Wine writers abhor doing lists of “best” wines because this goes against the mystique we have so patiently built around the “nectar of the gods”. And because lists are so reductive. Exploring wine is the essence of enjoying wine, say hard-core wine lovers. Nevertheless, this wine writer, who belongs to the “drink first, discuss later” school of wine thought has no objection to proposing a list of six wines that are exciting, quaffable and perfect examples of Greece’s wine renaissance.
Our six suggestions are based on native Greek grape varietals. They are relatively easy to find and fairly representative of different wine styles and colours. If unavailable, a good sommelier in a restaurant or wine shop should be able to suggest close alternatives.
Santorini wines have attained the industry’s holy grail: establishing a taste that is not only unique but ascribable to the wine’s provenance―in this case, the volcanic soils of this strange Cycladic island. Thanks to their pronounced mineral taste, Santorini wines are the darlings of sommeliers and wine buffs the world over and have become the de facto wine ambassadors of Greece. Winemaker Paris Sigalas is an expert at making the Assyrtiko grape shine (and sing). Sigalas wines are always well-made, dependable and gracious. His textbook Santorini Assyrtiko is steely-dry yet fruity, mouth-filling and racy, a display of power without aggression. A white wine that generates awe.
Pairings: Pair an Assyrtko wine from Santorini with fish and seafood and you cannot go wrong.
Malagousia Ktima Gerovassiliou
Vangelis Gerovassiliou is probably Greece’s most respected winemaker, with several top wines in his range. His estate, on the outskirts of Thessaloniki in the rolling hills of Epanomi, is one of the most beautiful in Greece. It’s well worth a visit, not only for its lovely wines but also for its museum which houses one of the world’s largest collections of corkscrews (5000 and counting). Gerovassiliou is credited with saving the Malagousia grape from extinction—now the most up-and-coming varietal in Greece. His 100% Malagousia has a powerful citrusy nose, elegant and unexpected in its intensity. Mouth-feel is fat and creamy due to the judicious use of oak. A beautiful white wine, beautifully packaged, this makes the perfect gift to take home.
Pairings: If you happen to be in a fancy Greek restaurant, choose this Malagouzia to accompany starters that are sophisticated and elegant. It will not work with salads, though.
Tear of the Pine Retsina, Kechris Winery
Retsina is a delicate subject in the world of Greek wine because so many people outside Greece identify local wines with pine-flavoured plonk, to the detriment of all the other good wines now being made. There aren’t that many retsinas around and certainly not many exciting ones. Stelios Kechris is the retsina specialist and his Tear of the Pine, made from the Assyrtiko grape in northern Greece, is an astonishing example of a modern retsina that will blow you away. The Assyrtiko comes through nicely, blending in a weird way with the pine resin to create something very original. This dry white wine ages exceptionally well.
Pairings: Traditional Greek meze such as fried courgettes, grilled octopus and taramosalata will thank you for pairing them with such a great comrade in arms. Enjoy—and let the wine snobs turn blue.
Samos Vin Doux, Samos Coop
The local wine cooperative on the island of Samos has an extensive range of wines, all from the Muscat grape. But none of them is as succulent as their Vin Doux. The term “liquid sunshine” may be hackneyed, but it most certainly is to be found in this bottle of nectar, which encapsulates to perfection the sun-drenched terraces of Samos. Given the intense pleasure this sweet white wine guarantees at only €6, it has got to be one of the best buys coming out of the Greek vineyard.
Pairings: Drink cold with a slice of melon and some cured ham before or after dinner. If you’re really into sweet wines, try it with some roast chicken; you’ll be surprised. Available in all Athenian supermarkets.
Gris de Nuit, Ktima Tselepos
This outstanding rosé wine is the new creation of Yiannis Tselepos, owner of a 12-acre estate in Arcadia, in the heart of the Peloponnese. This is where the indigenous Moschofilero grape flourishes, in the cold valley of Mantinia, which produces lively white wines. However, Moschofilero is a red grape variety whose slightly tainted rosé wines can also be called “gray”, following a night’s maceration of skins with juice. Intensely aromatic, bone-dry yet supple and creamy, this is an exemplary dry rosé in an Alsace-styled bottle for extra character.
Pairings: This wine is fantastic with food, especially fish and seafood, Asian cuisine, and fine hors d’oeuvres. Also great as an aperitif with no food at all.
Alpha Xinomavro Single Vineyard Hedgehog, Alpha Estate
A cool-climate red wine from Greece might come across as a provocation, but this exceptional Xinomavro from Greece’s northernmost vineyard in Amyndeon is well worth seeking out. Winemaker Angelo Iatrides has gone to great lengths to create a richly flavoured dry red wine with a luscious palate and a balanced finish. Tannins and acidity dance the syrtaki together (with acidity also doing a bit of a solo, as usual with a Xinomavro). Hand-crafted in Alpha’s state-of-the-art winery, it is available in many bottle shops and good supermarkets at an affordable price.
Pairings: Like all Xinomavro wines, the Hedgehog works well with fatty meats, such as lamb, roasted suckling pork, chicken thighs and ribs.
What to look for when buying Greek wines
Keep these principles in mind, when exploring wine lists and liquor stores in Athens:
Greece is better at producing whites than reds. Choose the most recent vintage available (not because wines don’t age well, but because they are often stored badly, especially in restaurants) and you’ll be OK. Even more so if you spend more than €10 retail or €25 in a restaurant.
Go for the light-coloured rosés that are all the rage right now and you won’t be disappointed.
Contrary to appearances and expectations, Greek reds can be a bit of a challenge, with harsh tannins and immoderate ambitions. Go for the older vintages whose mellowed-out vinosity will cover up the errors of youth.
Prices mentioned are suggested retail prices, including taxes. In a restaurant, expect to pay about three times that, minus the VAT.