The Greeks have been making wine for over four thousand years and the birthplace of modern wine culture can be traced back to Greece. Symposia were convivial gatherings where Greeks shared ideas and drank wine—a cultural ritual that still survives today. Through relationships that evolved through wine trade, the Greeks spread a vibrant wine culture throughout the Mediterranean world.
Greece’s current wine scene is thriving. In the 1980s, when Greece entered the European Union, the wine industry started shifting to higher quality wines as viticulture improved, and a new generation of winemakers earned their chops with international training and experience. But unlike other European Union countries producing wines, Greece has not yet exploited its potential in the industry. Since the country’s financial crisis hit ten years ago, winemakers have had to develop strategies for more exportation to make up for the loss of revenue in their own market. They are spending more time and money on their commitment to their indigenous wines with top-end education to help consumers comprehend them. Greek wineries have been turning their attention to U.S. consumers, and exports to the U.S. have recently climbed more than 80%. It’s likely that this will continue as wine drinkers in the U.S. learn more about the value and taste of Greek wines.
Greece: The Regions And The Wines
Greece has four primary wine-growing regions: Northern Greece, Central Greece, The Aegean Islands, and Southern Greece. The regions vary greatly in climate, with snow-covered mountains in northern Greece in winter, and a Mediterranean climate with hot summers in the South Aegean. Because of these climatic differences, Greek wines vary significantly in style. Whites range from crisp and acidic Assyrtiko, to tropical-fruit forward Moscofilero, to sweet wines made from Muscat Blanc. The principal reds are powerful, full-bodied Xinomavro and Agiorgitiko, and aromatic Mavrodaphne.
Forming Greece’s northern border with Albania, North Macedonia, Bulgaria, and Turkey, are three Greek regions: Epirus, Macedonia (not to be confused with the country of North Macedonia), and Thrace.
In mountainous northern Macedonia, winters are cold and snowy, but the summers tend to be mild. The region’s native grape, versatile Xinomavro, (translates to acid black) is made into everything from sparkling whites to rosés to tannic heavyweights. Domaine Karanika, in northwest Macedonia, makes an artisanal Brut Cuvée Spéciale with Xinomavro by méthode champenoise, one of the few sparklers in the world made with grapes other than Chardonnay or Pinot Noir.
In Amynteo located in the rugged, mountainous region of Western Macedonia, and in Naoussa in Central Macedonia, Xinomavro is referred to as the “Barolo of Greece,” because of its similarity to Nebbiolo. Here the wine displays bold tannins and flavors of dark cherries, licorice, allspice, and sometimes tomato, as well as olive and herb.
In Zitsa in northwestern Epirus, the focus is on sparkling wines made with delicate, fruity Debina—a white grape with apple, pear, and peach notes. However, it’s also used for the production of elegant, dry white wines.
Malagousia—an ancient, aromatic white grape—is grown in Central Macedonia vineyards near Thessaloniki. At Domaine Gerovassiliou, just a few kilometers southwest, the Malagousia grape was rescued from extinction in 1983 by Vangelis Gerovassiliou who noted its potential, and with the help of Aristotle University, vinified it by planting it in an ecosystem ideally suited to its growth.
The Aegean Islands
When thinking of Greece, these wildly popular tourist islands are where you’d most likely imagine yourself, perhaps sitting in a taverna sipping wine with a view of the Aegean’s blue skies and water as far as the eye can see.
Santorini, one of the most breathtaking islands in the world, is known for its sunset views of the sea surrounded by the caldera—the ancient volcanic crater that forms its rim. Santorini’s Assyrtiko is Greece’s most popular white wine. Volcanic soil and night mists wafting in from the caldera provide the wines with crisp acidity. Known for its silky texture and flintiness, it has luscious notes of lemon and passion fruit.
Because of the island’s high winds, grapevines are trained to grow into a kouloura—a circle close to the ground resembling a basket. The grapes grow in the center, where they are protected from winds and hot sun.
The honeyed Nykteri, another style of Assyrtiko, gets its name from the Greek word for night (nychta). Traditionally grapes were harvested at night when temperatures were lower assuring stable sugar levels. Nykteri is always oaked, resulting in mouthwatering notes of creamy lemon brulée, pineapple, and piecrust. Yet it still displays the same zestful acidity as Assyrtiko.
Vinsanto, Santorini’s lip-smacking “nectar of the gods,” is a sweet wine comprised of a blend of Assrytiko, Aidani, and Athiri grapes that has notes of raisin and dried apricot. Vinsanto is not to be confused with Tuscany’s Vin Santo—the dessert wine often made with Trebbiano and Malvasia.
Samos is likely the origin of Muscat Blanc, grown in the island’s mountainous areas. Though it is made in styles from dry to sweet, the most popular is the golden-hued dessert wine, Vin Doux. Think of a delectable mouth explosion of lychee, apricot jam, ripe melon, butterscotch, and flowers. Vin Doux is Samos’s most popular wine and boasts to be number one in sales in Greece’s sweet wine category.
