Though the Greeks were not the first to make wine — that distinction goes to the Georgians of the Caucasus Mountains — they’ve been at it for over two millennia. Today, they make a high-quality, exciting array of both reds and whites. The problem is learning about them. When I taught introductory wine classes, I advised students that the best way to learn about a wine is to focus on one type for a month. So, if you want to learn about Chardonnay, drink only Chardonnay for a month. That exercise is even more important with Greek wines because the nomenclature is overwhelming and truly foreign even for those who know a lot about wine. There are hundreds of indigenous Greek grapes and 33 individual appellations or PDOs (protected designation of origin) and scores of PGIs (protected geographical indication). (PDO wine and other foods are made in a specific geographical area, using a defined, usually traditional, method. PGI wine or foods are similarly based on geographic origin, but with fewer production regulations.) Then there are the names of the grapes themselves: Assyrtiko (ah-SEER-tee-ko), Moschofilero (Mos-koh-FEE-leh-roh) and Malagouzia (ma-la-goo-zee-AH), to name just three of the whites.
The opportunity for me to dive into Greek wines arose when we decided to take a 16-day family vacation to Greece over Christmas in 2019 — just before COVID-19, as it turned out. Visiting Greece in the offseason means far fewer crowds, lower prices in general, including half off at many of the archeological sites, and little difficulty eating wherever you want. It means bypassing the islands, because although it’s bright and sunny, it’s still really not beach weather.
Greek wine spans an enormous spectrum. Even with the potential for 32 meals accompanied by wine during our trip, it was clear to me that I needed a focus. I decided to limit our sampling to those three white indigenous Greek varieties because most of our travel would be on the coast, where seafood is plentiful. As I rapidly learned, the energetic acidity of Greek whites also made them a fine match for ever-present roasted lamb or pork.
Greek wine culture is laid-back. The Greeks drink a lot of wine at lunch and dinner, but they don’t fuss about it. Even at chic restaurants with top producers’ wines, vintages were rarely noted. At family-run tavernas, we had wine drawn from a barrel or other large container and served in unlabeled bottles. No one turned an eye when we ordered white wine with lamb.
Greece’s most important grape, Assyrtiko, produces riveting, mineral-y wines with a saline-like edginess — especially when grown on its home turf, the island of Santorini. There the vines are sunk into a hole in the island’s volcanic soil and trained in a basket-like fashion to protect them from the island’s constant winds. Assyrtiko has been planted all over Greece as producers in other parts of the country capitalize on its popularity. The ones from Santorini need several years of bottle age to show their true character and will be labeled PDO Santorini. Assyrtiko grown outside of Santorini can also produce an excellent wine but one that has more of a fruity profile with less minerality and is more accessible with far less bottle age. You will also see Assyrtiko blended with other white grapes, such as Moschofilero and Malagouzia, to add structure and backbone.
Moschofilero, a grape indigenous to the Mantineia region of the Peloponnesus, produces a floral wine, reminiscent of Muscat, though far less fragrant. Some compare Moschofilero to Gewurztraminer, but I find it both less aromatic and less flamboyant. Moschofilero’s perfumed nature might make you think it’s sweet, but it’s not. It displays a distinctly tropical character with excellent balancing acidity that imparts liveliness.
Malagouzia, sometimes spelled Malagousia, is an aromatic grape indigenous to northern Greece. It was nearly extinct until the 1970s when an enology professor encouraged Vangelis Gerovassiliou, one of his students and now one of the best producers, to explore its possibilities. Malagouzia is now grown all over Greece and makes a uniquely energetic wine, combining subtle floral and tropical notes with variable amounts of minerality. Both Moschofilero and Malagouzia would be an excellent choice as an aperitif to accompany a Greek salad — which is a real thing and not an American invention — or with highly flavored foods. The floral elements balance the spice.
Greeks eat late. Many taverna don’t open for lunch until 2 p.m. The wait staff at Yama, a simple taverna in Kalabaka, the small town at the foot of the Méteora monasteries, laughed when I tried to make a dinner reservation for 8 p.m. We acquiesced to a 9:15 slot and found we were the only diners at that time. By 11 when we left, only one other table was occupied — also by tourists. Don’t be surprised when traditional desserts appear as a complimentary end to the meal. Though meals at elegant restaurants are expensive by Greek standards, the prices are still low by US standards and include tax and tip.
For what must be the largest selection of Greek wines by the glass in the world, head to Vintage Wine Bar and Bistro in Athens, where they offer more than 300. Their food menu is also extensive, making it a fine choice for dinner. For a light lunch or aperitif before dinner, Heteroclito, a small wine bar down the street from Vintage Wine Bar is excellent. The food and wine selection, though far more limited, is still well-chosen and the setting cozy and intimate.
Unsurprisingly, you can find a wide array of Greek wines outside of Athens. At Mia Feta, a modern taverna in Thessaloniki, a plethora of feta cheese awaits along with an extensive selection of wines by the glass thanks to bottles preserved under argon gas. The knowledgeable and friendly owner insisted we try what turned out to be the one red interloper we had on the entire trip, a stunning 10-year-old Xinomavro from Boutari. It made me reconsider my plan to focus solely on three white wines.
Finding Greek wines in Boston is easy. Go to Krasi, a restaurant in Back Bay where they have an outstanding selection of Greek wines, many by the glass. Go to other Greek restaurants. There are plenty in and around Boston. Or go to your local wine store and ask for Greek white wines. Take them home and drink them with fish or spicy Asian cuisine, or pork or lamb or pizza. You get the idea. After a few weeks, you’ll be surprised how much you’ve learned.