One of the best ways to try the wines of a country is to go there. Greece especially. This is a country rich in wine making history with grape varieties that have obscure names. The wines don’t make it here to New Zealand possibly because retailers can’t cope with the impossible to spell and impossible to pronounce varieties and also because with no publicity, there is no demand. Oh, there’s Retsina of course, but to dump all Greek wine in the Retsina basket is just plain ignorant these days.
Greece is making some mighty fine wine and as well as the ancients, there are the classical varieties that we know of, too. Sauvignon Blanc for example, the backbone of the New Zealand wine industry – and it’s pretty good Sauv according to the judges at the Decanter, who awarded one with a gold medal earlier this year.
I didn’t get to try a 100% varietal Sauvignon Blanc, but I did try one blended with Assyrtiko and Malagouzia. It was called Asteri and from boutique wine producer Manos in the Pieria wine region near Mount Olympus. This 2012 vintage was rich, full-bodied and aromatic with the influence of Sauvignon Blanc noticeable but not overpowering. A delight to try and perfect with my delicate risotto. I can see a real future for this style of blend.
Apart from a visit to Rapsani (that story to follow), our overall Greek wine education came later in Navplion on the Peloponnese Peninsula. We went to Navplion because it was an evacuation port for Allied Forces in World War II. Here we met up with Dimitri Karonis at his wine shop, not surprisingly called Karonis www.karoniswineshop.gr.
Karonis has an excellent range of Greek wines (about 500 labels we believe) and as well Bordeaux First Growths, Premier Grand Cru Burgundies and other wines from round the world including two New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs – Cloudy Bay and Villa Maria. But it’s not just a wine shop. There are spirits, accessories and cigars. Yes, one of the things we had to cope with in Greece was that 9 out of 10 people seem to smoke.
Dimitri sat us down with a glass of Assyrtiko and told us about the four special grape varieties of Greece.
- Moschofilero is an aromatic dry white with high acidity and flavours reminiscent of citrus and lemon. It’s also used for sparking. While it is grown throughout Greece, Dimitri says the best are coming from Mantinia in the mid Peloponnese.
- Assyrtiko has its roots on Santorini but is fast becoming the high flying Greek white with interest on the mainland as well as on the islands. Indeed the wine we were tasting, Sigilas Santorini 2012, was spicy and fresh with warmth and weight – it seems as if some lees contact may have contributed to this. Lots of wine commentators use the M word for this variety and indeed there is a dry, sucking-on-a-river-stone feel to the finish. It’s aromatic with citrus freshness but as it warms up (it was served very cold) nuances of apricot come through.
- Agiorgitiko, also known as The Blood of Hercules is the second most widely planted red grape in Greece and is best known from Nemea in the Peloponnese. There are many styles but it is typically full-bodied with soft velvety tannins and fruit flavours of cherries and black berries.
- Xinimavro, best know from the Naussoa region in Macedonia, took over from Agiorgitiko as the number one Greek red grape in 2012.
I wanted to buy a bottle of the Assyrtiko, but it didn’t have a screwcap and I wasn’t going to cart a bottle of wine halfway around the world and to open it to find out it was corked when I got there. So I discussed the option with Dimitri and on his recommendation purchased Domaine Skouras Salto Mavrofilero Wild Yeast 2012 (about 9 Euros) from the Peloponnese, which I shared with friends at a dinner some four weeks later, at Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Now Mavrofilero is a synonym of the better known Moscofilero name, but some sources say it is black filero with high acidity – anyway whatever it was, I knew that on Dimitri’s recommendation I had a promising Greek white varietal. Actually, searching the Internet I found that Domaine Skouras called it this Moscofilero for the 2011 vintage but this 2012 clearly has Mavrofilero from on the label. Perhaps they realise it is not a synonym, but a different although very closely related grape.
This had a floral honeysuckle aroma and the taste was a little spicy – white pepper with sublte white / yellow fruit reminding me of the white-fleshed yellow-skinned loquats that fruit on the tree outside my kitchen window in October/ November. Then there’s a saline impression to the finish. What I call a salt and pepper wine – great with a Caprese Salad. I can see this going so well on the taverna tables in Greece with those wonderful tomato salads and cheeses.
While I can’t see the demand for these wines in New Zealand for the reasons stated above – only the really geeky wine drinkers (me included) will buy these wines I think, there is lots of interest in growing alternative varieties in New Zealand. Perhaps we will see grapes like Assyrtiko and Moscofilero / Mavrofilero being planted here soon. But they will need to bring in the Greek wines to compare. Let me know if you do.