By Jasmine Hibbitt
Our culture's interest in wine has resulted in a great diversity of factors to consider while selecting a bottle. Sophisticated palettes demand complex and elegant wines while environmental concerns support organic or sustainably produced wines. Practical matters often require food-friendly wines and curiosity often leans towards new and interesting varietals. Now, many of these qualities can be found in the offerings of a single region: Greece.
Aris Soultanos is the marketing director for Eklektikon, an importer of Greek wine that seeks eclectic yet sophisticated wineries to include in their portfolio. Eklektikon represents "smaller, more boutique wineries that create impressive products and take risks by experimenting with more obscure... grapes and techniques." Soultanos believes the promotion of these estates will serve to "help shape the reputation of Greece in a more favorable way." Pieria Eratini, a winery that sits at the foothills of Mount Olympus, is an example of such and shows how the country is embracing a new world style by combining modern techniques and sustainable methods with traditional varietals.
Furthermore, as the organic wine market grows, Greece finds itself at an advantage. Soultanos has worked with organic wineries, including Pieria Eratini, and says that most of the land's mountainous terrain "does not favor mass fields and mass production." From an ecological standpoint, that means less pests because large crops are what tend to invite those unwelcome invaders. Sophia Perpera is the director of the Greek Wine Bureau and founder of All About Greek Wines, a company that works to promote Greek pours in North America. She gives the example of the island of Santorini, which has a windy, arid, pest-free climate that lends itself to natural winemaking practices; and, while not certified, the vineyards there tend to be organic. She says that most producers practice sustainability, and even biodynamics, contributing a wealth of eco-friendly options to wine buyers. It's important to remember that most of these wineries are just starting to obtain a certified seal-of-approval to put on their labels, so this attribute may not always be obvious. The good news is that many representatives are starting to point out which wineries do operate organically, making it easier for the consumer to choose.
"Greek wine opens up a whole new spectrum of flavors to the ever evolving world of wine," explains Gianni Cionchi, the beverage director for Kefi Restaurant in Manhattan. The cuisine at Kefi is an example of how Greek food can be elevated from everyday fare — seen in diners or out of souvlaki carts — into an elegant expression of home country favorites. The positive feedback Gianni gets from his customers gives him confidence of the wine's potential. He credits Kefi as a "vehicle to promote Greek wine" and says he has seen many people overcome their initial skepticism of it. In his opinion, Greece's reds and whites are "so truly one of a kind."
Greece has been growing, crushing and fermenting grape juice for over 4,000 years, but political obstacles in the past thwarted any possible entrance into the international market. "Our generation is the first to not see a war take place on Greek soil," explains Sophia Perpera. "The country had been left in bad condition entering the 1960s and the last thing they were thinking of was building a wine industry for export since they were just trying to produce enough food to feed the people." Luckily, this has changed. When Greece joined the EU in 1971, the wine sector received subsidies to build some of the most modern wineries and use the most up-to-date technology. Perpera explains that behind this technology are a new age of wine makers who have made it a priority to step in and advance the industry. They spent time traveling to countries such as Italy, France, and Germany, to study under experts, then returned with a wealth of knowledge on how to produce world-class wines from their native grapes. As a result, they've made stylistic alterations that improved quality of flavor while preserving the integrity and natural expression of their indigenous varietals.
There is no doubt that Greek wines deserve more attention in the Western world and they are finally starting to get it. Although it may be difficult at first to articulate names such as Xinomavro, Assyrtiko, or Malagousia, a good piece of advice when approaching this particular range of wines is to worry about the pronunciations later and do a tasting now. Producers are merging the past with the present to turn their beloved grapes into juices we can all enjoy and that's why there is no better time to tip our glasses forward and let pour in what has always been a sacred piece of Greece's history.
Aris Soultanos, Marketing Director from Eklektikon (left) with Andreas Pantos, an oenologist for Pieria Eratini Wines, holding bottles of Wishes Eratines wines.
Ready to step onto new terrior and find a Greek wines that fits? Here, experts give some recommendations and explain why these sips are so worthy.
As a trained chemist who studied oenology in France, Sophia Perpera has used her expert palate to realize the wonderful distinctness of Greek wines. She says, "The whites have flavors that range from floral, citrus and stone fruits, to intense minerality; and some with aging potential." The country also offers "some great rosé wines, fresh reds as well as a range of complex reds that can have a rustic quality to them." Many of the wines are lower in alcohol and fermented in stainless steel instead of oak, so they won't compete with flavors in food.
Gianni Cionchi believes that Assyrtiko in general is a great introduction to Greek whites and pairs well with seafood, veggies, and light meats. As for red, he recommends Xinomavro as a start. Similar to a Pinot Noir in style, this red has "big tannin and acid but is complemented by great fruit and spice."
"One thing that Greek wines are known for are their acidity... that means they are excellent food wines," says Aris Soultanos. His importing company, Eklektikon, works with wineries from the Northern region of Greece. The cool nights, diverse geography and rich soil produce whites that are "aromatic and elegant" along with "age-worthy reds."
Jasmine Hibbitt is a freelance writer and volunteers with Slow Food NYC.