For a nation with a love of wine depicted on ancient drinking vessels, Greece’s wine culture is surprisingly novel. Athenians and visitors travelling to the city may now be spoilt for choice for places to sample the vibrant wine scene but when Piraeus-based wine exporter Markus Stolz moved here in 2004, he says, ‘Wine wasn’t a thing – people drank whisky. Greeks drank wine with meals but not on its own in bars.’
‘There wasn’t a wine culture here like in France or Italy,’ agrees Fanny Kolaki, an exporter and consultant sommelier.
That all changed with the 2008 financial crisis, which struck Greece with a ferocity far worse than anywhere in northern Europe. With household budgets squeezed, the cocktail scene crashed: sales of imported spirits like then-fashionable whisky and vodka plummeted by 70%. Wine bars stepped into the gap in the market.
‘You can go to a wine bar on a lower budget,’ points out Vassilis Papadopoulos, head sommelier at Manouka wine bar. Glasses start at around €4-€5 (£4), compared to around €9 (£7.50) for cocktails. Most also sell snacks such as cheese and charcuterie boards, sometimes more.
In the past 10 years or so there has been an explosion of Greek interest in wine – and especially in the country’s own fascinating, inimitable indigenous grapes, an enthusiasm mirrored internationally in rising Greek wine sales.
‘Wine bars are the places that have educated people about what to expect from an Assyrtiko or a Malagousia,’ says Kolaki – although she also points to the importance of restaurants and all-day cafés, too. Demand for new and distinctively Greek wines has also fuelled a remarkable wave of innovation: Kolaki specialises in natural and skin-contact wines, unknown here just a few years ago.
It’s an exciting scene, says Papadopoulos: ‘Everyone is looking for something new – it’s changing so fast.’
Nine Athens wine bars to seek out in the city
On the edge of Plaka, Oinoscent was one of the first of the new wave of wine bars: smart, urban, friendly and with a vast selection of Greek wines. Around 20 are available by the glass, such as Dalamára Naoussa 2018, a fragrant, grippy Xinomavro. And while it’s not cheap at €17.50 (£15) a glass (150ml is the standard size in Greece), Gaia’s Thalassitis 2010 Santorini Assyrtiko is astonishing: aromatic, complex and very long.
Voulis 45; oinoscent.gr
Sleek Manouka opened on the top floor of Monastiraki’s Utopia Ermou hotel in May this year, boasting a breathtaking view of the Acropolis. It offers more than 100 wines by the glass, many also in 75ml tasting size, dispensed by knowledgeable staff. Fascinating rarities such as Zacharias’s fragrant, herby Sklava 2020 – a Peloponnese white at one point ripped out in all but one vineyard, but since brought back from the edge of extinction – or Anatolikos’s deep, fragrant 2018 skin-contact Assyrtiko/Malagousia blend from Thrace.
Ermou 46; facebook.com/manouka.athens
Small but smart, Materia Prima is tucked away in Koukaki, just south of the Acropolis. There are around a dozen Greek wines by the glass and they’re well chosen and offbeat. You could taste three utterly different dry 2019 Muscats from the same Samos producer with varying amounts of skin contact, or Ktima Ligas’s fragrant, honeyed Roditis Barrique 2019 from Naoussa-neighbour Pella, possibly the most impressive orange wine I’ve ever tasted.
Falirou 68; materiaprima.gr
Paleo is even more of a joy for being so unexpected, situated on a tatty side street in the port of Piraeus opposite an abandoned garage. Wine shop as well as a wine bar, its cavernous interior shelters hundreds of Greek wines, such as Moraitis’s beautifully balanced Mandilari/Monemvasia Reserve 2018 from Paros. Very good modern food, too: Greek risotto – why not?
Polidefkous 39, Piraeus; facebook.com/paleowinestore
Warehouse is a buzzing bar in the student and anarchist hotbed of Exarchia, its tables spilling out on the pavements outside. It has a couple of dozen Greek wines by the glass although is stronger on whites, such as a gorgeous Aspros Lagos Vidiano 2020 from Crete. It also features an upmarket, internationally influenced food menu (think ceviche and tuna tataki).
Valtetsiou 21; warehouse.gr
Small but bright and colourful, Heteroclito nestles in the streets just west of Syntagma. It’s perhaps the Athens bar most single-mindedly dedicated to natural wines, with an interesting full-bottle list and around 15 by glass. You’ll find plenty of innovative wines here, such as Sarris’s Robola 2020 from a high-altitude site in Kefalonia: deep golden in colour, with complex, slightly oxidative, honeyed notes.
Fokionos 2; heteroclito.gr
Tanini Agapi Mou
Up in Exarchia, small and friendly Tanini Agapi Mou (‘tannin my love’) boasts one the city’s biggest selections by the glass – nearly 100. With its floor-to-ceiling glass walls, it feels like a place to sit during the day as much as at night. Interesting wines include Sotiris Koutroulis’s skin-contact Malagousia 2020 from Attica, a fragrant and dry wine with very limited availability in Athens due to its small production; or Patistis’s beautiful, fragrant, earthy Xinomavro 2018, from the obscure Peleon area of Argalasti.
91 Ippokratous; taniniagapimou.gr
Close to the Acropolis metro, Wine Point was one of the pioneers of the wine bar movement, and has been open for a decade now. It’s slick, with low lighting and a big list with some very obscure Greek grapes: from Karnachalas to Melissaki. In this vein, try Black Lady Mavrothiliko, from the island of Kos: with notes of herbs and cherry fruit, it’s an individual drop.
Porinou 2; facebook.com/Winepoint.Athens
Junior does Wine
This newish bar is bit out of the way, a little east of the big Kolonaki museums like the Benaki. It’s low key but boasts a well-chosen list of around 30 Greek wines. From that selection, Nikolaou Kidonitsa 2020 is a nice example of this overlooked Peloponnese white: fat, almost oily but clean and well balanced.
Meandrou 5; facebook.com/juniordoeswine