Wines of Greece

Greece’s historical tapestry, woven with the threads of amphoras, Dionysus, Bacchanalia, and the intoxicating vapors of its rich alcoholic heritage, is inseparably linked with wine. Paradoxically, however, the modern wine enthusiast may not instinctively place Greek wines in the forefront when perusing the shelves of a wine shop.

Situated at the genesis of global winemaking, Greece is the progenitor of European viticulture. While historical records are obscured by the veils of time, it is conjectured that viticulture journeyed to Greece from Egypt and Phoenicia, with roots extending back to Caucasus and Mesopotamia. Assuming the mantle, Greece not only nurtured the industry but also disseminated it across the entire Mediterranean region. For four, perhaps even six millennia, Greece has been cultivating grape varieties that trace their lineage to antiquity. Regrettably, this historical pedigree hasn’t translated into contemporary eminence in the world of winemaking.

In ancient Greece, wine flowed as abundantly as water, yet historical accounts offer scant insight into the quality of these libations. The propensity of the Greeks to infuse their wines with herbs and spices, occasionally even diluting them with seawater, hints at a less-than-perfect quality. While the Roman Empire held Greek wines in esteem, and the Aegean Islands’ wines commanded substantial sums in medieval Northern Europe, these preferences were contextualized by the limited choices of the time.

Centuries under Turkish rule, marked by a disapproval of wine consumption, dealt a blow to Greek viticulture, causing it to wither on the vine. Though grapes continued to be grown and wine crafted, the dream of competing with the meticulously curated wines of France and Italy, nurtured by the hands of monks, remained elusive for the Greeks.

The Greek landscape and climate, while not inherently conducive to high-quality viticulture, present challenges such as scorching, arid summers, and early autumn rains. Many regions contend with formidable winds, necessitating protective measures for the vines. Consequently, the most suitable locations perch on mountain slopes, demanding more intricate care than their flat counterparts.

Despite these adversities, Greek winemaking persisted, and a new era of modern viticulture dawned in the 1980s. Each passing year has borne witness to the cultivation of captivating and invigorating fruits. Paradoxically, the economic upheaval of 2008 proved a catalyst for Greek winemaking. With the domestic wine market in decline and traditional East European consumers of Greek semi-sweet and sweet wines yielding insufficient profits, survival demanded an adaptation to the global wine market.

In response, a cadre of young, determined winemakers rolled up their sleeves, embarked on educational sojourns to France, and set about transforming the Greek wine landscape. The erstwhile dominance of the predictable shift from local to international grape varieties was challenged. Fortunately, Greek winemakers, recognizing that even impeccably crafted Syrah or Sauvignon Blanc couldn’t compete with their French or Italian counterparts solely on market dynamics, reverted to their wealth of local varieties—over 200 unique grape varieties indigenous to Greece.

Currently, Greece boasts a reformed viticultural school, successfully amalgamating global wine technologies with the preservation of unique local practices. This synergy has led to an expanded repertoire of Greek wines on the global stage, showcasing the nation’s resilience and innovation in the face of adversity.

The perceptible leap in quality is nothing short of striking. My initial encounter with Greece’s wines transpired in 2017, and the subsequent visit in 2021 revealed a noteworthy evolution in the country’s vinicultural landscape. The remarkable enhancement in the overall quality of wines is unmistakable. While my first visit unearthed some truly exceptional wines, the need for a judicious selection strategy was apparent, given the somewhat variable average quality. However, upon revisiting in 2021, I found no cause to encounter any subpar wines. To be clear, not every wine encountered was extraordinary – a standard unattainable in any wine-producing nation – but rather, the notable observation was the commendable elevation in the baseline quality of everyday table wines. This positive trajectory underscores a collective commitment to continuous improvement within Greece’s vinicultural domain.

Let’s delve into the intricacies of Greek wile laws and how they manifest on labels. Greece adheres to the comprehensive wine regulations of the European Union, bringing a standardized approach to wine labeling. For an in-depth exploration of what this entails for consumers and its visual representation on wine labels, refer to this detailed guide with examples find here.

Given that the foundation of Greek wine laws is rooted in French regulations, the categories often carry over with translations from French. Consequently, labels frequently feature French translations. Notably, wines intended for export to the USA showcase categories in both Greek and English, sometimes exclusively in English. In the examples provided, both red wines were procured in Greece, displaying primary information in Greek on the front labels, while the back labels present categories in French. Conversely, the retsina purchased in the USA features label information exclusively in English.

