Getting to Know Greek Wine

guide to greek wine

While France, Italy, and Spain may lead the world in wine production these days, Greece was among the first wine-producing countries in Europe. In fact, Greek wines were some of the most highly sought after in all the ancient world. Although they’re much less popular today, they’re considered by many to be one of the most underrated wines on the market. Perhaps this is because buyers find the names and regions unfamiliar and difficult to pronounce. Wondering where to start? In this guide to Greek wine, we’ll introduce you to the wine regions in Greece and the country’s most interesting wines.

Greek Wine Appellations

The appellation system categorizes these wines into several groups, including:

  • Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), which indicates superior quality and production in the historic viticultural regions of Greece.
  • Protected Geographical Indication (PGI), which are local wines, a category further divided into regional, district, and area wines depending on the boundaries.
  • Wines of Traditional Appellation, such as Retsina, which is flavored with pine resin. (Some of these fall under PGI.)
  • Epitrapezios Oinos, or table wines, which are made with strict winemaking techniques to maintain consistent character. These might also fall into the regional, traditional, or branded categories. The label Cava indicates a more prestigious, aged or reserve blend.

Greek Wine Regions

Winemakers have plantings almost everywhere in Greece, which has greater diversity of climate and growth conditions than most people realize. This also makes for wonderful diversity in Greek wines produced across its spectrum of terroirs. For the most part, they are mountainous, but there are also coastal, continental, and volcanic terroirs in Greece.

samos greek wine

Gorgeous view of Vathy, the capital of Samos in the Aegean Islands. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Aegean Islands

These regions have been producing wines for thousands of years, despite the dry, relatively infertile soils. The vineyards line steep terraces cut into the mountainsides, which help reduce erosion and retain water to nourish the vines. The vines tend to be less leafy, with most of the energy going into production of luscious, high-quality grapes. The Aegean Islands include the several notable appellations, including Lemnos, Paros, Rhodes, Samos, and Santorini.

Crete

Evidence of winemaking in Crete dates back to at least 5000 BC. There are paintings in Minoan palaces depicting grape-growing and winemaking, plus ancient wine presses have been found. Just as in the Aegean Islands, vineyards line steep hillsides, giving them excellent drainage. The soil in Crete is rich in limestone, but varies otherwise from light and sandy to dense with clay. Again, this results in vines that produce very high-quality grapes, but with smaller leaves. Its four appellations include Archanes, Dafnes, Peza, and Sitia.

Epirus

The Epirus region only makes a small amount of wine, in part because the landscape is relatively inhospitable for viticulture on a large scale. Another big difference is the climate. It’s much cooler and there is snow in the winter months. Ultimately, this results in slow-ripening, highly acidic grapes. The region has a single appellation, Zitsa, which is the only in Greece that allows sparkling white wines.

Ionian Islands

It’s not easy to find wines from the Ionian Islands due to the combination of low production and high tourism in the area. (In fact, very few wines from the region even make it to mainland Greece.) The climate there is Mediterranean, complete with mild, rainy winters and hot, sunny summers with cool nights. Although the region grows more currants and olives than wine grapes, it includes several appellations: Kefalonia, Corfu, Zakynthos, and Lefkada.

Macedonia

Macedonia is a larger wine-producing region with a wide range of soil types. It has craggy mountainsides with rocky soil, as well as richer, rolling lowlands that are far more fertile. They grow a range of native grapes and international grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc to produce some of the best red wines in all of Greece. Some specific appellations include Amyntaio, Epanomi, Goumenissa, and Naoussa.

Peloponnese

Also home to the ancient sites of Sparta and Olympia, the Peloponnese region has been producing wines for thousands of years. The growing seasons there offer hot days and cold nights, which result in a delightful balance of acidity and flavor in the grapes. There are 17 appellations in the region, including two of the most highly respected, Mantineia and Nemea.

