The Greek Grapes
These years, Greece is going through a renaissance in the use of indigenous grape varietals. Hundreds of varietals which have been used in the creation of unique wines for thousands of years in the mountainous country. Greece has been at the centre of European winemaking since antiquity and it is now kicking back into high gear, able to compete with the other wine countries of central Europe. Their know-how, technology and specialisation are world-class, despite the struggles the country has gone through in recent years; 400 years of prohibition against producing wine commercially, invasions, civil war, junta rule, economic crisis and rising competition.
It is time for Scandinavia to taste what the modern Greek wine industry has to offer. With its mountain ranges, soothing Mediterranean winds, minimal rain, concentrated sun and highly specialized techniques to preserve the vines from the harsh elements, Greece produces wines with completely localized expressions of the terroir and unique taste profiles which are not to be found anywhere else in the world.
Read on for a rundown of the most widely used, rarest, oldest and most interesting grape varietals Greece has to offer.
Nemea on the Peloponnese peninsula is the largest PDO appellation in Greece and home to the Agiorgitiko grape. The varietal grows in a relatively cold clime, with wet winters and temperatures that are low but do not fall below freezing. The summers are warm, without being too hot. The grapes are usually harvested in September.
Wines on the Agiorgitiko grape are often characterized by deep red colour and aromatic notes of toffee and red fruits, like ripe strawberries and blackcurrant when young and cask aged. Older wines are driven by dried fruit, think fig, raisin and plum. The tannic structure of Agiorgitiko wines is remarkably soft and develops slowly.
The Agiorgitiko grape is also grown outside Nemea. Depending on the terroir and geographic region, it can express many different qualities. The grape is said to be somewhat of a chameleon, taking on strong characteristics of its growing conditions.
Originally from the island of Santorini, the Assyrtiko grape is now found all over Greece and is now used to make some of the highest quality white, sweet and light orange wines the country has to offer. It does well in hot climates with little rain, while still keeping its high acidity and mineral crispness intact.
The classic PDO Assyrtikos of Santorini, often classed as some of the best whites on the world stage, emphasises the concentrated mineral structure of the grape, while wines from other regions often have more fruit both on nose and palate. Assyrtiko wines are great candidates for ageing, especially those with barrel ageing, but all store well up to 10 years or more, developing ripe fruit, honey and intensifying the mineral expressions.
Travel back in time with the Limnio grape. It is the oldest recorded blue grape variety in the world and comes from the volcanic island of Lemnos. Wines made from the Limio grape were enjoyed and recorded by Homer, Hesiod and Polydefkis in antiquity.
Limnio delivers floral and berry aromas and flavours of lavender, violet, rose, cherry, cranberry and raspberry mixed with heavier compounds such as cinnamon and black or green pepper, framed by a pleasant acidity and smooth tannins. The grape offers a great wine experience and is often compared to or substituted as an alternative to reds on Barbera or Pinot Noir.
This unique green varietal is grown mainly in the colder climes of northern Greece, in and around Macedonia. Almost extinct by the 1970s, this aromatic grape has been rediscovered by producers of natural wine and academics who made a concerted effort, which resulted in worldwide recognition of this quintessential Greek varietal.
Known for making wines with pale yellow hues and high acidity with notes of intense lemon, floral and sometimes even a hint of petroleum, Malagousia wines are refreshing but highly complex. Most wines on this varietal are aged on steel tanks, though fantastic whites and oranges are made using barrel ageing, and they are at their best when young.
This rich blue grape is found mainly on the islands of Crete and Rhodes. The thick-skinned varietal has a distinctive aroma and flavour profile of black fruits, herbs and leather, but can lack body and structure, therefore it is most often used in blends that mellow the high tannins of the Mandilaria and gives it more body and structure.
Mavrodaphne is most often found on the Peloponnese peninsula and the Ionian Islands. It is traditionally used in sweet, fortified wines, especially on the island of Kefalonia, known for their PDO Mavrodaphne of Cephalonia,” a rich red sweet made with sun-dried grapes, sometimes compared to the flavour profiles of Port.
The deep red fruit, leather and earthiness of the Mavrodaphne grape make it perfect for sweet wines, but in recent years, several wineries have begun producing dry reds on the varietal, producing some grand wines often compared to big-name Amarone wines. Almost always cask aged, wines on Mavrodaphne are perfect for storage and only get better with age.
Mavro KalavrytinoMavro Kalavrytino, also known as Black of Kalavryta, is the local blue grape grown in the mountainsides of Ajialio and Kalavryta in the Achaia region, in the northwest part of the Peloponnese peninsula. It was close to extinction until oenologist Panayiotis Papagiannopoulos from Tetramythos wines found viable Mavro Kalavrytino vines 15 years ago, which helped save the varietal.
Mavro Kalavrytino is a small, thin-skinned, tricksy grape that ripens in late October. It is characterized by a nice concentration of acids and tannins, with fruity strawberry aromas, tinged with a hint of earthiness that lends itself to a unique, soft, light, medium-bodied elegant tannic structure. Known for its refreshing taste, wines on the Mavro Kalavrytino varietal are an exciting alternative to Pinot Noir from places like Burgundy. The more the wine ages, the more notes of leather and earth will develop in the aroma.
Though the grape is mostly found as a supporting player in blends, Tetramythos wines uniquely produce 100% Mavro Kalavrytino wines.
