After an intensive tasting in Greece, Ernie Whalley says go native
If ever a nation could be said to have missed its way in wine, then that nation is Greece.
Consider it: the ancient Greeks were the guys who gave us the very word oenology -- the art of making wine -- and they were great exporters. Evidence that Greek wine was traded has shown up everywhere from Egypt to Russia -- even regions such as Tuscany and the Rhone had their winemaking kick-started under Greek colonial rule.
Today, where are these wines? There are a few in Greek restaurants, largely fairly ordinary table wines from the bigger producers such as Achaia Claus, Boutari and Tsantalis. Apart from these, Greek wines are not much in evidence here.
This is a pity, for I found after a recent visit that Greece has much to offer and has wines that can compete, at varying price levels, with their equivalents from the Old World and the New.
The key to quality is, of course, the killer juxtaposition that I've mentioned often before -- old vines and young winemakers. Plus, a new-found devotion to the concept of terroir -- the combination of soil, aspect and micro-climate that makes for wines that have character, as well as quality.
When these wines hit the Irish market, as they surely will, you are going to have to get used to some new grape varieties. This, I'm sure, will be no bad thing as by then you will be bored out of your tree with nondescript Italian pinot grigio, and will be happy to give fragrant savatiano a go, or roditis, with its lovely rose-petal aromas.
Of the wines I tasted, the best reds were made from the agiorgitiko, which produces intense, purple plummy wine, especially at high altitude in the Peleponnese. The xynomavro grape, from Macedonia in the north, also showed well. If you find agiorgitiko hard to get your tongue round, try 'eye-your-gee (hard 'g')-tiko' or simply call it St George, for 'St George's grape' is what the name means.
Many Greek vineyards do contain the usual suspects including chardonnay, merlot and cabernet sauvignon, but after intensive tasting over four days, I was convinced that the native grapes were the way to go, and found myself in the strange position of advocate for the cause to the country's winemakers.
I can envisage Greece making inroads here on two fronts: one, with keenly priced, characterful whites that will kick butt among the astringent sauvignons and anodyne pinot grigios in the under-a-tenner market, and two; with smart, confident terroir-based winemaking, coupled with sensitive use of good oak barrels, which will allow them to put reds on the market to compete with mid-priced wines from France, Australia and South Africa and, more particularly, with the smart offerings from the new Spain that are currently attracting minor cult status.
The Greek wineries I visited were all keen to export and are seeking importers. Names to look out for include Semeli, Domaine Evharis, A. Megapanos, Batista and Kir-Yianni. More information about Greek wine from Hellenic-Celtic Trading, tel: (087) 675-4581.