Lemnos is home to Limnio, the ancient, indigenous red grape purported to be around since the time of Aristotle. It produces herbaceous wines with distinct minerality. Limnio is also grown in Northern Greece where it may be blended with Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, thus being similar to a Bordeaux blend.
Paros’ wind-swept, sun-scorched vineyards primarily grow Mandalaria, a red grape producing the island’s most well-known wine. It’s also the grape of the notable Rhodes red. The wine is an extraordinarily dark red color, medium-bodied with notes of leather and hefty tannins. It is often used in blends with Kotsifali.
Crete, Greece’s southernmost island, has one of the warmest climates, but its mountainous terrain helps to shield it from hot winds that blow in from North Africa. Vidiano, a dry, white wine with notes of melon, pear, and red apple is the island’s most popular varietal. Cretan reds are Kotsifali and Mandilaria. Kotsifali has high-alcohol content and is usually blended with Mandilaria to make a more well-rounded wine, with Kotsifali lending characteristics of spice and red berries, and Mandilaria lending color and structure.
Central Greece, Attica, and Thessaly
Central Greece includes Attica and Thessaly and is divided by the Agrafa and Pindus mountains, known as the spine of Greece, extending south to Athens. The landscape is often harsh and forbidding, with impassable gorges and surrounding deep forests.
In Central Greece’s northern part, mostly red wine grapes are grown, including Xinomavro and Limniona. Xinomavro is grown in Rapsani, in the foothills of Mount Olympus, the home of the Greek gods in Greek mythology. It’s often blended with Krasato, a deep, red wine high in alcohol. The area has been referred to as the Rhone of Greece.
Limniona from Thessaly is among the rare red varieties that yield dense, rich wines, high in acidity without being overpowering. The wine has a deep, vibrant red color, with rich aromas of dark fruit, spice, and a deep earthiness.
Near Athens in Attica, the climate changes to hotter and drier. Savatiano, a white grape, is the most planted grape in the area. Due to Savatiano’s low acidity, it is commonly blended with Roditis and Assyrtiko. It’s the grape that has been most maligned as the main grape in Retsina, Greece’s famous resinous wine, but attitudes are slowly changing toward Savatiano. If kept to low yields and harvested earlier, Savatiano produces intense, delicious dry wines with acidity akin to Chablis, with herbaceous and fruity notes of honeydew, green apple, and lime. However, it’s unlikely it will ever rival Assyrtiko as the country’s favorite white wine.
Southern Greece includes Peloponnese. It has a mild, Mediterranean climate with rainy winters. The only exception is the more highly elevated cities such as Tripoli, which experience cooler temperatures.
In northern Peloponnese sweet wine similar to port is produced with Mavrodaphne black grapes (the name means black laurel), grown in vineyards around Pátras. It has notes of velvety chocolate, coffee, and dried fruits.
Agiorgitiko (also known as Saint George’s grape) has traditionally been grown in the Nemea region, in the heart of the Peloponnese, where it’s the only wine grape allowed to be grown. It’s a lush, full-bodied tannic red with notes of raspberry, plum, and black currant.
Agiorgitiko is made in a fruity style resembling Merlot, with a bit more spiciness. Believed to be one of Greece’s oldest varieties, grown for 4000 years in Nemea, it’s been historically associated with the half-god Heracles (Hercules in Roman mythology). Therefore Nemea wine is often called the “Blood of Heracles.” Deep tropical pink rosés are produced here as well.
You’ll also find an abundance of aromatic white wines, such as Moschofilero, grown near the city of Tripoli in central Peloponnese. This dry white wine features notes of lemon, peach, tangerine, and blossoms. Lovers of Moscato d’Asti should try Moscofilero.
The area is also becoming more focused on the white wines, Roditis and Robola. Roditis is a pink grape that produces a food-friendly, high-acid wine. It’s found throughout the Peloponnese, and is Greece’s second most planted grape after Savatiano. Robola (not to be confused with Italy’s Ribbola Gialla) has notes of sweet lemon and pineapple with a hint of lime.
On the temperate Ionian Islands, off the coast of Western Greece, Mavrodaphne is found especially on Cephalonia. Robola thrives extremely well on all seven of the Ionian islands, thanks to the weather and soil structure. Sea breezes provide the necessary moisture and cooling during hot summers.
Robola produces delicious wines on Corfu, with the Theotoky Estate growing an excellent Robola which was awarded the bronze medal at the 2018 Global Wine Awards in Las Vegas.
With more than 30 appellations, 120 regions, and 300 native grape varietals, this roundup is just a small part of what to know about Greek wines. But you can bet the future of Greece’s wine industry is going to be yet another heroic odyssey, as they export their wines around the world—again.