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A Guide to Greek Wine

There is more to Greek wine than Retsina and Domestica. This page will tell you all you need to know about Greek wine and where to find out more

Matt, Santorini wineI am a wine drinker. My favorite earthly activity is eating in a taverna with my friends and drinking wine, especially Greek wine, whether it is from the bottle, barrel or the box. Some of my favorite tavernas have their own wine, straight out of the barrels, which are usually stacked against the wall. We order it by the kilo and we can go through several kilos in an evening. Glasses are continually being refilled by each other without anything being said. It's like a reflex or second nature to fill your neighbors glass when you see it is empty. And when the carafe is empty someone at the table just lifts it in the air and catches the eye of a waiter, the busboy or even the owner of the restaurant and in thirty seconds it is full again.

Retsina is my preferred wine and once in awhile if you are lucky, that is what is available in those barrels. But many tavernas these days have turned away from retsina and are making excellent wines, often as good or better than any well known commercial bottled brands, though you can find yourself in a taverna where the barreled wine is awful. Most restaurants are proud of their wine though not all the restaurants make their own. Some buy it from distillers by the barrel or by large jug, and in some touristy restaurants homemade wine, or hima, as it is called, is not even available and you have to take your chances with the wine list.

Kea wineLately many restaurants have been buying bulk wine in boxes and filling the carafes from them. But before you get upset I want to reassure you that many of these boxed wines are pretty good and in some cases it is the same bulk wine the restaurants have always had, but now it comes in boxes. But walking into a restaurant and seeing barrels stacked is usually a sign that they make their own wine and you should try that first before you try any bottled wine they may have. But my rule is to always ask for local wine (doh-pio) and then ask for hee-ma or wine in a carafe (karafaki) and hope for the best. It is rare that I will get a house wine so bad that I send it back and order a bottle from the wine list, but it does happen. I always ask if it's good (eeneh kalo?) and they always say absolutely (veh-vay-os). But what else are they gonna say? It's terrible? There are also many farmers on the islands who are bottling their own wine and you can often find them in tavernas and in the various traditional shops, supermarkets and even in the bakery.

About Retsina

There have been many explanations as to why retsina tastes the way it does. The explanation is because they put pine resin in it to make it taste like that and the reason is because they like the taste. Some people have come up with theories on how this all began. According to Vassilis Kourtakis, who makes the most popular of the bottled retsina, the ancient Greeks knew that the air was the enemy of wine and used pine resin to seal the tops of the amphora and even added it to the wine itself. When we were teenagers we were told that during the Second World War, the Greeks put resin in the good wines so the Germans who occupied the country would not like it. That was probably nonsense. Then as we became more mature we came up with the theory that since there were only pine trees in Greece they stored the wine in pine barrels and so it tasted like pine resin. That is a little more reasonable an explanation but probably not accurate.

Yiannis, and retsinaYiannis Yannarakis, my brilliant computer nerd friend, finally gave me a believable explanation for why the Greeks drink retsina and why they became ashamed of it. Yiannis said that the resin was put into the wine as a preservative in small amounts. But if the wine was bad they would put in larger amounts to mask the taste and gradually the Greeks began to like it as did many of the early tourists. They would also preserve with sugar and that is where you get Mavrodaphne and the sweet wines from Samos. But visitors always poked fun at retsina, saying things like it "tastes like turpentine but not as good" and things like that, which probably gave the Greeks a complex about it. Eventually as wine making methods in Greece improved everyone was making good wine and some people were making excellent wine. Retsina was looked down upon as being more working class, a sort of embarrassment to the world of wine.

But I know poets and visionaries who have always loved retsina, even bad retsina, and their taste is being vindicated because it is making a comeback. In a way the same thing happened with ouzo which about ten years ago became fashionable and we saw the change from screwcap to corked bottles, with brands like Plomari and Mini. Watch for the same thing to happen with retsina. Right now you can get retsina in beer bottles, and plastic water bottles as well as the normal wine bottles, but Kexrimpari comes in a Mateuse type bottle and that is a sure sign that Retsina is on its way back.

Greek Wine: Taverna barrelsRetsina was the wine of Athens. As far back as the late 1800's Athens had over 6000 tavernas, all filled with wine barrels. The grapes were pressed in the countryside and then brought into the city by horse-drawn carts, before the fermentation had taken place and then taken to the restaurants where the proprietor poured in the resin and decided when the wine was ready. It was not until the 1960's that bottled retsina became available in the countryside and common in the city as many of the old tavernas disappeared and land for cultivating wine near Athens became scarce.

