An armchair tour of the great Greek wine regions

From Assyrtiko to Xinomavro, the wines of Greece have captured the palates of wine lovers worldwide - but it's the rare varieties from the Greek Islands that are the most exciting

Words by Justin Keay

Greek wines lined up in a row

Determined to compensate for the loss of a planned visit to the Greek Islands, I decided to proceed with my trip – in an oenological way, so to speak – from my dining room chair. Armed with a glass, a corkscrew, some Kalamata olives and a good map, I prepared to taste my way through one of the world’s most beautiful wine regions.

Much has been written about Greece’s wine revolution. White wines – Assyrtiko in particular – have captured the palates of wine lovers, as has the most highly regarded red grape, Xinomavro. Yet the most exciting wines are being produced in the Greek Islands by heroic winemakers making tiny amounts of highly individual wines from nearly extinct grape varieties.

Maria Mousou of Southern Wine Roads, which specialises in wines from Greece and the Greek Islands, reckons the islands don’t get nearly enough publicity. “Santorini has acted as the guiding light but it’s by no means the only story. The Greek Islands have small terroirs, each with an individual character and completely distinct from the next.”

I start my journey in Crete, the largest of the islands, where Basil Lyrarakis is dedicated to rediscovering and producing lost varieties. Although the Lyrarakis Assyrtiko is probably his best known wine, it is his other varieties, notably the white Thrapsathiri and the red Liatiko, that most impress.

Domaine Lyrarakis, Crete
Domaine Lyrarakis, Crete
Domaine Lyrarakis

It’s normally two hours by fast boat from Crete to Santorini in the Cyclades, but for me just a quick stab of the corkscrew. Gavalas, one of the oldest producers, brings me to the heart of this beautiful island, created by one of the biggest volcanic explosions of all time. The Gavalas family started production in the late 19th century; today, Giorgos Gavalas is probably best known for his delicious Assyrtiko – Santorini at its most enchanting.

Until the early part of the century, Tinos was best known as a place of pilgrimage – the shrine to Our Lady of Tinos is a must for Greek Orthodox Christians – and for its wild and windy weather – this rocky island was named after the Greek god of winds. However since 2002 it has also been home to Greece’s highest end wine producer T_Oinos, who have encouraged other producers to set up here but whose Assyrtiko and Mavrotragano remains highly sought after, with fewer than 20,000 bottles produced annually.

A longish boat journey across the Aegean gets you to Ikaria. For me, after a light lunch of Greek salad and kebabs, it takes just a few minutes. Ikaria, home of Dionysus, the god of wine, has a winemaking tradition that goes back 1,000 years – its wine is mentioned in the Odyssey.

“There’s very little soil, the island is basically a lump of granite in the Aegean. It’s also very high, with vineyards at 400m and 800m, leading to incredibly focused and unusual wines, made from unique grape varieties,” says Moutsou.

Ikaria, home of Dionysus, the god of wine, has a winemaking tradition that goes back 1,000 years

A few miles to the east, Samos needs no introduction for lovers of sweet wine: its Muscat is world-famous. But I’m here to try the dry wines made by Vakakis, notably the delicious, almost orange coloured rose Pythagorean Pyramid 2016.

This sets me up nicely for my virtual ferry ride north along the Turkish coast to Lesbos, whose wine history is as old as Ikaria’s. Red Limnio, the world’s oldest referenced variety, was cultivated in the volcanic soils of this ancient island.

It’s a hefty hike across the Aegean and around the Peloponnese to reach Zante/Zakinthos in western Greece, but well worthwhile. Everything here – soil, varieties, traditions – are completely different, as you might expect in the Ionian Sea, with Sicily and Calabria across to the west. And the wines made by Grampsas reflect this. They have more of a southern Italian character, yet they remain definitively Greek, confirming yet again the sheer variety of varieties and flavours on these islands.

And Cephalonia is different again. This large island has seen small producers revive varieties long thought extinct, including white Rebola but also Limnio and Mavrodaphne are made here, with delicious, terroir specific results.

My tour complete, I sit back to reflect. A lot of miles not travelled, no seasickness or sunburn, but instead an appreciation of what wine-growers are achieving in this beautiful region. It’s said that you must look to the past to create your future; by rediscovering ancient varieties and techniques, and maintaining unique terroir in often distinct microclimates, the winemakers of the Greek islands are doing just that.

Once the travel ban is lifted, I’ll be on the first plane to Greece.