‘We have to bottle a first batch now. We can’t keep up with the demand.’ Vassilis Papagiannakos watched as the green glass went down the conveyor belt. It was early December, and the wine he was talking about was, incredibly, Retsina.
Once upon a time, Greek wine was synonymous with Retsina, a flabby white reeking of industrial pine resin. But hey, it was cheap and the sky was blue; millions of holiday-goers did not mind the quality.
Retsina was predominantly made in Attica – the region around Athens – from the local workhorse grape variety, Savatiano, with a splash of the more acidic Roditis. But Roditis had the advantage of a poised lemony profile when grown on higher altitudes and thus became a natural recruit for Greece’s quality revolution in the 1990s.
Savatiano took a longer time to reinvent. Naturally productive, with a neutral flavour, it continued to supply the Greek wine lake. On top of that, Attica vineyards were decimated by phylloxera as late as the 1950s and then by urban and industrial development: the Athens International Airport alone wiped out 5,000 hectares of vines, with the survivors now endangered by solar farms.
Paradoxically, Savatiano’s low profile helped save many old vineyards, and these low-cropping bush vines gradually attracted quality-conscious vintners. Global warming also emphasised the natural resilience of this ‘true gladiator,’ says Vassilis Markou, who runs the eponymous estate and wine museum with his sister Maria. Savatiano needs less water than most other cultivars and its late ripening means it can be harvested well into September while reaching only 12–12.5% alcohol, even in recent, torrid vintages.
Mesogeia, the limestone and sand plateau south-east of Athens, bordered on two sides by the sea and to the north by mountains, was found to be an ideal habitat for the vine and olive tree in Antiquity. But climate change is wreaking havoc here, with catastrophic wildfires in 2018 and almost no rainfall in 2021. Yet Anastasia Fragou, who lost a building and part of her stock in the fires, is impressed by Savatiano’s resilience: ‘Even in 2021, the pH was stable and acid levels were as high as 7g/l. We are ready to acidify but actually never need to.’
Retsina is enjoying an unexpected renaissance within Greece. Vintners now put more care into selecting quality resin and base wine. Dimitris Georgas introduced natural Retsina, with wild fermentation and no SO2 added, an increasingly popular approach. Others, like Kokotos, a renowned château, don’t bother with Retsina at all, exploring oaked versions instead.
In fact, Savatiano’s stylistic versatility is proving to be another unexpected advantage. Traditionally, light oxidation produced wines with notes of toast, hay, and nuts, reminiscent of aged Hunter Valley Sémillon or Chenin. Modern vinification yields more primary fruit appeal, including a pear and banana-like fleshiness not unlike Chardonnay.
Stamatis Mylonas has bottled wine since 2006. His approach to Savatiano is to preserve its elusive freshness, so he harvests before anybody else, usually in the third week of August. He succeeds in morphing this unsexy grape into several contemporary styles, including a best-selling Pét Nat: ‘Savatiano responds well to several winemaking strategies. It’s proving more flexible than we ever thought.’
Increasingly, the focus is on premium, single-vineyard cuvées that try to compete with more fashionable grapes such as Assyrtiko or Vidiano. Mylonas takes that path with his Cuvée Vouno and Papagiannakos with his Honores. The trend was pioneered by Sotiris Ginis of the Aoton estate. He sought more concentration, ripeness and complexity, keeping his Savatiano for a year on lees while avoiding oak oxidation. The result is one of Greece’s most distinctive white wines, a beguiling kaleidoscope of flavours ranging from Sémillon-like toast through quince and prickly pear to elusive top notes of oleo saccharum. Broader than Assyrtiko, fleshier than Roditis, ageworthy like Riesling but oily almost like a dry Gewürztraminer, Aoton truly speaks a language isolate.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for a grape with such a lowly reputation, Savatiano is almost non-existent outside its Attica home. Pockets are grown in the adjacent region of Thebes to the north but it hasn’t spread to the rest of Greece or beyond, like Assyrtiko, now experimented as far as South Africa and Australia. Could this variety, with its drought and heat resilience, be a good match to hot, dry climates such as that of inland Australia? Ginis paints an eloquent picture: ‘Savatiano is a true survivor. It might be the last wine we’ll have left to drink.’
Savatiano to savour: Five to try
Papagiannakos, Old Vines Savatiano
If there is one wine that embodies the renaissance of Savatiano, it is this. Forget the flabby oxidative house wines of old, this is technical winemaking at its best, redefining this inherently unaromatic grape with subtle nuances of pear, banana and quince before a broad-shouldered, appetizingly toasted, textured, lightly saline palate that will make your mouth water, with or without food.
Mylonas, Savatiano Late Release Cuvée Vouno 2017
Stamatis Mylonas is the true champion of Savatiano, offering Attica’s signature grape in no fewer than seven styles: Pét Nat, stainless steel, oaked, natural, retsina, and late-harvest sweet. But it’s arguably this single-vineyard, low-cropped cuvée aged nine months in tank and two years in bottle that steals the show: cloudberries, hay, toast and resin complexity tightly wound around a steely mineral core. The just-released 2019 is very youthful; the 2017 has entered a long drinking window.
£19.95, Wine & Greene
Other wineries boast a longer winemaking tradition but Sotiris Ginis can be single-handedly credited for pushing the envelope for Savatiano with his innovative winemaking, including long hang time, night harvest, two weeks’ skin contact, wild ferment, and full malolactic. The result is a triumph of textural richness, with a bold flavour profile mixing toast, salted cheese, pulpy banana, bitter almonds, and lemon rind. With this bottling, the older the better, so pick any vintage available with confidence.
Markou, Attica Savatiano Kleftes 2021
Greece’s first no-sulphur-added, now also fully organic wine, produced since 2008, takes advantage of Savatiano’s naturally low pH to produce an uber-clean, appetizing mix of pear, white flowers, and buttery texture. Clocking in at just 12.5% alc., it is light on its feet with no hint of oxidation. Consummate winemaking and real character.
Kokotos, Barrel Fermented Savatiano 2017
With its neutral profile and sturdy extract, Savatiano lends itself well to oak fermentation, but the famed winemaking family of Kokotos take their approach up a notch by using only acacia wood (30% new). The variety’s textured banana-scented fruit is framed by acacia’s distinctive, lightly floral, elegantly tannic character. With a long sappy finish and good ageing potential, this is an original, engaging wine.
£15, Maltby & Greek