Our Senior Wine Editor traverses Greece, drinking all its wine, and discovers a healthy new vintner culture
The most interesting thing about the truly delicious wines of Greece is not the wine itself. Compared to the awe-inspiring diversity of the land, the freshness of the food, the way the sun warms the landscape, and the country’s vast history, it’s hard to pay close attention to the wine in your glass, no matter how amazing it is. Greece is one of the world’s great cultures and it’s difficult not to be overawed by everything you encounter.
Let’s be honest, who cares what Assyrtiko tastes like when you’re on a boat circling Santorini? Luckily, I’m a professional and was paying attention so you don’t have to. The Assyrtiko was very, very good.
Despite the relatively small size of the country, it takes time and effort to get around the rugged mountains, jagged coastline and churning sea. There is no such thing as a quick trip unless you take short flights around the country from Athens.
This dynamic geography isolates the corners of the mainland and the multiple island groups separated by deep blue sea. This has created pockets of subcultures where people have their own unique characters, forged over centuries through the rise and fall of empires. You can see the Balkan influence in northern Greece, the rose-colored cheeks and distinct jawline of the Cephalonians from their island in the Ionian Sea, and the unique mix of Middle Eastern and North African cultures integrated into the island peoples of the Aegean.
No place demonstrates these influences more than the island of Crete, where port towns cater to ships crisscrossing the Mediterranean. A one-hour flight from Athens deposits you in Heraklion, a small city centrally located on the island. Most people drive west from here towards the more scenic parts of western Crete, peppered with white sandy beaches and coastal towns like Chaniá, famous for its Ventian-style harbor built in the 14th century. Instead, we head towards the isolated eastern corner of the island to Sitia, a sleepy port town with a small local population, to visit Yiannis Economou – one of Greece’s most intriguing wine producers.
We get our bearings by exploring the stunning rocky coastline. After hours of marveling at the mountains seeming to tumble into the sea, we come upon a fork in the road where an open-air hut with a thatch straw roof stands alone. It is the only structure in the area with signs of life during the offseason. Despite barren shelves with nothing for sale, we saw four men sitting inside. We decided to approach hoping they had a few bottles of water for sale. Their olive brown skin was proof they worked in the sun, and they each wore military attire, worn-in button down shirts, and rugged footwear.
As we asked about water one of the men smiled through lips curled around a lit cigarette and instead waved us in to join them for a drink and some food. They pulled up chairs and gave us water, but not without a small snack, cigarettes, and shot glasses filled with Raki (the local grappa also known as Tsipouro on the mainland).
Soon the table filled with fruits and vegetables pulled from the gardens behind the hut, and a flavorful stew of snails, fennel, and fava beans was suddenly warmed up on the camping stove. As we ate we told tales about our origins and travels, in our limited Greek and their broken English. As the conversation flowed so too did the Raki. We were told there is a Greek word for this “love of strangers” and “eagerness to show hospitality” — philoxenia. Our two-hour lunch was due to an abundance of this kindred spirit.
When we arrived at our destination, Domaine Economou, we asked Yiannis if he knew the men who took us in for lunch. In this small community he of course knew who they were. We asked if we could send them a case of his wine as a thank you, but he shook his head and said that payment of any kind was unnecessary. They were happy to host us, our gratitude was enough.
We spent the rest of the afternoon drinking his excellent wines, starting with a red wine bottled as “Sitia”, the name of the region, that’s made from the local grape, Liatiko. It is from the 2004 vintage and aged for 12 years before release. Spiced, refined, and impossibly fresh for a wine with such age it electrifies the palate as it floods your tastebuds. Though it is uncommon to see wines aged for this long in Greece, he makes it a point to sell his wines only after they have rested for extended periods of time. Similarly a long aged wine his Sitia white is a mix of two local grapes, Vilana and Thrapsathiri. The 1999 is the wine on the table and is as dynamic as the red wine. The waxy, weighted texture is balanced with a stony, herbal, and nutty character that lingers long after the wine has been tasted. These wines were just two of the wines we tasted that have developed over a decade in the bottle. They are all very different from year to year yet each one is as memorable as another.
No matter what kind of wine comes from Greece it’s impossible to miss the warmth of the sun. The same hot sun that glistens off the vivid blue waters also bakes the green rolling hills of spring and turns them into crispy brown brush by mid-summer. The wines reflect this with a tongue-coating texture that even in the most refreshing and light whites can feel borderline creamy.
As Jerome Binda, proprietor of Domaine Kalathas on the island of Tinos, said to me, “soon it will be Africa hot in this part of the world.” Not exactly the climate one would think to produce great wine. But as is often the case, there are exceptions.
As a child growing up in Paris, Binda spent summers with his family on Tinos. The island is a short ferry ride from Athens and is very quiet compared to the better known Cycladic tourist destinations like Mykonos and Santorini. But quiet has its advantages. Over time he tired of the city and yearned for a life closer to nature. He had a family of his own and they visited Tinos in the summer for a week, which became two weeks the following year, then a full month the year after that. Finally they relocated to the island.
