While no match for the fickle flip of fashion rags like Vogue, nevertheless, wine publications have a tendency to declare a new “wine darling” seemingly every year. From Gruner Veltliner to the rebirth of Riesling, or the rise of Spain to the fall of Australia, wine fashions ebb and flow with the tide of sommelier fancy and corporate marketing. For the last few months, I’ve been noting that more and more publications have been talking about Greece. So, when the “All About Greek Wines” tour (sponsored by thirty-one producers to promote Greek wines in North America) came to San Francisco in April, the time seemed ripe to check out what the latest media starlet had to offer.
Not really knowing what to expect (Greek wines have yet to shoulder aside New Zealand bottles in my wine fridge), I ventured out to the tasting with an open mind. Armed only with an old excerpt from Jancis Robinson’s Vines, Grapes, and Wines, tersely describing Greece’s indigenous grapes, I intrepidly strode up to the first producers table. I even ignored the fact that the bottles on the table had old-fashioned labels (unchanged since the 1950’s) and were entirely in unreadable Greek--how bad could it be?
What I should have been asking myself was how good can they be? And they were good. That first table featured the wines of Katogi-Strofilia, located in Central Greece. From their exciting Traminer, smelling of crushed Greek herbs whipped with marigolds, to their minerally Agiorgitiko and Cabernet Sauvignon blend, the wines were unique and sumptuous. I didn’t even mind their traditional labels; they seemed fitting for wines made of primarily indigenous grapes.
But Greece is pushing to be modern; in recent years well-known grapes have pushed aside some native plantings. Wines made from so-called international grape varieties, like Chateau Nico Lazaridi’s Cabernet Sauvignon blend, were good (and made in an easy-to-like fruit focused style), but nothing as compelling as those from the native grapes recent EU regulations have sought to protect.
Greece’s native grapes are many (and hard to pronounce!) From Athiri to Vilana in whites, to the pink skinned Roditis, to the deeply colored red Mavrotragano, Greece offers a proverbial palette of flavors and textures. But what grape will spearhead regional recognition for sommeliers and consumers alike? When asked, Tasso Ballas, Commercial Director for Domaine Evharis confidently said “Agiorgitiko!” (I had great fun figuring out how to say this – check out their website for an audio example.) As for white, Assyrtiko was first to cross his lips. When pushed further he explained that these two were the most flexible (read: oak friendly) and respected. His wineries’ Assyrtiko 2005 saw four months oak aging, crafting a creamy barrel-influenced white with surprising citrus, minerals and herbs that bust out on the finish. Like Bordeaux Blanc mated with a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc: uniquely tasty.
Another highlight were the Assyrtiko wines of Domaine Sigalas, whose winery is located near Oia, Santorini. Along with evoking images of blue Aegean seas and white domed roofs, the wines were full of perfume, minerals, and a soft, pervasive acidity. They even produced a sweet wine, Vinsanto, which was quite refreshing (named vinSANTO meaning from Santorini—no relation to the Italian version.)
I learned a lot from the Road Show. For one thing, the hard-to-pronounce grapes of the region were expressive and enjoyable. And another, that the Greeks are very much interested in joining their European brethren in tapping into the burgeoning US market, and are endeavoring to do it marketing their own brand of native grapes. I won’t be surprised if the next time I step foot into a new, hot restaurant, I will hear a sommelier talking up an Agiorgitiko at the bar or table. This latest “wine darling” is only beginning to strut its stuff, and people are watching.