In Greece, owing to historical traditions, there are two distinct categories each for PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) and PGI (Protected Geographical Indication).


Oenoi Onomasias Proelefseos Elenhomeni /Appelation d’Origine Contrjlee (OPE or sometimes you may encounter the older variant AOP)

This category is designated for regions renowned for producing high-quality sweet wines, particularly from the Muscat and Mavrodaphene varieties.

Despite assumptions about Greek preferences, with some arguing against a collective sweet tooth, the enduring popularity of retsina contradicts this claim. It’s noteworthy that Eastern Europe historically served as the primary consumer of Greek wines, with a pronounced taste for sweet and semi-sweet varieties. While the contemporary Greek wine market has shifted markedly towards drier options in the past five years, the legacy of sweet wines persists. The establishment of a separate PDO for sweet wines, embracing eight regions, traces back to the 1970s when sweet wines were a source of national pride. Presently, this PDO encompasses both dry and sweet wines.

Example: The dry red wine from Nemea 2010 (refer to the label) falls specifically within this category..

Oenoi Onomasias Proefseos Anoteras Poiotitas/ Appellation d’Origine de Qualite Superieure (OPAP)

This PDO encompasses all other wines, primarily focusing on high-quality dry wines of any color, although sparkling and sweet varieties can also find a place within this designation.

Example: The red wine from Nemea 2004 (refer to the label) is a representative of this category.

PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) includes two distinctive categories:

Topikos Oinos/Vins de Pays (TO)

This category aligns with the EU PGI and encompasses wines that don’t conform to the specific criteria of OPAP but instead adhere to their own set of standards. Notably, this can include wines crafted from non-Greek grape varieties.

Oenoi Onomasias Kata Paradosi/ Appellation Traditionnellee (OKT)

This category is unique to Greece and is tailored to a specific type of wine, specifically Retsina. Unlike other categories where the definition of the region is mandatory, OKT doesn’t impose geographical restrictions, although it must originate from Greece. This distinctive category was established within the framework of wine laws to incorporate a product that deviates from the standard wine definition, which typically involves the use of fresh grapes only. The prime example within this category is, indeed, Retsina.

When delving into Greek wines, the unmistakable Retsina immediately captures attention. Unparalleled in the world, this wine stands alone with its unique infusion of resin. The very term “retsina” is derived from ancient practices when wines were stored in clay vessels, sealed at the neck with resin to prevent air exchange and oxidation. Thus, the resin taste was initially an inadvertent outcome of imperfect winemaking technology. In the 3rd century AD, the advent of wine barrels by the Romans rendered amphoras and resin corks obsolete. However, the Greeks had grown accustomed to the resin essence and, rather than forsaking it, began intentionally adding resin to their wines. According to historical anecdotes, Greeks viewed this practice as a way to deter Roman occupants who had a distaste for the resin flavor, leaving retsina to its native makers. Even after Roman rule, during the Ottoman era, when wine was disapproved of, Greeks persevered in maintaining the tradition of the resin-infused taste.

Technologically, modern retsina is a white dry wine where Aleppi pine resin (Pinus halepensis) is introduced during fermentation. As the wine ferments, it absorbs resin components, and the residual resin is later eliminated through filtration. Predominantly, the grape varieties Savatiano and Roditis are chosen for crafting retsina. In addition to white retsina, a limited quantity of rose retsina is produced using the same meticulous process.

While retsina is crafted throughout Greece, its primary production hub is in Attica, with the city of Athens being a major consumer. This wine, characterized by simplicity, lightness, and affordability, is an everyday delight. In the 19th century, Athens boasted around 6000 tavernas where locals would spend hours savoring retsina crafted on-site. Grapes freshly harvested from local vineyards were promptly transformed into wine within these tavernas, providing a direct and immediate connection to the community. Until the 1960s, retsina was seldom bottled and rarely exported, remaining a favored local indulgence. However, from the 1980s onward, certain producers began prioritizing the quality of retsina, propelling it from a local gem to a global sensation. Now, a bottle of retsina can be found not only in every Greek store but also on shelves worldwide. The featured retsina (refer to the label) was procured in Seattle.

