The Wine World’s Best Kept Secret

(Image credit Kathleen Standridge)


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Many wine aficionados are at least somewhat familiar with The Big B’s- Burgundy, Bordeaux, Barolo, Brunello — the somewhat out of rhythm Napa. It is true, some of the world’s best wines come from these regions where producers tell the story of exceptional terroir, unique vineyards and the meticulous craft of winemaking.

In the last decade however, one of the oldest and most storied wine making countries has risen to become one of the wine world’s biggest darlings. Once only beloved and even hoarded by the nerdiest of cork dorks, Greek wine has been slowly but steadily making its way to the mainstream.

Travel enthusiasts know the island of Santorini for its crystalline waters and dramatic cliffs adorned with white washed homes dotted with cerulean blue – wine lovers however, adore the Island for its defining volcanic soils, and resilient grape varieties.

“Assyrtiko is a premiere wine variety, and of course there are no better examples of it than in Santorini ” Says Stellios Boutaris, winemaker and CEO of Kir-Yanni and Domaine Segalas. With mouth watering acidity, flinty minerality, and notes of zesty lemon and salt it is easy to see why it is a favorite pairing for seafood among sommeliers. “We focused on New York City when we first started, all of a sudden we started seeing Assyrtiko on big time lists, not just in Greek restaurants,” says Boutaris.

Grown in conditions of near constant wind, with strong gales that hit above 55 knots, Assyrtiko is a grape variety born of perseverance and ingenuity. Growers of Assyrtiko have adapted their vine  trellising style to resemble a woven basket on the ground known as kouloura: this adaptation protects the hard won grape berries from wind, drought and summertime scorch. From the word go, this grape variety has not only fought to survive in a treacherous climate but also manages to stick the gymnastic dismount of elegant, unique and food friendly upon consumption. 

What about the language barrier? There can be no better application of the expression — It’s all Greek to me. “It’s always a problem,” says Stellios. “Think of the variety names Agiorgitiko, Xinomavro, Assyrtiko. Greek is hard enough and the grape varieties are even harder.” 

There are producers who skirt the issue by labeling grape varieties by their English names. On some bottles, Agiorgitiko may be translated to its English name, “St. George”, and there has been some talk of shortening Xinomavro, meaning sour-black in English to the more approachable, Xino.

In the unapologetic Greek fashion, Stellios says, “There is nothing to be done. It just is what it is.” Is worth taking the leap of faith, however risking only the chance of sounding a little wrong footed at first, to try wines of singular provenance.

“Greece is the third most mountainous country in Europe after Switzerland and Austria.” Stellios goes on to say, “Many of the mainland wineries come from really high elevations.” Paradoxically it is the hardest and most desolate mountainside cliffs, where it is near impossible to grow most agricultural products that often make the best, and most dynamic wines.

If Nebbiolo from Barolo is the king of Italian wines, then Xinomavro from the mountain sides of Noussa is the crown jewel of Greece. Many Greek wine makers will rankle their nose at the comparison of Nebbiolo to Xinomavro, but for those unfamiliar with the wines it is important to draw the parallels.

Janine Sacco from boutique fine wine importer Skurnik imports says, “Nebbiolo and Xinomavro have an incredible similarity to them. High acid, high tannin, a little bit of mushroom, decomposing leaf, and a touch of truffle.” Xinomavro from Noussa can be hauntingly beautiful, especially when in the hands of a master like Stellios and the wines he makes at the Kir-Yanni estate. Xinomavro differs from Nebbiolo in its signature notes of green olive and sundried tomato. 

“We’re seeing a lot more interest in wines that are off the beaten path, that are unique in character, and that really puts the wines of Greece in an incredible position,” says Sacco. She is charming and relentlessly enthusiastic when she talks about these wines. “It comes down to the fact that they have always chosen to champion indigenous varieties that can date back in their specific uses in their areas for thousands of years.”

“Nowhere — not even in other developing European countries — do you see people focusing as much on indigenous varieties than in Greece,” says Janine, as she dives into a story of her favorite grape variety discovered near Thessaloniki and brought back from near extinction.

“Malagousia was thought to be lost to history, when a group of students from the local wine school were walking through a fallow vineyard.” A single bunch of grapes was discovered and propagated by wine master Vangelis Gerovassiliou – If spotted on the shelves of your favorite wine shop, it is a must buy. “It’s floral but mineral with a touch of melon rind and light grapefruit with a salty tinge,” a perfect alternative for the Sancerre drinkers out there. 

The best part about enjoying wines that come from the road less traveled? Often you can get the highest quality wines for half the price of other more well known regions. Those Big B’s mentioned at the top?  Retail prices from those regions frequently start at $50 for modestly priced selections and skyrocket from there. You can expect to find Greek wines from $15- $60 in wine shops like Spencer & Lynn (Mystic), The Wine Thief (New Haven), The Town Cellar (Darien), The Wise Old Dog (West Hartford) and The Study (Greenwich).

Other notable grape varieties from Greece include red wines made from Agiorgitiko, and Mavrotragano and Liatiko — white wines from Moscofilero. 

From the rugged cliffs of Santorini to the mountain slopes of Noussa, it seems that the word is out. Greek winemakers are crafting wines of unparalleled character and complexity, unapologetically sticking to their guns and leaning into their indigenous varieties despite the linguistic hurdles. As wine lovers seek new experiences and undiscovered treasures, Greece stands ready to captivate palates and redefine the boundaries of wine appreciation.