You probably know Greece as a travel destination. And rightly so. An incredible diversity of landscapes, abundant heartwarming sunshine, refreshing sea breezes, awakening smells, inviting food and most importantly a long thread of connection with an eloquent and often dramatic past, history in continuous evolving mode, all that have made up for a one-off place. Yet there is more to it, a surprising element that adds to this fascinating mosaic of a traveller’s experience. The wealth of living species, flora and fauna ecosystems in Greece are remarkable, making up for the most amazing natural biological laboratory! In particular, grape varieties in actual cultivation are quite possibly the most condensed per surface measure, not only numerically but also in terms of diverse origins. Hold your breath at well over 300 named grape varieties and many more yet unnamed!
Being at crossroads of people and civilisations, Greece has actively accepted vines and viticultural practices throughout millennia and vine settlements happened silently, yet positively, over time, creating a deep wine culture to date. At this point there exist no grape-producing vines of over 500 years on the Greek island of Santorini and allegedly grape-producing ones of up to 200 years, whereas self rooted autochthonous vines are to be found in many Greek regions, both on the islands and in mainland and of ages ranging from 70 to an impressive 150 years.
Here are the most representative Greek grapes and some interesting facts about them. As indicated earlier, the list is long and we will endeavour to unfold it at a good pace, so to leave no Greek variety of character in the shade.
This is the most celebrated Greek grape, certainly most widely known than any other variety outside Greece and with the longest commercial history in modern Greek wine chronicles. It has in fact become an International grape by now, as it is also cultivated in Clare Valley, Australia, where the first non-Greek Assyrtiko was bottled in 2014, as well as in California with the first bottling dating in 2015 and there are current plans by a leading Stellenbosch estate of having it planted in South Africa. The power and commercial potential of Assyrtiko have become obvious since the 1930s when at its native Santorini island it was used for the much solicited Vinsanto wine that had a steady demand for exportation.
Vinsanto is a naturally sweet wine, produced originally on this very island in order to be used as the wine of the Holy Communion. Its reputation rose and transferred to continental Europe via the Venetian rulers of the island during the medieval times. This token of appraisal by the courtiers and the starting off yet another Vinsanto tradition in Tuscany, made by red grapes this time, established the wine as a luxury product associated with banquets and celebrations. Santorini, under Italian rule thereafter, continued to export this unique wine and when part of the still young Greek state in the 1930s the tradition kept going. In 1959, a mechanised winery was built on the island by an enthusiast and production volumes continued to increase. This rise in production and reputation happily brings us into the 1980s, the decade of transformation for the Greek wine. An important family of winemakers sees the potential and establishes a winery on the island. Their winery became the greenhouse for the development of a handful of known winemakers associated with the grape and the island’s wine production thereafter. Soon, a forward-thinking winemaker of the era takes the grape outside the island of Santorini and starts planting it in Nemea. Nemea, despite its own long and significant history in Greek wine, as the largest PDO region of the country and homeland of the most cultivated red grape of Greece, Agiorgitiko, stands also important as the first stop of the illustrious trajectory of Assyrtiko outside Santorini, into the Greek vineyard and further on.
What is so good about Assyrtiko? It is a vine-grower’s friendly grape, adaptable to different soils and climates, including extreme heat and drought and resistant to disease. From the winemaking point of view, it retains high acidity despite all adversity during the growing season and long time in the cellar, it has good alcoholic potential and the wine made by it can mature over long periods of time in new and old wooden barrels or other vessels potentially. The engagement of talented winemakers with the grape has yielded excellent examples to date.
Savatiano leagues second in importance by many, as it is the most cultivated white grape variety of Greece, the grape associated with the historic Attican vineyard and very closely with the unique Greek wine style of Retsina (wine flavoured with pine resin). Savatiano’s name derives from the Greek word Σάββατο which defines Saturday or the seventh day of the week and this in turns comes from the Hebrew word שבת or Shabbat. The word was adopted by the Greek populations of Orthodox faith and in variations by other Orthodox Christian populations in the early Byzantine times and it could be that the grape has a similarly long history. It is planted mostly in central Greece, though recently there are plantings also in Northern Greece and the Aegean islands. Other local names of the grape include Dombrena or Doumpraina Aspri, Tsoumprena, Perachoritis, Sakeiko and Kountoura Aspri.
