Greece, as we have mentioned, has been producing wine for a long time, but in some way, it has not. It was only in the 1980s that Greece began to modernize its wine industry. Greek growers and enologists trained in places as diverse as Bordeaux or Napa, bringing back expertise and attractive investment. Ask many people their idea of Greek wine and they will quickly answer “Retsina,” that pine resin wine. There is nothing wrong with Retsina, but Greek wine is so much more. Now with an international focus, the wines are making news, and even the grapes are colonizing other areas that previously thought of the grape as a French plant.
Greece produces international varieties like most other countries, of course, but it has an interesting stable of both red and white grapes that have the potential to, and often do, produce world class wine.
Most of Greece is rocky, on the mainland and its 3000 islands. The Mediterranean climate is dry to the east, wetter in the west. Soils are mostly limestone, alluvial near the rivers, and sandy by coastlines, with volcanic soils on islands.
Red Wine Grapes
- Agiorghitiko (Ay-Your-YEE-Tee-Ko, meaning the grape of Saint George) is a native grape of the Nemea in the Peloponnese, where Hercules slew the Nemean lion. It tends to be soft and fruity, and can be made into a “drink me now” wine or one designed to age a few years.
- Xinomavro (meaning sour black) is the predominant grape variety in Macedonia, especially around the city of Naousa. The X here is not pronounced like an English Z, but like a quick K-S: Ksee-no-MAV-ro. Xinomavro is tannic, savory, with notes of olives and tomatoes, full-bodied, and ought to age awhile.
- Mavrodaphne (meaning black laurel), grows in the Peloponnese and the Ionian Islands. It is the mainstay of the famous chocolate-tasting dessert wine Mavrodaphne of Patras.
- Limnio, or Kalambaki is indigenous to the island of Lemnos in the Aegean, where it has produced red wine for two millennia. Limnio is full-bodied, high in alcohol, herbaceous, with aromas and flavors of laurel (bay leaves).
- Mandilaria is a tannic grape grown on Rhodes and Crete. It is often blended with other grapes to soften the mouthfeel.
- Kotsifali is a variety mainly grown on Crete.
White Wine Grapes
- Assyrtiko is native to the volcanic island of Santorini, but it is now planted all over Greece. It maintains its acidity nicely as it ripens, even in unrelenting hot climates. The fruit can be warm and round, showing peach and apricot.
- Savatiano (the “Saturday” grape) is the predominant white grape in Attica, where it displays excellent heat resistance and shows a distinct floral and fruity aroma. It is quite versatile, and is one of the major grapes used to produce Retsina.
- Robola has a mouth-filling smoky mineral feeling, with warm round citrus. It is most closely associated with the Ionian Island of Cephalonia (Kefalonia).
- Athiri is a lower acid variety planted in Macedonia, Attica, and Rhodes.
- Debina is a white Greek wine grape primarily in the Zitsa region of Epirus. Because of its high acidity, it is used in sparkling wine production.
- Lagorthi is mainly cultivated on high slopes of the Peloponnese, fruit filled and acidic.
- Malagousia grows in Macedonia, making elegant full bodied wines, with medium-plus acidity and exciting perfumed aromas.
- Moschofilero is a Blanc de Gris variety from the AOC region of Mantineia, in Arcadia in the Peloponnese. Wines, both still and sparkling are crisp and floral. It is pronounced Mo-Sko-FEEL-err-o.
- Roditis (the “pink” or “rose” grape) produces elegant, light white wines with citrus flavors all over Greece. Also called Rhoditis.
Greek Wine Quality Designations
The highest level of Greek wines has two designations, the EU PDO (protected denomination of origin) much like the Italian DOC and DOCG system.
- Onomasia Proelefsis Anoteras Poiotitos (O.P.A.P.), Appellation of Origin of Superior Quality
- Onomasia Proelefsis Eleghomeni (O.P.E.), Controlled Appellation of Origin
Like most of the rest of Europe, Greece has regional wines, called “Topikos Oinos,” equivalent to the French Vin de Pays or the Italian IGP/IGT. The EU designation is PGU, protected geographical indication.
The lowest level is Epitrapezios Oinos, basic table wine.
Retsina is its own category
The Greek Wine Regions
We will start in the northeast and work our way south.
Thrace also includes parts of Turkey and Bulgaria. This is the land where the cult of Dionysus is supposed to have begun. Thrace has three PGI zones, each producing wines from Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Syrah and the Bulgarian Mavrud grape.
