Sip and trip, take two: A Grecian ode

By Dave McIntyre, Published: July 26, 2011


“They don’t make good wine in Greece.”

I heard that lament twice in the spring from friends complaining about their upcoming Mediterranean cruises. They wondered whether they should bring wine from earlier stops in Italy or resign themselves to whatever narrow selection the cruise ship would have.


“But Greece does make good wine!” I assured them, and rattled off a list of tongue-twisting grape varieties: Aghiorgitiko, Assyrtiko, Moschofilero, Xinomavro. From the crisp, minerally whites of Santorini in the Aegean Islands to the mellow reds of the Peloponnese and the rich mountain reds of Thrace, Greece offers a wide variety of wines made with grapes not grown elsewhere. There is plenty to explore, I said.

But as I looked into their eyes, I could tell they were focused on one thing: retsina. The traditional Greek wine is flavored with pine resin and tends to taste of paint thinner. Yet retsina is the first and last thing American wine drinkers may think of when considering Greek wine.

Because I am cruising the Mediterranean virtually this summer, through my imagination and my wineglass (southern Italy was my previous stop), I decided to point my chaise longue toward Greece. I soon discovered, however, that exploring the country’s wines from afar would not be easy: First, I had to find them. Greek restaurants are an obvious option, of course, but many retail shops don’t carry Greek bottles.

The dearth of Greek wines at retail prompted Chris Jelepis to abandon a law career for one in wine. He founded Philadelphia’s Sonata Wine importers with his brother, Michael, who lives in Herndon. They traveled through Greece looking for small, family-owned wineries that were combining traditional Greek grape varieties with modern winemaking methods.

“I would go into stores looking for wines from my Greek heritage, but there were very few, if any,” Chris Jelepis told me. “So we decided to find them and bring them to the United States.” Their timing was good: Greece’s economic woes have hit the domestic market for wine, making smaller wineries more inclined to export, he said.

Most Greek wines on the market, in fact, are imported by small companies with Greek names or connections, another indicator that these wines might not be widely available outside the Greek restaurant circuit. But for those whose curious palates spur them to try new wines made from unfamiliar grapes in unfamiliar places, Greek products are well worth the effort.

Some pointers: Greek white wines tend to be better than the reds, and the best by far hail from the Aegean Island of Santorini. Those are made with a grape called Assyrtiko (spellings may vary with any Greek grape variety), typically blended with grapes called Athiri and Aidani. On Santorini, the vines are grown low to the ground, trained into a basket shape to protect the grapes from overexposure to sun and wind on the steep hillsides. The wines tend to offer mineral structure from volcanic soils, a saline quality from the sea air and a bracing acidity that helps them pair well with grilled or broiled seafood.

The other white variety you are likely to find is Moschofilero, which most closely resembles chenin blanc with its apple and pear flavors. The Mandouzia grape makes a wine with exotic litchi and starfruit flavors, reminiscent of an austere, dry Gewurztraminer.

The main red-grape variety in Greece is Aghiorgitiko, sometimes labeled by its English translation, Saint George. It most resembles merlot and is often blended with cabernet sauvignon in the Bordeaux fashion. Xinomavro is another red variety that tastes of sour cherries, with an Italian character. It can take a little getting used to, but Xinomavro adds Greek character when blended with international grapes such as syrah.

If, like my friends, you are hesitant to try Greek wines, it’s time to reconsider. The wines are diverse, sometimes unique and often very, very good.