Greek wine is unique, fascinating and currently fast evolving. The new bastions of Greek winemaking and viticulture are students and beneficiaries of a global wine community. Those who are keen to share their knowledge and those too who are looking to make wines that are both technically correct and tantalising to drink. The two do not have to be mutually exclusive.
Plenty have worked abroad mastering the “international” lexicon of grapes from Chardonnay to Sangiovese of which local renditions are being consumed with zeal by Greek wine connoisseurs. However it is Greece’s wealth of native varietals which gives them their competitive edge globally. Grapes which have individual character, thousands of years of history and many of which are drought and heat resistant. The latter speaking towards the growing concern of global warming in our modern world. Refreshingly, the best Greek winemakers admit that they are still learning the depth and adaptability of these local varieties, taking note with each vintage and each of their successes and failures. I believe it’s this curiosity and self effacing nature that is what is driving the quality of these wines up so quickly.
To generalise, Greek wines made from native grape varietals tend to be lower in alcohol, have bright acidity and don’t shy away from an touch of phenolic or tannic grip, making them a great accompaniment with food. This is not a coincidence. Traditionally wine was always consumed with a meal and a meal would consist of many small dishes of different weight and flavour profiles. The wines served needed to compliment a variety of dishes and cleanse the palate to make way for more delicious morsels. So varieties and wines favoured were those which would easily match the Greek style of eating and over time they have been romantically and historically linked to the “Mediterranean diet”.
But what is the Mediterranean diet? It has been argued that it is largely based on the sort of daily diet you’d find on the island of Crete, including lots of small meals with a dominance of vegetables, grains and olive oil. Crete is the largest and most southerly of the Greek islands. It has vast array of terrain in such a small space, home to three Mountain Ranges, some of which are capped with snow throughout the year. These peaks fall into gorges, valleys, lakes and rivers tumbling down to the warm waters of the Aegean. It is a land rich in flora and fauna from alpine wild greens, to tropical bananas and you can find wheat, snails, goat, pig and seafood all being prepared in Cretan kitchens. One of the more extreme statistics is that Cretans consumed three times as much olive oil per capita than the rest of Greece.
On the other end of the Greece’s geographical limits, you will find the continental plateaus and mountains sharing land borders with five countries; Albania, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Bulgaria & Turkey. As with the rest of Europe, the modern day borders are relatively recent, having settled after thousands of years of political & religious shift often accented violently by war. Here you will find forests where mushrooms grow in abundance and bears once roamed the hills. These mountain are also dotted with wild growing herbs impacting on cuisine and beliefs. There are few areas with enough grazing land for cattle seeing the preferred meats being pork, goat, and lamb. The fertilised plains allow for crops such as wheat again impacting on the cuisine. You will find vegetables like pumpkins, leeks and cabbages, in fact you could also find Dolmades wrapped in cabbage leaves and made of pork rather than the vine leaf as used further south. Meals were generally heartier in the cooler regions where the practice of roasting whole beasts was more common and also the practise of conserving produce of the summer in order to keep up supply through the winter.
The local wine grapes found in Greece are as diverse as the islands and landscape, totalling a few hundred unique varieties which have adapted to their patch of land over time and are generally perfect foils to the local delicacies. One of the side effects of having a culture which has used wine more of an everyday item, a conduit to a meal rather than the luxury item it has become in other cultures is that many didn’t realise the true heights Greek wine could attain. The adaptability it has across many cultures cuisines. Sure the way the Greeks cooked and ate had an effect on the wines they consumed, but it is the new wave of Greek wine which takes these grapes and applies modern techniques and international palates to the process. Resulting in finely tuned wines which can perfectly matched to fine dining dishes, bounce off the chilli kick of a thai larb and bring out the best in sushi.
In Australia, you can find good Greek wine in a plethora of establishments from Thai (Cookie, Melbourne), Chinese (China Doll, Sydney), fine dining (Vue de Monde & Attica, Melbourne. Sepia & Rockpool 1989, Sydney) to many of the countries best wine bars (Lallah Rookh, Perth. Love Tilly Devine & Wine Library, Sydney. To Persillade & City Wine Shop in Melbourne).
Over the coming months I aim to highlight the versatility of Greek wine so please stay tuned…….