Tuesday, July 5, 2011

GREECE: New after 6000 Years!

If a God is wearing grapes in his crown, they must be valuable.  In fact, Greece was once the most important wine grape growing culture in antiquity. Among the oldest wine producing cultures in the world, Greece has been in the news quite a lot lately, not for wine, but for its current epic battles with yet another economic crisis. Their old world culture was responsible for the organized spread of the vine far from its sunny and semi-mountainous homeland, to distant places like France and the Danube. Greece today has among the smallest average vineyard acreage in Europe, with its wine regions geographically fragmented and complex, because only about 20% of its landscape is suitable for agriculture. In its dry, arid climate, some of the best new vineyards face North, in sub-mountainous elevations, to minimize the ravages of its harsh sun-baked environment. And yet, economic hardships aside in this hard land, grape growing has persisted and been synonymous with the culture of Greece for more than 6000 years!

The mountainous northern Greece regions of Macedonia and Trace sit at the crossroads of human development, between the Aegean and the Balkans, as well as across a diagonal staircase of geologic zones. Following the Second Balkins War(1913), this autonomous region became part of modern Greece, only to see the unfolding of decades of even more conflicts. These ethnic regions produce some of the countries best reds, and among its most famous are native, high-acid red producers of native grape Xinomavro in the Naoussa and Goumenissa zones. Crisp whites and sparkling wines are found here too, as a rose-skinned grape, Roditis, and the multi-purpose Assyritiko are also widely planted. Heading south to the nation's breadbasket, Thessaly(Thessalia), on the south-facing slate-rich slopes of Mount Olympos, produces AOC Rapsani, perhaps the most famous wine in Greece from a Xinomavro blend.

Central Greece(Sterea Ellada) is known as the home of Retsina, a legendary resinated wine from the widely planted Savatiano white grape.This region produces almost 30% of the countries annual wine output. A pillar of the new Greek wine revival, indigenous and international grape varieties are cultivated at the historic Boutari-Matsa estate outside of Athens, producing world class, award-winning wines. There is international recognition as well in the western Ionian Islands, where Cephalonia AOC is most widely recognized for quality production of sweet wines from native Rabola, Mavrodaphnine(Mavrodaphne) and Muscat grapes.

In the Peloponesse, red Aghiorgitiko, grown in the 16 villages of Nemea AOC, is considered southern Greece's best grape; and in Patras AOC there are quality dry whites from native Roditis, sweet wines from Muscats and a fortified sweet wine from the red Mavrodaphne. White wines, both dry and sweet, dominate southern Greece, as they do in the Aegean Islands. Although Crete was quite prominent in wines ancient history, today it is the islands of Rhodes, Santorini, and Samos that are making superior quality wines, notably from widely planted,  fruity Assyritiko and Muscat varieties.

There are more than 350 native grape varieties across the eight(8) wine regions of Greece, but only six(6) of those varieties produce about 90% of Greek wine. Most important among widely planted white wine varietals are Assyritiko of Santorini, Roditis of Patra, and Savatiano of Attiki(Central Greece). Red grapes predominate in the north of this white wine country, notably Agioritiko(Aghiorgitiko) of Nemea, Xinomavro of Macedonia, and Mandilaria(Amorgiano) of the Aegean, although Mavrodaphne is gaining acreage.
Crete Nostos Vineyard

The quality wines of Greece have benefited greatly from joining the E.U. and adopting the standards of a recognized appellation system modeled after the French AOC. Here assured origins are designated as Controlled Appellation of Origin: O.P.E., or the superior O.P.A.P. Typical regional wines of distinction may be labeled, as in the French system, Vin de Pays, or Topikos Oinos. The largest Greek production categories are for simple table wines, Epitrapezios Oinos, as well as the EU recognized traditional wine, Retsina. Due to the many restrictions of the higher quality wine classifications, notable fine producers of international varieties or native/international blends have successfully labeled their wines Topikos Oinos.
Porto Carras Portfolio

Most Greek wine stays in Greece, with only about 10% exported. But the current economic crisis has crippled homeland sales, as the SF Chronicle reports that wine sales are down 40% in last 12 months. For those of us who are seeking out Greek wines, there has been a history of ethnic distribution(restaurants & tavernas) and little product education for non-ethnic consumers. Even as Greek wines were beginning to win international wine competitions in the 1990's, and a new wave of Greek winemakers were modernizing their production, most of us new nothing about the wines from Greece. It seems the time is now for the new wines of Greece.  As this old world producer looks for other international channels to market its improving quality wines, many of us are hoping to find in the wines of Greece something valuable.  It only took about 3000 years!  
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