Macedonia in the cooler north is a large region. At one time, under Alexander the Great, it ruled a vast empire stretching east to what is now Pakistan. Xinomavro is widely planted here, in the three dispersed red wine regions of Amyndaio, Goumenissa and Naousa. These are big, tannic red wines. Further south, the Slopes of Meliton (Playes Melitona) appellation makes Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Limnio. It is important not to confuse the Greek region of Macedonia with its northern neighbor, the Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia.
Epirus takes up the Greek mainland’s northwest corner. This is a rugged area where vines of the indigenous Debina, Vlachiko and Bekiari grapes cling to the side of mountains. Cabernet Sauvignon is also produced. Most vineyards are over two thousand feet above sea level. Appellations include Zitsa (the only PDO) and Ioannina.
Corfu is one of the Ionian Islands off the west coast of Greece. It is best known for white wines. There is no PDO, just a regional appellation requiring at least 60 percent Kakotrygis in the wine, with the rest Robola and Moschato (Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains). Tourism is more important on Corfu than winemaking.
Kefalonia (Cephalonia) is the largest of the Ionian island and the home to three PDO-level appellations. Robola of Kefalonia is the most important, producing light, fresh, citrusy, white wines from the Robola grape, grown at elevations up to 2600 feet on dry limestone soil. The island also has two sweet wine appellations: Mavrodaphne of Kefalonia, from the island’s lower-lying areas, as well as the neighboring island of Ithaca (Ithaki), and Muscat of Kefalonia is a white vin doux naturel made from the Muscat Blanc a Petits Grains grape variety.
The fertile valleys of Thessaly produce a range of crops, leaving the hillsides for grape vines. PDOs here include Anchalios for Roditis, Messenikolas for light reds from Mavro Messenikola, Rapsani – a blend of Xinomvaro and Krassato, and Stavroto, for Tyrnavos and Limniona.
Central Greece has a complex, mountainous topography. It is home to the nation’s largest city, Athens and the birthplace of Retsina, which is mostly made from the Savatiano grape. More than twenty PGI zones call this region home. There are PDOs for Attica (the Athens area) and Attalandi. Prominent grapes are Roditis, Savatiano, and the international varieties.
The Peloponnese has the Mantinia PDO at 2100 feet altitude, known for its white Moschofilero, the Nemea PDO, at 800 to 2600 feet, known for Agiorghitiko, and Mavrodaphne of Patras PDO, a sweet fortified wine. The area also produces the sweet Muscat of Patras.
Crete, the largest island of Greece, has four PDOs, producing wines from the native varieties Liatiko, Vilana and Kotisfali and also from international varieties. Soils on the island are limestone-rich. The PDOs are Peza, Arhanes, Dafnes and Sitia, all in the eastern reaches of the island. Ridges shelter these northward looking vineyards from the hot African wind. Crete also has six regional appellations: Chania, Rethymno, Lasithi, Kissamos, Heraklion and one for the entire island.
Rhodes is a large island near the coast of Turkey, home to two PDOs. The Rhodes PDO authorizes red and white varietal wines made Morgiano and Athiri. Muscat of Rhodes PDO uses two different local varieties of Muscat for its vin doux naturel style.
Santorini is famous for its mineral-rich dry aromatic white wines from the Assyrtiko grape (often mixed with a little Athiri and Aidani). The island also produces red wines from Mandilaria and Mavrotragano. It is renowned for its Vinsanto wine (spelled here as one word and not “Vin Santo” as in Italy) from air dried grapes, from Assyrtiko, Athiri and Aidani. Tourist development is a threat to the exceptional wines of this unique island.
The island of Samos is renowned for its sweet Muscat of Samos, from the Moschato Aspro grape variety, the local name for Muscat Blanc a Petits Grains.
The island of Lemnos in the northern Aegean Sea has two PDOs, one for a VDN style sweet wine (Muscat of Lemnos) and the other for dry wines (Lemnos PDO), both from Muscat of Alexandria. Note that all the other Greek appellations that refer to the Muscat grape use the other variety, Muscat Blanc a Petits Grains.
The island of Paros in the central Aegean Sea is home to significant plantings of the Malvasia grape variety, used to make a crisp, dry white wine from 100% Malvasia and a red wine from one-third red Mandilaria softened by two thirds white Malvasia.
Winemaking on the Aegean island of Chios has been going on for several thousand years, although the island is better known for its anise-based spirit Ouzo. Assyrtiko and Roditis are the main grape varieties, grown at up to 1500 feet.
The heavily tourist-oriented island of Mykonos produces a small amount of wine from Assyrtiko, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. Tourists consume it all on the island.