Greece Wine Notes — 25/06/2008
The Ancient Greeks contributed to spreading the vine around the mediterranean, introducing it to Southern Italy and probably to Sicily and the south of France.
The wine map of the mediterranean is littered with references to Greece such as “Greco di Tufo”, “Malvasia delle Lipari”, “Aglianico del Vulture (a corruption of Hellenico), plus of course, the best known “Malmsey Madeira”. These fascinating names seem at first sight to be echos from the ancient world but most of the connections are much more recent.
Greek Malvasia or Malmsey was the most valuable wine of all during the middle ages.Unlike Muscat wines, Malvasia wines were not made from a single grape variety. (Malvasia is the Venetian name for Monemvasia in the Southern Peloponnese where these wines originally came from). Monemvasia / Malvasia wine was popularised and traded by the Venetians, but it was not invented by them. It was a semi-aromatic sweet wine of the kind we know in Italy as “passito”. It was a wine in the tradition of Greek sweet wines going back to antiquity. Hesiod, in about 750 BC writes: “pluck the clustered grapes and bring them to your harvest home. Expose them to the sun ten days and night then shadow then for five, and on the sixth pour into jars glad Dionysios’ gift”.
In fact Venice only controlled the city of Monemvasia for around 80 years following the fall of Contantinople to the Turks, and for much of the time the Turks controlled the vineyards choking off the grape supply. Thereafter ‘Malvasia’ or ‘Malvasia di Chania’ was made in Crete and traded by Venice for another 110 years.
Then the Venetians lost Crete to the Turks and their side of the Malvasia trade died out. Venetian Malvasia spawned many imitations: Genoa, Venice’s rival made Malvasia style wines in Liguria, Corsica, Sardinia and Lipari. The Portuguese started Malvasia Madeira and a miriad of Malvasia, Malvoisie and Malmsey wines were being made elsewhere. Indeed the names, attached to all sorts of grape varieties from Pinot Gris, Vermentio, Früher Roter Malvasier, Malvasia of Rioja to the various ‘Malvasias’ of Italy.
The Ottoman Turks did not discourage wine, far from it. Wine regions were rich and could contribute taxes. They were often given immunity from having to supply children to become Jannissary soldiers thereby maintaining the large population needed for wine production. The are many more Ottoman edicts against coffee than against wine, possibly because coffee drinkers discuss serious subjects and could be plotting, whereas wine drinkers were merry and had enough difficulty with standing up.
Under the Ottomans, Vin Santo, (originally called Vino Santo Irene), from the wine of the volcanic island of Santorini seems to have become much more important. It had existed in the shade of Malvasia until the Cretan wars, thereafter it was, with Samos Muscat, the ‘export’ sweet wine. Initially, the French market was important, being replaced by Russia in the 18th & 19th centuries. The trade died out after the Crimean War, but the style continued in a small way. The wine of Santorini is is mostly made as a fresh dry white. A little is made as a sweet wine from sun dried grapes which still carried the name ‘Vin Santo’.
Greek wine went to the dogs for most of the 20th century to recover rapidly through the 1990 and the early years of this century. Quality is now generally high and to underline this a Greek wine won the Trophy for “best White Varietal wine over £10” at the Decanter Wine World Wine Awards in 2011. It would be wonderful to be able predict a rosy future for Greek wine but sadly on one hand the state of the Greek economy makes this unlikely and on the other consumer attitudes in export markets (especially the UK) maintain an outdated and frankly snobbish view of the quality now avavailable.
The Grape Varieties
The Greeks have some excellent varieties, particularly white grapes which thrive in the heat. Here is some information about them:
Vinsanto and Santorini: the acid Assyrtiko, aromatic Aïdani and creamy Athiri are the three varieties.
Muscat: There is some Muscat of Alexandria on the Island of Lemnos and in the Peloponnese. Samos Muscat is Muscat à petit grains. The berries are smaller and the aromatics are finer. It is not necessarily better for dried grape ‘passito’ styles.
Peloponnese: Aghioghitiko (St George) and Mavro-daphne are good red varieties. Rodotis is a good creamy white, and Moscofilero, an aromatic pink.
Attica: Savatiano is a neutral but well balanced variety. It was traditionally used for Retsina. Retsina itself is improving!
Cephalonia: Robola is aromatic with good acidity.
Macedonia: Xinomavro is Greece’s top red.
Chardonnay, Sauvignon, Viognier, Cabernet and Syrah have been imported. Syrah is the most suitable.
More interesting is the ‘return’ of ‘Greek’ grapes such as Malvasia Aromatica and Aglianico from Italy and most exciting is the export of these fascinating varieties. Xinomavro, Assyrtiko and Aghioghitiko have been exported recently to California. Assyrtiko has been comercially planted recently in central Sicily, although I understand that this was a Georgean clone which proved to be superior to the Greek material. It would undoubtedly grow very well in warmer regions of Australia too.
A typical Greek meal consists of appetizers and a main course, with a visit to a zaharoplasteio afterwards for pastries, coffee and liqueurs. Yoghurt is the most commonly served dessert with honey, sultanas and apple. Most people are probably familiar with meze (appetisers to share) which usually consist of a selection of taramasalata, tsatsiki, Kalamata olives, feta, green peppers, squid and sometimes tiropita, cheese puff pastry pies.
Baked dishes like moussaka (lamb and aubergine) and yemistes (aubergines stuffed with rice and mincemeat) are popular; vegetables are plentiful, especially tomatoes, peppers and aubergines; meat is usually lamb or pork. Fish is also varied and delicious.
In Crete, specialities include kakavia (fish soup flavoured with lemon, wild onions and herbs) and kalitsounia (savoury stuffed pastries). For vegetarians there is an abundance of the wild greens – horta – which are picked fresh from the Cretan hills.
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