Quality retsina stands out as an intriguing and enjoyable wine, albeit with its distinct character. A fresh, mineral-flower (or mineral-fruit, depending on grape variety) aroma intertwines with the resin’s bitter, oily, and saline notes, reminiscent of fino sherry. The taste of retsina harmoniously complements the vibrant flavors of Greek cuisine. Best served well-chilled at 7-9°C, it offers a refreshing experience that enhances the enjoyment of both the wine and the accompanying culinary delights.

Greece boasts a repertoire of over 200 grape varieties, spread across the nation. While an exhaustive discussion is impractical, let’s delve into some key regions and varieties.

Mainland Greece comprises two prominent wine regions: Macedonia in the North and Attica in the center.

In Macedonia the spotlight is on red wine crafted from the Xinomavro grape. grape. Noted for its elevated acidity and tannins, Xinomavro, akin to the Italian Nebbiolo, undergoes a color shift as it matures. In its youth, Xinomavro may seem unremarkable due to a subdued fruity profile, coupled with pronounced acidity and tannins. However, this grape variety thrives with aging, revealing a rich tapestry of spice and earthy tones after about five years, while simultaneously mellowing its initial sharpness.

The principal OPAP od the region is Naoussa, celebrated for its aged Xinomavro wines.

For enthusiasts inclined towards a more opulent style, the neighboring OPAP Goumenissa offers a Xinomavro wine characterized by its fruity, almost jammy, attributes, employing a distinct vinification process.

Attica predominantly cultivates Savatiano, with a significant portion dedicated to retsina production. While young Savatiano vines contribute to retsina’s allure, the real surprise lies in the wine produced from mature vines. Though production is modest, these wines, aging gracefully for at least five years, present a compelling narrative of quality emerging from this region.

A captivating segment of Greece unfolds in the Peloponnese peninsula, particularly its northern reaches.

One standout is the renowned OPAP Nemea, nestled in the northeast near Corinth. Pictured above is a picturesque vineyard from the heart of Nemea. The region is distinguished for its stellar red wines crafted from the indigenous Agiorgitiko grape. The finest renditions exhibit a deep-ruby hue, robust yet velvety tannins, moderate acidity, and a captivating bouquet of red fruits intertwined with sweet spices. These wines, with their aging potential, manifest their beauty remarkably—I personally savored the elegance of a decade-old vintage.

A must-mention in Nemea is Estate Papaioannou (see (refer to the labels of their Agiorgitiko 2004 and 2010). Regarded as one of Greece’s premier winemakers, a visit to this estate is a journey into excellence. Their diverse portfolio spans various grape varieties, catering to different price points, each maintaining a commendable quality. The zenith of their craft, however, is witnessed in their exceptional wines, a testament to their dedication.

Venturing further, the intriguing OPAP Mantinia graces the central expanse of Peloponnese, perched on a lofty, cooler plateau ideal for cultivating aromatic varieties. At the heart of Mantinia lies the Moschofilero. grape, distinguished by its pink skin, giving rise to light-bodied white and rosé wines. Infused with elevated acidity and an aromatic intensity reminiscent of Muscat or Gewurztraminer, these wines offer a delightful, refreshing option for languid summer days. Some producers have even embraced the trend of crafting sparkling wines from Moschofilero, adding a sparkling note to the region’s diverse vinous offerings.

For aficionados of white wines, the enchanting OPAP Patra Roditis, Lagorthi and Sideritis, form the foundation of these luminous, invigorating white wines.

And,Now, let’s set sail for the Aegean islands, where each island boasts its vinous treasure trove. Many islands specialize in the cultivation of aromatic Muscat. Samos, renowned for its luscious sweet Muscats, stands out as a paragon of Muscat excellence, showcasing the grape’s versatility in both youthful and aged renditions. On Lemnos, the production of Muscats, both sweet and dry, adds to the Aegean’s vinous symphony.

Delving into the vinification tales of two Aegean gems warrants separate narratives.

For the unorthodox vineyards, rich winemaking history, unique varietals, and a personal sojourn into winery experiences on Santorini, peruse more here.

Embark on a journey to Crete, the birthplace of Greek viniculture, where the beacon of its modern renaissance shines brightly. Delve into the fascinating story, complete with personal winery encounters, by clicking here.

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