This versatile, pink varietal has its home on the Peloponnese peninsula and is used to produce both light, vibrant wines, as well as more full-bodied ones. Perfect for drinking while still young and slightly cooled. Fragrant with notes of citrus, green fruits and florality, its versatile nature makes it perfect for dry and sweeter whites and rosés, as well as fun orange wines. Often ideal for drinking by itself, spicy or vegetable-based dishes or as pairing with cheeses.
While the Muscat grape is known for its sweeter, aromatic wines from all around the world, Greece has several varieties that have been cultivated in local areas for ages.
Muscat of Alexandria, while also grown in other regions, has a storied history on the island of Lemnos and in northern Greece. Both used for sweet and dry whites, this grape produced aromatic, full-bodied wines with notes of stone fruit and citrus. The fruit-heavy and well-structured nature of Muscat of Alexandria also lends itself perfectly for orange wines heavy in orange peel and earthy minerality.
Muscat de Cephalonia, as the name suggests, hails from the island of Cephalonia. Though almost going extinct in the 20th century, a redoubled effort of cultivation has yielded some supremely aromatic and complex dry and sweet whites and a few world-class orange wines.
This variety is indigenous to northern Greece and takes its name from the city of Naoussa in Macedonia. Though little Negoska is produced, and even fewer single-grape wines exist, don’t cheat yourself if you find one. With impressive tannins and acidity, the notes of berries, black fruits and wood create an impressive red, perfect for drinking both young and with medium or long ageing.
When not flying solo, the Negoska grape is the perfect supporting partner for Xinomavro-based wines. The big appellation wines of the Goumenissa region, PDO Goumenissa, show how Negoska can rein in the unbridled nature of the heavy Xinomavro, rounding it off with perfect tannins and notes of dark fruits, tomato, leather and tobacco, all with refreshing acidity.
Roditis is the most widely planted green varietal in Greece. It has a rose-coloured skin and is especially popular in Attica, Macedonia, Thessaly and the Peloponnese peninsula, where it can take advantage of the mountainous slopes. It is at its best when allowed to have a low yield, and the grapes produced can show off the elegant citrus and mineral notes that the grape is known for.
A fantastic varietal for both white and orange wines, that are often great value for money.
The historic green Savatiano varietal is among the Greek vineyards' most planted and used grapes. Used itself or in a mix with other varietals, this grape accounts for a significant amount of the white wines produced in the Attika region, located just outside Athens.
Traditionally connected to the production of Retsina, many wineries produce Savatiano wines today without added pine resin and the results are impressive. Wines on Savatiano have a pleasant level of acidity and alcohol, and it is often found in combination with Assyrtiko and Roditis grapes, and even Sauvignon Blanc.
Savatiano wines are known for notes of dried wild herbs, green apple, lime and honeydew. With notes of fruit that make for easy drinking, Savatiano often offers great value for money.
A grape hailing from the Ionian islands of Kefalonia and Zakynthos. It is characterized by notes of exotic and yellow fruits and produces wines with intense yellow colours with high acidity but low tannins, making it perfect for deep whites and oranges. It can be found in both cask-aged matured versions and steel-matured ones.
This grape pairs perfectly with sweeter dishes, cheeses, fish and seafood, as well as white meats like roast poultry.
Xinomavro is the noblest of the red grapes found in northern Greece. The low yield of the vines that grow in the cool mountains of the area is perfect for the Xinomavro grape to produce rich red wines with a high alcohol percentage, good colour and enough tannins to produce a great wine for longer ageing.
Xinomavro produces wines that are worth comparing to the great Nebbiolo-based reds from Barolo, Barbaresco and Valtellina in northwestern Italy, as well as the structured and spicy Pinot Noirs of Côtes de Nuits in Burgundy. Though classically used for reds.
Xinomavro can also be enjoyed as impressive blanc de noir wines, both still and sparkling, or as well-structured Rosé that are perfect for pairing with food, just like all Xinomavro wines are. Try it with roasted meats or fish mushrooms or casserole dishes with strong spices and heavy umami.
Cabernet Sauvignon has been grown in Greece since the 1960's and since then, many producers have come to love the varietal. As in the rest of Europe, Cabernet sauvignon produces deeply coloured wines with a vibrant nose and high tannins. When compared to Cabernets from other countries, most Greek versions will be more akin to those that have received more sun and are thus heavier and darker.
Chardonnay was first cultivated in Greece in the Attika region in the 1960s and the popular grape quickly spread across the country, especially to the north, where the grape thrives in the cooler climate of the mountainous regions. You will find both oaked and unoaked versions, as well as some more experimental versions like the Tatsis Orange Chardonnay, but generally, the Chardonnays of Greece have the rich fruitiness, acid and structure you know this classic by.
Arriving in Greece at the same time as Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, the Merlot grape is used to make wines similar in style to the wines found in Bordeaux. Though some vintners create the classic Cabernet/Merlot wines, many prefer to mix Merlot with the Xinomavro grape, which can rein in the heavy tannins and adds notes of tomato, spice and black fruit.
Though a relatively new addition to the vineyards of Greece, the Syrah varietal has quickly become a favourite for its ability to shore up the local grape varietals, giving them structure, tannins and body, but still letting the locals play first violin. Furthermore, the grape thrives in both the warmer regions of Greece and the colder north, creating wines dominated by black fruits, leather and spices.