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
I 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.
Lately 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.
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 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.
Retsina 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,
My 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.
ILLUSTRATED GREEK WINES BOOK
I 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.
are the bottled Retsinas which Mr. Manessis
Light and fruity and
Low acidity and
soft. Refreshing with a light touch and sweetness
that sticks to the gums.
Medium pungency and
a good Savatiano finish.
The most refined
bottled retsina on the market. Traditionalists
find it heretic but those new to retsina like it
The market leader,
medium to strong pungency and is sold
Pungent and popular
labels from northern Greece sometimes mixed with
soda water to individual taste.
dependable and refreshing
Medium pungent and
popular with Germans
Faint muscat aroma,
one of the finest retsinas on the market. They
make two: Retsinaki and Ampelophyllo.
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/
Green gold in
color. Lime and sweet oak on the nose. Lemon
fruity richness-a palate full of roasted
hazelnuts. Elegant. World class.
features eucalyptus and red berries. Balanced,
multi-layered, ripe tannins. Dazzling
concentration, freshness and depth. Best from
reminiscent of Chardonnay and lemon. Spice and
white pepper on the palate. Yeasty. Toasty.
Atypical. A cosmopolitan Santorini. World
color. A complete nose alternating mulberry and
leather. Compact, velvety smooth tannins have a
gamy richness. A great bottle, best from
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
black. Pure fruit evokes the essence of Cabernet
Sauvignon. Skillful use of oak. Exquisite, long,
smoky end-taste. Unfiltered. Much finesse.
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
The 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
and was available in
Lesvos and by the time you read this may be
available elsewhere in
Greece too. See their website
When 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....
This 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
In 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 firstname.lastname@example.org
For More on the poet-sandalmaker Stavros Melissinos see www.athensguide.com/poet.html