Thessalia

Thessalia (or Thessaly) has a thriving viticulture industry, despite being less well known than many of the other Greek wine regions. Much of it has that typically Mediterranean climate with mild, wet winters and warm, dry summers. In some of the inland regions, winds and snowmelt from the mountains help keep the vines cool, allowing them to develop and maintain acidity. The region has three PDO appellations: Rapsani, Anhialos, and Messenikola.

Notable Greek Wines

assyrtiko greek wine grapes

Assyrtiko, one of the most iconic Greek wine grapes. Photo from Wikipedia.

Assyrtiko (ah-sir-tee-ko)

Assyrtiko wines are some of the best and most iconic from the region. They’re known for being bone dry, with tones of passion fruit and lemon, and a mineral, sometimes salty finish. Santorini wines generally contain about 75% or more Assyrtiko, with the remaining 25% made up of Athiri and/or Aidani. Wines labeled Nykteri have a similar composition, but are also aged in oak, bringing forth notes of stone fruit, pineapple, cream, and baked pastries. Pair Assyrtiko wines with seafood, particularly fatty fishes and oysters, highlighted with a fresh squeeze of lemon.

Malagousia (mah-lah-goo-zee’AH)

By the early 1980’s, Malagousia grapes were hardly grown anymore. Then, winemaker

Evangelos Gerovassiliou more or less single-handedly rescued the grape with plantings at his vineyard in Epanomi. These days, they’re mainly grown in Macedonia and central Greece. Malagousia grapes produce rich, full-bodied white wines that are reminiscent of Chardonnays and Viogniers. They have balanced acidity, with flavors of peach, citrus, and melon, and a gentle, fruity finish. Pair Malagousia wines with seafood, salads with fresh vegetables and herbs, and pasta dishes with light sauces.

Moschofilero (mos-coh-FEE-ler-oh)

Moschofilero is a highly aromatic white wine grape primarily grown in Peloponnese. The bunches sometimes have a pinkish or purple color and are late ripening, which can make it a challenge for winemakers in hotter summers, but the effort is well worth it. They produce bold, dry white wines that are as flowery as they are crisp. Their aromas are evocative of a rose garden, sometimes with hints of honeysuckle and violet. They develop more fruitiness as they age, intensifying the flavors of peach, lemon, and nectarine. A well-aged Moschofilero may also present toasty, nutty flavors like hazelnut and almond. They’re made as still, sparkling, and even sweet dessert wines.

pine resin used in retsina greek wine

Fermentation in the presence of pine resin gives Retsina its characteristic flavors. Photo from Wikipedia.

Retsina

No list of Greek wines is complete without the mention of Retsina, a white wine infused with Aleppo pine tree sap. They are typically whites or rosés and are traditionally made from Savatiano grapes blended with Assyrtiko and Rhoditis. Winemakers add pieces of Aleppo pine resin during fermentation, which leaves an oily resinous film at the surface of the must. Historically, this was helpful for wine preservation. These days, winemakers have higher tech solutions for preservation, so this film and the resin solids are removed. Still, their presence during fermentation leaves the final Retsina with an oily texture and subtle notes of pine to go with the flavors of ripe peaches, apples, and roses. They pair well with strong, spicy, savory foods.

Savatiano

Savatiano are the most-planted wine grapes in Greece, with most plantings found in Attica near Athens in central Greece. They’re hearty and drought-resistant, making them a practical, reliable grape for winegrowers in the region. The grape traditionally appears in Retsina and more rustic wines. Winemakers now also make more refined Savatiano wines, which are delightfully fruity, flowery, and herbaceous, with mineral notes. Expect an easy-drinking wine with flavors of green apple, pear, peach, lime zest, jasmine, and honeysuckle when created through cooler fermentation. Aging in oak gives Savatianos a creamier texture, with hints of lemon curd and bread. They’re wonderfully versatile in food pairings, matching most dishes in Greek cuisine. Try them with cured meats, roast game, seafood pastas, or sushi.

