Greece is made up of 6,000 islands and the mainland. The latter two are mostly defined by mountainous terrain. It’s not surprising that Greece has over 300 native grape varieties, given its unique geography.
Gomberg Fredrikson & Associates reports that Greek imports are up by 24 percent in 2022. Assyrtiko and Moschofilero have been the most popular Greek grapes on U.S. lists. But they are only the tip.
Sofia Perpera of the Greek Wine Federation says: “We knew that our indigenous grapes would be a marketing advantage and that they could help us differentiate ourselves from French varieties which were being produced in many regions.” The market has demanded different varieties of Greek wine now that Greek Wine is a separate category.
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Evan Turner, wine director of Krasi in Boston, was particularly impressed with Greece’s white wines. I’m sure this will get me in trouble with my friends who are some. Still, when you consider affability for food, age-ability, and diversity of flavors, as well as quality at a reasonable price, Greece is the best white-wine-producing country.
Turner says that while Greek reds tend to be more austere, they can also often be food-friendly. Here are some emerging white and red grape varieties that wine professionals need to be aware of.
Vidiano, Crete’s Leading white grape
Crete, the largest Greek island, is home to many of the indigenous varieties of the country. Turner says that he returns to Crete for grape varieties time and time again. Vidiano, the island’s most popular white grape, has emerged from the shadows to become a leading grape variety. It is now grown across Crete, as well as on other Aegean Islands and the Greek mainland. An earlier era of high yields did not favor it. However, when vines are planted at higher altitudes and cooler sites, they can produce wines that have a great deal of textural interest. The acidity is retained even at high alcohol levels, allowing for a weight and freshness not found in many other grape varieties.
Liatiko – A Savory red from the Cretan Mountains
Kamal Kouiri is the general manager at Molyvos, New York City. He says that Liatiko grapes are a forgotten variety from Crete. They’ve found ungrafted old-vine vine vineyards in the mountains. Liatiko produces a pale, acidic wine. In the past, producers may have over-worked the grape to achieve a darker color. Kouiri believes the best examples of this variety are those that are unoaked and which capture the freshness in the grape. These wines remind him of Cru Beaujolais of Fleurie. “You get savory elements with the fruit, I love that combination.”
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Kotsifali & Mandilaria – Complimentary Cretan Reds
Crete is a place of extremes. It has crystal-blue waters and mountains so high that they are home to Europe’s most southern ski resorts. It is, therefore, not surprising that the two main red grapes of Crete are opposites in their character but also complement each other. Kotsifali has a high alcohol content but is soft on tannins and acidity. Mandilaria is a deep-colored, acidic grape that is tannic and enthusiastic. It is low in alcohol and struggles to reach 12.5% ABV. This blend is suited to two PDOs located in central Crete: Peza and Archanes. Kotsifali producers found that it blends well with Syrah, a newer arrival on Crete. Mandilaria is looking for new partners in other islands. It has proven itself with blends of Mavrotragano on Santorini and the white grape Monemvasia on Paros.
Robola – An Exciting White from Cephalonia
Cephalonia is an island in the Ionian Sea located on the other side of the Peloponnese. It has given Greece two notable grape varieties: Mavrodaphne and Robola. It was thought that the white grape Robiola Gialla came from Friuli and may have been brought by Venetian traders to or to the island. However, this is not the case. Turner said that the vigor of this grape must be tempered to produce a concentrated wine. The wines have a mineral flavor with lemony citrus notes. “I’m very excited about this grape.”
Kamal Kouiri, the general manager and wine director at Molyvos, is enjoying the renaissance of Liatiko, a Cretan variety with complex flavors akin to cru Beaujolais. Photo courtesy of Kamal Kouiri.
Mavrodaphne, A Western Greek Red with a Fortified Past
Mavrodaphne is rarely referred to as a varietal dry wine. This is because two PDOs for fortified wines have adopted the name Mavrodaphne from Patras and Mavrodaphne from Cephalonia. Producers have also embraced this grape to make dry red wines. Kouiri says that dry Mavrodaphne wine was first produced about ten years back. Early examples of these dry wines may have been rustic. However, Kouiri says that vineyards at high elevations and with less water are the key to getting out the best expression of the grape. You’ll see a deep, beautiful color. I also love the texture. You’ll get a lot more blueberry, lavender, and black fruits. If you extract it a little bit further, you can also get leather, sage, and peppermint. These new, unfortified examples have a rich, fruity nose and a dry, crisp palate. They are often compared to Amarones with a drier taste, even though Mavrodaphnes do not raiseinate their grapes.
Malagousia – An aromatic white from Western Greece
Malagousia is also the home of Mavrodaphne. Today, most of Mavrodaphne’s vineyards are located on the mainland just north of Cephalonia. It was one of the first Greek grape varieties to be saved from extinction in the 1970s. Now, it is widely planted both on the mainland and on islands. It’s an aromatic grape, unlike Vidiano or Robola. It combines some of the familiar green notes Sauvignon Blanc drinkers are used to with floral touches in some Muscat varieties. The majority of producers achieve this generous nose by vinifying in stainless steel. However, some producers have opted for a more full-bodied approach that incorporates barrel aging.
Savatiano, Athens’ Own White
Savatiano is a grape variety that represents the evolution of Greece’s wine industry. Savatiano is most common in Attica (the area around Athens), Greece’s modern capital. For many years, it was used to make Retsina – a wine aromatized by pine resin, which was considered little more than a novelty at Greek tavernas. Retsina, a wine infused with pine resin that was once the first thing people thought of when they heard Greek wine, was still popular in the 1980s. Savatiano today has shed much of its resinous past. However, there are still some refined, modern examples of Retsina that are worth trying. Savatiano is a round, medium-bodied wine that has grassy notes and hints of yellow fruit. It’s versatile at the table and can be paired with a wide range of dishes, including the classics from the taverna.