Those in the know will have heard that there are interesting, high-quality wines coming out of Greece these days. These bear no resemblance at all to the cheap taverna fare of the then wildly exotic holidays of the sixties and seventies. Nor will there be any connection with the wines of the classical Greek world. It was after all the Greeks who, from the seventh century before Christ on, took vitis vinifera, the European grapevine, with them when they colonised the lands which we now associate with wine – Italy, southern France and Spain.
Today’s quality Greek wines are made using all the advantages of modern viticulture and wine-making but predominantly with Greek grape varieties. The key challenges include coping with a very hot, dry climate and then marketing wines made from unknown grape varieties with names that can be difficult to pronounce. One key to the climate issue is the use of altitude. There is no shortage of mountains in Greece, as I can remember a waitress saying to me in Athens when we fell to talking about the potential of Greek wine. Growers have also learnt to plant some varieties on north-facing slopes to moderate the effects of the heat. On the plus side mainly reliable, hot and dry summers ensure that grapes ripen pretty regularly with little threat from disease. Water conservation has become a major issue in the south of the country, as in the rest of the southern Mediterranean.
Andover Wine Friends’ monthly tasting gave us the chance to taste a range of wines from a special Wine Society offer. The predominant feature of the wines was elegance. From a hot, dry climate you might expect big, perhaps rather baked wines, but these wines surprised for their lightness of touch and moderate alcohol levels. These are seriously underrated qualities in today’s wines.
The first two whites featured the Moscofilero grape if in different proportions. Skouras Prestige, Vin de Pays de Peloponnese 2010, 12%, is 70% Roditis and 30% Moschofilero both grown at altitude. It was pale with a refreshing nose and palate of blossom and lemon and would make an excellent aperitif. Semeli Mantinea Nassiakos 2010, also 12%, is wholly Moscofilero and is much more perfumed, reminiscent of the Muscat grape. Floral, rose petal nose, rather flat palate, elegant and moderately persistent. Oz Clarke and Margaret Rand’s comment is that this variety is between Muscat and Gewürztraminer but with better acidity than both. And on the subject of elegance, how about that label above – middle of three – vineyard chic? Santorini Hatzidakis 2009 has more character – again pale in colour, assertive nose, slightly waxy and citrus to the fore, with a savoury core. Basically made from the Assyrtiko grape grown on north and north-east facing slopes and with the young wine being treated to 40 days on the fine lees. Higher alcohol at 13.5% but still balanced.
If the whites were surprisingly good, the reds were very attractive, particular and, again, balanced, even elegant. Semeli Mountain Sun Red 2008, 13%, has attractive rustic red fruit (plums and cherry) and good persistence – and we discovered is excellent with feta cheese. It is made with the typical Agiogitiko (with or without ‘h’ after the two ‘g’s and pronounced Iyor-geeticko) grape. If you are English you may want to call it St George. Three of the four reds featured this variety. Skouras Saint George 2008, 13.5%, is made from grapes grown at 650m of altitude on clay, the resulting must being fermented at a relatively cool 23° – which I am sure is part of the secret of its success. Pale red (good wines don’t have to be blockbusters), good red fruit, elegant palate with savoury finish. The third, as its name tells you in Greek, is a big wine: Megas Oenos, Skouras, 2007, 13.5%, 80% Agiorgitiko and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. Grown at altitude again, but for this top wine with very low yields – 27-30 hectolitres per hectare, and then 15 or so days of extraction on the skins, controlled temperature fermentation again, then 18 months ageing in new French barriques. Much deeper in colour (the Cabernet), rich palate of plums and mainly red fruit, typical oak ageing effects, great persistence. The only point is that at four years old it is still a series of sensations, rather than an integrated whole – but that is just a matter of time of a couple more years in the bottle.
To complete the line up, we also tasted Thymiopoulos Naoussa 2009, 13.5%. Sweet cherry, cherry kernel and raspberry on the nose, subtle and layered palate, silky tannins and good finish. This is made from the Xynomavro (pronounced: Ksino-mavro) grape variety and is apparently mostly sold in Paris which must be a vote for its quality.
The evening ended with two bonus wines. Staying with Greece for the moment, we tasted one of its ancient and modern classics: sweet Muscat. Samos Anthemis 2005 comes from the island’s cooperative and is made with Muscat Blanc á petit grains, usually thought of as the finest of the Muscat family. Known as Moschoudi in Greece it is grown on the slopes of Mount Ambelos. This was a brilliant caramel in colour and taste, with additional honey, walnut, coffee and full fruit notes, only moderately sweet, perfectly integrated with its added alcohol – it is a fortified wine. Superb and great value at £7.50 per half.
Visiting enthusiast Hermann brought with him something of a rarity, an Austrian wine made with the Roesler grape variety. This is a relatively new cross (1970) between Zweigelt and Blaufränkisch, produces a vine which can withstand very low temperatures and bears deeply coloured black grapes. Schödinger Roesler 2009 reserve, 14%, from the Lerchenfeldhof vineyard, is aged for 19 months in large old oak barrels, producing a wine of real character – dense blueberry and mulberry aromas, some dried fruit. Again it really needs a couple of years in the bottle. This was real evidence that there is life beyond Grüner Veltliner. After Greece, perhaps we need an Austrian tasting?