Vidiano

Vidiano is an ancient white wine grape from Crete. There are few plantings left these days, though it’s making a small comeback thanks to young winemakers keeping the vines in production. Despite the warm climate, the grapes have remarkably bright acidity to balance their fruitiness, which ranges from peach and mango to lime and quince. Some winemakers also age them in acacia wood or oak barrels, imbuing them with notes of vanilla and sweet spices. They pair well with smoked seafood, barbecued chicken or pork, and bright salads with cherry tomatoes.

Vinsanto

Vinsanto as a winemaking tradition dates back thousands of years on the island of Santorini. Although the style is found throughout Italy now, the name originates in those early days of trading and export of vin through the island. Crates labeled Vin Santo reflected the contents and origin, and the name has persisted through modern times, as has the technique.

For Vinsanto, winemakers harvest the grapes late and dry them in the sun to concentrate their solids before fermentation. After fermentation, the wines are ages for at least two years in oak barrels, giving them a marvelous complexity. The primary grapes used are typically all white: Assyrtiko, Aidani, and Athiri. Despite this, the final wines have surprisingly assertive tannins, plus aromas of raspberry, cherries, golden raisins, and dried apricots. Although its sweetness means its classified as a dessert wine, the balance of tannins, acidity, and spice make it easy to drink and pair. It particularly shines with Greek desserts like baklava.

agiorgitiko greek wine grape

Agiorgitiko is one of the most popular red wine grapes among winemakers in Greece. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Agiorgitiko (ah-your-yeek-tee-ko)

Agiorgitiko is the most planted red wine grape in Greece, and the only grape permitted in the Nemea appellation from Peloponnese. The grape itself is quite versatile, so it’s a popular grape with winegrowers across Greece, but the Nemean terroir is where the it really shines. The higher-altitude vineyards allow the grapes to develop incredible flavor while also maintaining acidity. (Both characteristics seem duller in grapes from lower altitudes, making for a disappointing sip.) The best Agiorgitiko wines have full body and excellent spice, with notes of plum and other dark fruit flavors. Expect smooth tannins and a lushness reminiscent of a Merlot. Pair it with grilled and smoked meats, including game, duck, lamb, and sausages.

Samos Wine

Sweet wines from Samos were much loved in ancient times. They were the subject of 12th century poetry, famous for their delicious sweetness, and a popular export all over the Mediterranean. Muscat grapes originally arrived to the region sometime in the 16th century, and Muscats from the region became sought-after when a phylloxera blight destroyed many vineyards in Europe. Today, the Muscats of Samos are still some of the most-exported Greek wines. There are several varieties, the most popular being Samos Vin Doux, a sweet blend of fresh Muscat juice and Muscat grappa. These wines are light golden in color and smell of apricot, marmalade, and melon. They taste of bright, summer fruits, with a hint of butterscotch and toffee. They pair wonderfully with nuts, fresh or dried fruits, and cheeses.

Mavrodaphne

Mavrodaphne is a black wine grape from the the Peloponnese peninsula that typically goes into the creation of sweet, fortified wines. It’s initially fermented in sun-exposed vats, then fermentation is stopped by adding a distillate from an older Mavrodaphne vintage, retaining some of the residual sugars. The wine is then matured further under cellar conditions and blended using the solera method that’s also used in making Sherry. While there are dry Mavrodaphne wines made, they’re more often bottled as dessert wines that are quite similar to Port. They have notes of coffee, chocolate, raisins, plums, and laurel, hence their name: Mavrodaphne translates to “black laurel.”

Xinomavro (ksee-NOH-mah-vroh)

Finally, there is Xinomavro, one of the most well-regarded wine grapes in Macedonia. This red wine grape grows in several regions, but is the main grape of Naoussa, where the terroir accentuates its fruitiness. The name means “sour black,” and you’ll understand why when you take a sip, gathering in the dark flavors of cherry, plum, raspberry, licorice, and tobacco. It’s also richly tannic and ages well, drawing comparisons to Barolo. Its crisp acidity and firm tannic structure make it a great choice for pairing with fatty meats. Enjoy it with lamb dishes, particularly stews and roasts, as well as mushroom risotto and aged hard cheeses.