Few wines seem quite so unfamiliar and mystifying to Americans as those from Greece.
It’s no mystery why they are unfamiliar. Greek wines are fairly new to the global marketplace, particularly the red wines.
Given that Greece is one of the most ancient wine-producing cultures, that seems like a bit of a paradox. But as historic wine-producing countries around the world have learned, local traditions of making and enjoying wines are not enough to succeed in the worldwide wine trade.
Producers must develop systems of production and distribution that guarantee virtually impeccable quality halfway around the world before they can even hope to find a foreign clientele curious enough to buy their wines. Once they do, they can begin the perhaps equally arduous process of education and marketing in hopes of creating demand.
That’s where Greece is right now. Over the last third of the 20th century, a Greek wine industry arose that was focused on high quality and the ability to sell bottles internationally.
Just as important, many of the best producers are concentrating on indigenous grapes rather than trying their hand at overly familiar international varieties and styles, though some of that is happening as well.
But many consumers seem as if they are not ready to make the leap to these Greek wines, particularly the reds, which for the most part are newer to the American marketplace than the whites. Why is that? Wine School readers who have been drinking Greek reds over the last month had a few theories.
“Even though Greek wine quality has come a long way in the past 20 years or so, it’s still an educational uphill battle,” said TLeaf of Denver. “How to get the American palate to taste past the notions of ouzo and retsina?”
Maybe I’m naïve, but I don’t believe that most American wine consumers are stymied by memories of ouzo, an anise spirit that was often handed out liberally in shtick-heavy Greek restaurants after meals.
Nor do I think they confuse other Greek wines with retsina, a traditional wine flavored with the sap of the Aleppo pine, which tourist manuals over generations have warned people to avoid. (Good retsina, on the other hand, is a beautiful thing.)
No, I don’t think it’s fear so much as unfamiliarity, as a few readers suggested, though admittedly, what separates these feelings can sometimes be a fine distinction.
“Being new to Greek reds, I do find their names distractingly complicated,” said Shweta of Michigan. And, referring to a Greek grape, Bunk McNulty of Northampton, Massachusetts, (a fine alias derived from “The Wire,” I hope) said, “Agiorghtiko doesn’t exactly roll off the American tongue.”
Possibly, with an added complication: Greek words must be transliterated from the Greek alphabet into the English alphabet. This does not happen systematically, so most Greek grapes have multiple spellings in English. Unlike Bunk McNulty, for example, I would use the spelling “agiorgitiko” which is preferred by the authoritative book “Wine Grapes,” rather than the alternative spelling “agiorghtiko.”
Here at Wine School, we are keenly aware of the subtle messages conveyed by words and language, and the discomfort that can come when facing something new. Wine is difficult and intimidating enough in any language. Throw in a different alphabet, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed.
This ought to be expected, and it speaks to the important role restaurants and sommeliers play in familiarizing the public with new and different wines. In my introductory article on Greek reds, I alluded to the scant few opportunities to learn about Greek wines, partly because few restaurants are around to play a significant educational role, just as the rarity of German and Austrian restaurants does not help Americans feel more comfortable with Germanic wines.
One wine, grüner veltliner, is an exception to this notion. At the turn of the 21st century, grüner was virtually unknown to Americans, yet it swiftly became a popular restaurant wine. How did that happen? Sommeliers embraced it, transcending national boundaries. American restaurants began serving it by the glass, with bartenders and waiters ready to offer tableside reassurance to the hesitant.
I don’t expect that to happen with Greek reds. It will be a long haul with many baby steps, including the first one, simply trying the wines because they have so much to offer. As usual, I suggested three bottles to drink over the course of the last month.
They were: Domaine Glinavos Ioannina Vlahiko 2018, Argatia Macedonia Haroula 2018 and Kir-Yianni Naoussa Xinomavro Ramnista 2017.
If the language seems overly challenging, I would urge patience. The beauty of good wine is its ability to transport you to different places and cultures, sometimes commonplace, sometimes entirely new. Cozy and familiar is wonderful, but so is the adventure of the unknown.
If people know much about Greek geography at all, it’s the area around Athens and the islands, where white wines predominate. The leading areas for reds are in the less-familiar northern parts of the country like Macedonia, where the Argatia comes from, and Naoussa, a prime red-wine region within Macedonia, where Kir-Yianni is situated. Xinomavro is the most important red grape in the region.
Ioannina in northwest Greece, within the larger Epirus region, is the home of Domaine Glinavos. The wine we tasted was made of vlahiko with a smaller amount of bekari, both local grapes.
The Glinavos was bright and energetic, with dark, savory flavors combined with an apple freshness. It was juicy and spicy, not particularly tannic but with a good structure that came from lively acidity.
Shweta of Michigan, by the way, was frustrated at not being able to find a proper pronunciation guide to vlahiko. It’s VLAH-hee-coh, with the second syllable practically elided.
The Argatia Haroula, made largely of xinomavro with small amounts of two lesser-known indigenous grapes blended in, negoska and mavrodafni, was likewise bright and lively, with the flavors of red and dark fruits as well as licorice, a signature flavor of xinomavro.
The Kir-Yianni Ramnista was made entirely of xinomavro. It seemed a little more polished than the other two bottles, having been aged in oak barrels, and was more powerful at 14.5% alcohol as against 12% for the Glinavos and 13.5% for the Argatia.
It was smooth with fine tannins and deep flavors of licorice, dark fruits and menthol. Many people, like Steven Kolpan of Woodstock, New York, a longtime wine educator, liken xinomavro to nebbiolo. This bottle made the resemblance clear.
Nobody familiar with the canon of modern, dry red wines would find anything surprising in these bottles. They are distinctive in that they faithfully express their places of origin, through the choice of grapes and other elements of the terroir, but the differences with, say, French or Italian reds, are subtle and pleasing.
They do require explanation, though. The rise of Greek wines outside Greece will depend largely on what people in the wine trade call “hand sells,” direct encounters between authorities who can educate and curious consumers willing to hear them out.
Readers largely enjoyed these wines, though VSB of San Francisco did not like the Glinavos, which he found thin and sour. But he did find a Troupis agiorgitiko that he liked. Nonetheless, as VSB predicted, other readers raved about the Glinavos.
“I really loved this wine,” said Martina Mirandola Mullen of New York. “It was light and complex with fine tannins that would make it pair well with fish or meat.”
Peter of Philadelphia called the Glinavos “an excellent wine for the right meal,” by which he meant any hearty Greek dish.
Rachel Semmons of Tampa, Florida, enjoyed both the Glinavos and the Argatia Haroula. She said she had tried several Greek wines that were disappointing, which had colored her view and would continue to influence her.
“These bottles were encouraging, but lack of availability and a lingering concern about reliability make it more likely that we won’t be drinking a ton of Greek wines in the future,” she said.
In hopes of making the search a little easier, I highly recommend looking for wines brought in by reliable importers, including those you may be familiar with already as well as Greek wine specialists, like DNS Wines, Eklektikon and Diamond Wine Importers.
If you try more Greek wines, whether reds or whites, and find yourself intrigued, I highly recommend a book, “The Wines of Greece” (Infinite Ideas, 2018) by Konstantinos Lazarakis, to learn more about the grapes, the geography, the people and the culture responsible for producing them.
It’s one thing to experiment in restaurants and learn from sommeliers. But sometimes you need to take matters into your own hands.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.