Nowadays retsina from the barrel is hit or miss. But if you go to a taverna and it is full of happy Greek people drinking from glasses that are being refilled over and over again from a carafe then chances are the retsina (or whatever) is pretty good. When it's not, mix it with soda water like I do. This also will enable you to drink all night long. One of the things I have noticed is that I can drink a lot of retsina and still not be hung over the next day. My kidneys may hurt like hell but otherwise I feel great, considering.

Retsina from CreteMy current favorite retsina is called Repsene, which comes from Iraklion, Crete is sold in plastic water bottles. I have been drinking it every night since I came to Kea and even if I open a bottle of my favorite wines I end up going back to the retsina. Maybe it has ruined my subtle tastebuds. I don't care. I wake up feeling fine and it tastes good with everything I have eaten. Rolando is thinking about carrying it in his restaurant and one day I saw Yannis buy two bottles for his taverna next door.When I was in Athens with Pandelis Melissinos we discovered a retsina called Kexrimpari, from Thessaloniki, which was similar in taste. One Saturday night though we went to Yiannis taverna because he roasted a whole pig and we drank the popular bottled retsina called Malamatina which we can get in the USA and for most people is the only retsina they ever tasted (along with Kourtaki) and it did not taste anywhere near as good as  the other two labels. Karela Retsina comes from Patras and was sold in the USA in 4-liter bottles wrapped in a basket and more recently I have seen it in bottles. I don't know if you can find it where you live or in Greece but I have seen it advertised in the states and it has won some awards as the best retsina.

THE ILLUSTRATED GREEK WINES BOOK 


Greek Wine BookI have a new hero. Nico Manessis has written an amazing book on Greek wines called THE ILLUSTRATED GREEK WINES BOOK which can be found in Athens at a small shop of Cretan goods on the corner of Nikis and Kydatheneon streets in the Plaka. The book is a labor of love and anyone with an interest in Greek wines should buy it and treasure it because not only will it be invaluable when confronted with a wine list in one of the more touristy restaurants, but you will end up spending a great amount of time reading the histories, descriptions and explanations of the world of Greek wine, a world that is just starting to be discovered. Even now Greek wines are finding their way into wine shops and gourmet food shops all over the United States and this book will help you choose a Greek wine that is perfect for you.

These are the bottled Retsinas which Mr. Manessis likes:

Boutaris: Light and fruity and lightly resonated.
C.A.I.R.: Low acidity and soft. Refreshing with a light touch and sweetness that sticks to the gums.
Cambas: Medium pungency and a good Savatiano finish.
Gaia: The most refined bottled retsina on the market. Traditionalists find it heretic but those new to retsina like it just fine.
Kourtakis: The market leader, medium to strong pungency and is sold world-wide.
Malamamatinas: Pungent and popular labels from northern Greece sometimes mixed with soda water to individual taste.
Thebes Co-op: Excellent, dependable and refreshing
Tsantalis: Medium pungent and popular with Germans
Tyrnavos Co-op: Faint muscat aroma, one of the finest retsinas on the market. They make two: Retsinaki and Ampelophyllo.

Favorite Wines of Nico Manessis 

These are the wines Nico Manessis has rated four-star and above. You won't find them everywhere and when you do they won't be cheap especially if the dollar keeps losing fground to the euro. If you are interested in tasting the large variety of wines in Greece I urge you to purchase this book which reviews hundreds of wines in all different varieties. You may find a used copy on Amazon. In the meantime you can check out his website at http://greekwineworld.net/

Antonopoulos Chardonnay: Green gold in color. Lime and sweet oak on the nose. Lemon fruity richness-a palate full of roasted hazelnuts. Elegant. World class.

Antonopoulos 1997 Cabernet-Nea Dris: Playful nose features eucalyptus and red berries. Balanced, multi-layered, ripe tannins. Dazzling concentration, freshness and depth. Best from 2002.

Arghyros 1998 Santorini Vareli: Nose reminiscent of Chardonnay and lemon. Spice and white pepper on the palate. Yeasty. Toasty. Atypical. A cosmopolitan Santorini. World Class.

Dalmaras 1992 Naoussa: Deep color. A complete nose alternating mulberry and leather. Compact, velvety smooth tannins have a gamy richness. A great bottle, best from 2000.

1997 Gaia Estate: Delivering both power and velvety texture, this serious, fine, unfiltered wine has raised the stakes in the Nemea Appellation. Best after 2004. The 1998 vintage-tasted in cask- is even more concentrated.

Lazaridis Amethystos Cava: Almost black. Pure fruit evokes the essence of Cabernet Sauvignon. Skillful use of oak. Exquisite, long, smoky end-taste. Unfiltered. Much finesse.