The decision proved fruitful when Binda stumbled across a fascinating piece of land geologically unlike its surroundings. While the the rest of the island is rocky coastline, sandy beaches, or grass covered highlands, his vines are planted on a landscape that can only be described as “moon-like”. The area is rocky, gravelly and covered with massive grey boulders made of granite. He chose a plot high on a steep cliffside facing north, away from the sun, that is completely exposed to cool sea winds. He also conceptualized, and with local stonemasons built, a series of stone buildings into the side of the slopes in the hopes of creating a wine hotel, where people can come to stay, drink his wine, and enjoy the views while on vacation. Although not a hotel, at least not yet, he does have four self-sufficient houses you can rent in the middle of the vineyards.
Binda works with local island varieties that are almost completely unknown outside of Tinos. It is a blessing and a curse to work with grapes like Aspro Potamisi, Koumariano, and Kondura. Without a clear set of rules on how to make great Tinian wine, Binda relies on his French origins. While his wines retain a distinctly Greek fingerprint they also reflect French viticultural heritage. Case in point, he has planted some Syrah and Serine, two red grapes sourced from Cote-Rotie in the Rhone Valley. With them, he blends in some local Mandilaria to make a fresh red wine best served chilled and appropriately named “Elá! Le Français”.
He has endeared himself to the local Tinian elders and farmers, keepers of local winemaking heritage, and they offer friendship and support as well as advice on grape growing. With the help of what seems to be everyone on Tinos who has ever touched a vine, he is the first person to seriously export natural wines off the island. No small feat considering he’s been working the land for just seven years.
Luckily for Greece there are many places where cooling winds are so constant that sea breezes and chill mountain air weave their way through the grapevines during the hot summers. You feel these relieving winds on the volcanic island of Santorini, atop the high Ziros plateau in eastern Crete, or in Macedonian Greece in the foothills of the mountainous border with Bulgaria. The winds cool the temperature just enough to accentuate a wine’s freshness, amplifying the typical floral and herbal aromas that add dimension to the wine but offsetting the summer sun.
One particularly magical place to experience this is Domaine Nerantzi. Nerantzi is a relatively new producer located in Serres, a winemaking area in Macedonia near the border of Thrace. Besides being a source of great wine it is a place of historical importance. Their vineyard’s soil is filled with broken pieces of ancient clay pottery and off in the distance you can see where Aristotle once lived and wrote.
The proprietor, Nerantzi Mitropoulos, is as obsessed with grape growing as he is with quoting Greek philosophy and discussing ancient history. He is a former wrestling coach for the national team and runs the winery with his daughter Evanthia, a trained oenologist with a French winemaking degree. He makes the hearty, nuanced red wines of the estate while she makes the elegant and precise white wines.
The origins of the project begin began by solving a mystery. While exploring the local vines of the area, Nerantzi came across a grape variety unidentified in any books or documents on Greek wine grapes. It was anonymous to everyone except local elders who remembered it as Koniaros.
Nerantzi decided to have it DNA tested. He sent samples to France where results proved it to be a unique variety, otherwise unknown. Excited, Nerantzi started experimenting with the grape. After a few successful vintages he was convinced there was a future in reviving this variety and built the winery. Today the domaine is certified organic and they grow a mix of local Greek grape varieties and a few French varieties, in some cases mixing them together in certain wines.
They chose their property amidst a swath of well manicured farmland, but an area noticeably absent of wineries. Their modern chateau lies near the foothills of Mount Menoikio with distant views of the sea. The sun is already beating down on the land on a sunny afternoon in March.
By the middle of summer it’s far more intense. While standing in the vineyards one can feel the cool air rushing down the mountain from one side while the soft sea breeze is driven across the low rolling hills from the other.That freshness is expressed in the aromatic wines of the domaine.
These modern day winemakers are part of a larger movement to revitalize the Greek wine industry. In Greece, people are leaving the cities for the countryside, to work in fields or rural communities. In wine terms this is a renaissance, fueled with renewed passion and pride.
Take the long history of the locally infamous wine infused with pine resin. Retsina can be made anywhere in the country and quality depends on place and producer. Historically it was so pervasive that there wasn’t a taverna in Greece that didn’t stock this local speciality. High demand allowed poor versions to be sold under the same moniker as the well made ones. Soon the low quality Retsinas, made quickly and cheaply by infusing the resin flavor directly into the wine, overwhelmed the better, truer versions.
Over time this led to a deserved bad reputation and even today Retsina is made in mass quantities and, on average, remains a rough wine. But a few quality-minded producers are hoping to give it a makeover.
Kamara Estate, a family run operation, is one winery redefining Retsina. Located just outside of Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city, they make all of their wine with great care. They abstain from factory chemical treatments in their vineyards and employ minimal intervention methods in the winemaking process for all their wines — red, white, rosé, and natural sparkling.
When it comes to Retsina they source the resin from a particular type of tree, the Aleppo Pine grown on the island of Evia, which yields a cleaner, fresher resin. The resulting wine is lightly piney, but isn’t sticky or thick, so remains citrusy, fresh, and clean.
If one producer can revitalize a style of wine with as much of a deteriorated image as Retsina, then anything is possible.