiorgitiko, is also very good, with lively red cherry fruit, a note of anise and fine tannins.
Perhaps the most beautiful winery in the Peloponnese is Mercouri Estate, on the western tip of the peninsula. The flagship wine from the estate, which was established in the 1860s, is Domaine Mercouri, an unusual, ageworthy red blend of refosco, a northern Italian grape, and mavrodaphne, often used for dessert wine. The 2006 ($29) is earthy and spicy, with sweet red fruit and medium tannins.
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Northern Greece, and especially Macedonia, is an important wine-producing region. Here, the prime grape is Xinomavro, a rather tannic and acidic red variety. (Its name means "acid black.") A top producer is Kir-Yianni; the winery's 2008 Ramnista ($25), made from xinomavro, displays spicy red cherry flavors and drying tannins. The wine also ages well: At the San Francisco tasting, the winery poured the 2001, which was still very fresh and had a lot of life left.
Also very good is the 2007 Alpha Hedgehog Vineyard Xinomavro ($22), which has finer, more supple tannins.
The island of Santorini is famous for its white wines made from Assyrtiko. The grapes are grown on extremely poor soils with little water-holding capacity, and vintners train the vines into wreath-like baskets that shelter grapes from wind and too much sun. One delicious example is the 2011 Sigalas Assyrtiko Athiri ($24), which is very fresh and grapefruity with a briny minerality.