Tselepos 1998 Mantinia: Seductive, exotic, floral nose. Violets bursting with grapes and fruit on the palate. Extended bone-dry Muscat aftertaste and searing acidity that goes on and on. A bold Mantinia from this ultra-ripe vintage.

Matt's Favorite Wines

Methymneos

Methymnaos Wine from Lesvos, GreeceThe island of Lesvos was renown in antiquity for it's wine. It is claimed the island had the finest soil and climate for growing grapes and the wine from Lesvos was the most treasured in the wine cellars of the Byzantine Emperor. Unfortunately a blight killed all the grapes on the island and wine-making on Lesvos died out, one reason why ouzo is now the drink of choice there. But  in the remote agricultural village of Xidera something very special has happened. Dimitri Lamprou has been paying farmers in the area to grow grapes again using a disease resistant strain and organic methods. He has built a state-of-the-art winery in this village and has begun production of what I think is one of the best red wines I have ever tasted. Of course I don't have the expertise of Mr Manessis, but I know what I like and I think if you try this wine you won't be disappointed. The wine is called Methymneos and was available in Lesvos and by the time you read this may be available elsewhere in Greece too. 

Artspace Winery

Artspace winery, SantoriniWhen we went to Santorini several years ago we went with a friend to Artspace, a small winery in Exogonia owned by Antonis Argyros that was also an art gallery, who only produced about a thousand bottles a year. We returned in 2012 to find that he had expanded to about ten thousand bottles and had added a few new wines and even raki, which for those who don't know is like ouzo without anise. The building, which contains caves dug into the soft stone of Santorini, was formerly a tomato paste processing plant, owned by his father and a winery back in 1861. Antonis has turned it into a museum with traditional wine-making equipment much of which he actually uses, and new modern equipment and he produces perhaps the best wine we had on the island. His grapes are organic too. If you can only visit one winery then I would suggest this one. Make sure to get a bottle of his Saint August and his Saint August Reserve which have become our staples after leaving the island with a suitcase full of them. These grapes are harvested in August, thus the name. Also his Nichteri is a wonderful dry red, maybe the best I have ever tasted. Read more about Santorini wines....

Megapanos Wines

greece, winesThis wine I first found out about through Aglaia Kremezzi who served it at one of her famous dinners on the island of Kea. Then I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Megapanos one afternoon at Thalia's Mezedopouleon in Vourkari and he just happened to have a bottle with him. Since then I have been drinking it whenever I can find it and of course whenever we get at invitation to Aglaia's. Megapanos makes several varieties including two from the well-known grapes of Nemea. Their vineyards and winery are located in Pikermi, a suburb of Athens in another area known for its vinyards. They have tours too and if you time it right you can go there on the way to or from the airport. See www.athensguide.com/wine-tours

The Rubaiyat of Melissinos

Stavros MelissinosIn the neigborhood of Psiri in Athens, on Agios Thelkas Street just off Ermou by the Monastiraki train station is the tiny workshop of Greece's great poet Stavros Melissinos. Workshop of a poet? Well, yes. You see Melissinos profession is as a sandal-maker, and in fact he is the most famous sandal-maker in Athens, which is a lot easier to make a living at than writing poetry. His greatest work is his Rubaiyat which is a series of poems that I would describe as a spiritual exploration of the pain and sufferings of mortal life and on the joys of drinking wine, the cure to the pain and suffering. Here are a few of my favorite verses from the Rubaiyat of Melissinos. There are 127 verses in all and it has been translated from the original Greek into English, French, German, Italian and Spanish.

Apollo's horses: in a splended dawn ascending
Breathe their flames and another night is ending
Praised be the sun ripening the grapes with his light
For the grapes yield wine putting our pains to flight

Oh you who light the silver moon every night
You whose grace grants desire, with me don't fight
Please, listen to my innocent and humble wish
Turn the oceans into wine and make me a fish

Before Old wounds have adequate time to clear
New wounds in the tormented soul appear
because nature like a doctor somehow sly
Wants you her medicine in big wine bottles to buy

The grapes sweet blood is life-giving
When inside you, you become forgiving
I have the greatest time in the wine's embrace
Because then I adore the whole human race

As our dreams fly through time space and air
Sometimes they touch success, sometimes despair
Too often though they fly after red wine supplies
That make one live immortal before one dies

The blasphemer's tongue and lips I wish them dry forever
If they say I found another friend besides the jug ever!
And if someone someday says I betrayed wine
I'd like to see his body torn by dogs and swine

You can buy the Rubaiyat of Melissinos (and sandals) from his shop next time you are in Athens or get more information from his son Pandelis at info@melissinos-art.com 

For More on the poet-sandalmaker Stavros Melissinos see www.athensguide.com/poet.html

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