So far it has been used as a staple grape, often in blends, though the grape has an interesting character of its own and can produce refreshing and sometimes substantial mono-varietal wines. The good body and acidity of the grape, though not extreme, together with its summer fruit flavours and distinct botanical notes are the building bricks of truly pleasant and overall food-friendly wines. They range in style from fresh and unoaked to low intervention, skin contact and further on to oaked. Tasting and getting to know the grape is a must for anyone that considers a visit or even more a journey into Greek wine.
If Assyrtiko is the most known and celebrated Greek grape abroad, Agiorgitiko is by far the most known and appreciated by Greeks themselves. It produces fruity, heartwarming red wines, usually matured in barrels for anything between 6 and 24 months, although the range of barrel maturation has extended recently from none to over 24 months. Bearing in mind that Greeks consume more red than white wine and the brand name of the appellation zone of Nemea has been the strongest within the Greek territory, as also the largest PDO region, it comes as no surprise that in the most remote parts of the country, in mainland as well as on the islands and interestingly within other reputable wine-producing zones, the red wines of Nemea are easily available and have loyal followers.
Agiorgitiko offers an all-round proposal when choosing a Greek red wine. With taste characteristics around red fruits, plum, cherry and sour cherry, layers of spice and generally soft tannins, it produces approachable wines. It doesn’t require ages to smoothen out and offers a rather international flavour palette (in particular Southern European) to which many wine drinkers are used, thanks to French, Spanish and Italian wines. Yet, there is a number of styles of Agiorgitiko to be explored, not only from Nemea, with Agiorgitiko plantings just under 4000 hectares but from the rest of Greece as well, from Macedonia to Crete, including sweet and barrel matured Amarone-style wines. A pleaser of a grape that is and so well matching everyday cuisine, especially dishes containing tomato, onion and garlic, ingredients at the core of Greek cooking. No hesitation or second thought here and with a few experimental examples to explore, too!
This is the shining star of the Greek vineyard! An intriguing grape, that needs good care when growing and thought it might be susceptible to wet weather in the vineyard, when healthy, harvested appropriately and treated with a focus in the winery hits admirable heights of body and complexity. Moreover and thanks also to its tight tannins and high acidity, it is suitable for long ageing. If you are a cellar fanatic, there is no better Greek grape to invest your patience on. It is obvious from Xinomavro wines of 30 or more years of age available today, that the potential of slow transformation of flavours, increasing complexity and better integration with time is huge.
In view of these powerful taste elements that the grape exhibits, some winemakers choose to under express it, so the result is a more straightforward, approachable, yet appetising wine. In any form, there is something truly unique about Xinomavro, a stark personality of a grape that can not be confused with any other. And with only four PDO regions growing the grape, the largest and most significant of which is undeniably Naoussa, there is a good incentive to explore the different versions of wine it can produce, either in mono-varietal forms or in blends with other local and often relating grapes. Herein lies indeed another strength of the grape, as the styles of wine Xinomavro can produce are truly diverse, from Pet-Nat to properly sparkling wines and from rose and light reds to bold reds, worth of long ageing and even botrytised sweet wines produced in special years. Xinomavro might not only be the most unforgettable of Greek grapes but also the most diverse!
The grapes of Greece carry many fascinating stories that have been woven throughout centuries and millennia, adding attractive details to the long and so far rather quiet history of Greek wine but most importantly confirming a very long engagement with these autochthonous varieties. If you haven’t tasted them, make the first step now, it is the time! They will soon be trendy and you would have already known and got your palate around them, having had the chance to follow their itinerary to fame.