Greece’s winemakers enhance organization and quality to revive a languishing industry

SANTORINI – Dionysos, the Greek god of wine, can smile again. For years, even centuries, turpentine-tasting retsina and rough taverna plonk were all the nation that taught Europe how to make and enjoy the gods’ favorite drink had to offer. In less than two decades, a new generation of winemakers have turned around the languishing industry, blending modern techniques with traditional local grapes, some traced back to antiquity, to make wines worthy of divine palates. But they admit they forgot to tell the world about the revival and are hoping that August’s Athens Olympics will at last spread the news. «First came the quality revolution, now organization is trying to catch up,» says Paris Sigalas, a former maths teacher who now devotes his time to his 13-year-old Santorini winery. Here, near the island’s spectacular village of Oia which clings to a volcanic cliff, electronically steered presses and air-conditioned cellars meet Assyrtiko, a local grape believed to have grown on the island ever since a volcanic eruption 3,500 years ago covered it with lava, ash and pumice. Water is so scarce and winds so strong that generations of local growers have been arranging the vines in basket-like wreaths close to the ground to help them retain moisture and survive sweltering summers. From this combination of unique soil, the harshest imaginable growing conditions and tough local grapes, half a dozen or so local winemakers conjure intense, bone-dry whites or trademark vinsanto dessert wines made from sun-dried grapes. Santorini’s stunning scenery makes it a major tourist destination and helps the local wines to win international recognition. Few German, British or American consumers have likely heard about Naoussa, a region in northern Greece where top makers produce potent reds from the dark, tannic Xinomavro. And what about Aghiorghitiko, Greece’s noble grape grown on lush Peloponnesian hills around Nemea, the mythic site of Hercules’ first labor, that produces rich, velvety reds? The exotic ring of the likes of Moschofilero, Robola, Rodithis and Athiri is both challenge and promise, says Bordeaux-educated wine consultant Sofia Perpera. Clean flavors «Greece has around 300 indigenous varieties that are unique and this is what sommeliers and customers want.» With clean flavors that make them good companions to food, Greek wines are poised to cash in as consumers crave fresh tastes, she says. And as Greek winemakers still punch below their weight, even top wines rarely fetch over $25 a bottle, a steal compared with other wines of comparable quality. Perpera, who founded an Internet joint venture of 16 of Greece’s leading winemakers dedicated to promoting quality Greek wine in North America, says the Athens Olympics in August should help to whet consumers’ appetites for everything «made in Greece.» Appropriately, a recent seminar held by the winemakers in Brussels was called «Greek Wine Olympics Symposium.» But past mistakes, when exports went straight to bottom shelves at discount supermarkets, mean «quality Greek wine» is still a new concept. «Greek wine has been selling in Germany but it was ‘Gastarbeiter’ wine, same in the United States,» says Stelios Boutaris, chief executive of Kyr-Yianni winery in the Naoussa region founded by his father Yiannis, a key figure in Greece’s wine renaissance. «Some 14 million tourists visit Greece every year, stay at all-inclusive hotels and drink the worst possible wine,» he adds. Ranked by production, Greece, with annual output of around 4 million hectolitres, ranks among Europe’s midsized producers alongside Portugal, Austria or Bulgaria and winemakers believe only high-quality output can put it in the top league of the world’s winemaking nations. Low yields, manual labor, small vineyards and tough soils all make it impossible to compete with the huge, mechanized «new world» vineyards in Argentina, Australia or New Zealand, but also make for great wines, they say. «The new strategy is to focus on top-quality, indigenous grapes and a different, modern image of Greece,» said Boutaris. «We are all very optimistic that the Olympics will show the modern side of Greece and put us on the map, because it is not on the map yet.»

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