‘If you take Greece apart, you will be left with an olive tree, a vineyard and a boat. With these items you can rebuild Greece.’ So wrote the great 20th-century poet and Nobel Prize winner Odysseas Elytis. Wine has been a part of Greek heritage since ancient times. There is evidence of winemaking by the Minoan civilization that flourished in Crete in the Middle Bronze Age. An ideogram symbolising wine has been identified in the early Linear A script, and a 3,600-year-old wine press – one of the oldest in the world – was discovered near Iraklion. There was even a god of wine, Dionysus.
But history and tradition aren’t enough to take a country into the future. Greek wine is rapidly evolving. The bulk retsinas of the past have been overtaken by a multitude of indigenous grape varieties. More than 200 native Greek varieties have been recorded, of which about 80 have been commercially released. Many more remain undiscovered. There is wide variation: the lovely salty Assyrtiko of Santorini competes with Assyrtikos from other islands, such as Tinos and Crete; perfumed Vidiano from Crete and mineral Robola from Cephalonia add to the fascinating diversity of white wines; Malagousia, Moschofilero and Savatiano bring immediate charm and appeal.
In red wines, the rich, chocolatey, full-bodied style persists, but a more refined, elegant approach is fast becoming mainstream. The savoury Xinomavro (reminiscent of Nebbiolo) and the velvety Agiorgitiko produce outstanding terroir wines; dry Mavrodaphne, Mavrotragano and Limniona have a thrilling future.
And don’t forget the sweet wines of Greece: sun-dried Vinsanto from Santorini, Samos and Liatiko from Crete, the Port-like Mavrodaphne, and the air-dried sweet wines of Siatista in Macedonia.
A new generation of producers, together with the emergence of a natural-wine scene, takes a delicate, hands-off approach to winemaking. Alcohol, overripeness, extraction and use of new oak have been moderated. Efforts are focused on the vineyard in the constant search for grapes that will express the distinctiveness and purity of their type.
There’s been a spectacular evolution in technique. Biodynamics in the vineyard, winemaking in clay amphorae and concrete vats, the emphasis on old oak and fewer additives – these are all commonplace. The approaches are not novel but are a reversion to the heritage and tradition of Greece.
The singular sense of place seems to have found its apotheosis in Greece and its islands. The terroirs here are phenomenally diverse, with soils ranging from limestone in Cephalonia, schist in Naoussa and gravel in Mantinia, to granite and volcanic soils in the Aegean Islands. Vineyards may be planted at sea level or at 1,000m, as in Siatista and Metsovo, where for ruggedness they rival the vineyards of Aigialia in the Peloponnese. Vines may be 10 years old, or 40, or they may be centuries older: plants 400 years of age are farmed in Santorini, that Jurassic Park of vines.
The hallmark of Greek white wines is a combination of tension, crystalline texture and minerality. The reds, meanwhile, should be structured and fresh. Both the reds and whites have a characteristic that is nowhere so pronounced as it is in vineyards close to the sea – in our case, the Aegean, Mediterranean and Ionian: salinity. It shouldn’t be thought of as a salty flavour, though; it’s more of a texture that brings freshness and balance to the wine. Just as adding salt to a dish brings out its flavours, so salinity in wine highlights the fruit and the acidity. It is, literally, mouthwatering.