More Americans – including wine critics – are beginning to discover what Greek-Americans have long known, that wines from Greece are among the world’s best but hard to find and criminally underrated, even by wine store owners, who don’t go out of their way to feature them.
That’s beginning to change, helped along now big-time by a New York Times review of red wines from some of Greece’s best producers that a panel found to be surprisingly pleasant and bring a good combination of tannins, energy, and balance.
Led by the Times’ wine critic Eric Asimov and including Florence Fabricant, a fellow food and wine critic for the paper, Yumilka Ortiz, a sommelier at Marea on Central Park South, and Phil Johnson, a partner and sommelier at Gloria in Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan, the group of tasters sampled 20 wines.
That’s a tough group to please but they mostly were, apart from rejecting those the panelists said failed to combine the right characteristics of being juicy, fresh and structured, with earthy floral, herbal and fruit flavors in balance, “resulting in wines with tension and energy.”
Overall, it was an advertisement for the best of the Greek reds with Asimov writing that the top Greek producers know the world wine trade well, can discern trends, and see a greater understanding and appreciation around the world of wines that express local cultures and traditions. Yumilka called the favorites in the tasting “an honest display of Greece today.”
It’s largely because the Greek grape varieties they savored produced the right amount of tannins, the drying astringent biomolecule that comes from the skins of grapes but also from seeds, stems, and from wood in new barrels.
“Greek reds – made from unfamiliar grapes like xinomavro and agiorgitiko, mavrotragano, limnia, and mandilaria – can be thoroughly delicious. Most fit squarely among the world’s mainstream reds, with local signatures that might take the form of earthiness here, an exotic floral or fruit aroma there, and in quite a few of those, firm tannins,” said Asimov, with Johnson saying the tannins produced a lively acidity which gave the wines freshness and lift.
The intention had been to taste only wines made with xinomavro but they couldn’t find enough bottles but said the grape has even more potential and can often seem like a combination of the Italian grapes nebbiolo and aglianico, with aromas and flavors of menthol, licorice, and flowers.
The number one choice was a 2016 Alpha Estate xinomavro from the Hedgehog Vineyard in Amyndeon, in the northern Greek region of Macedonia. “We found the wine to be spicy, savory, floral and complex, with all the elements in balance. At $23, this wine was our best value in a tasting of overall excellent values,” the report said.
Their second choice was what they called a balanced, energetic 2017 from Domaine Sigalas in Santorini, made of two grapes: mavrotragano, an almost extinct Santorini variety that has been revived in recent years, and mandilaria, which originally came from Crete.
Third was “the lively, textured, savory and spicy 2016 from Domaine Glinavos in the Ioannina region of Epirus, in northwestern Greece. It was followed by a 2015 mavrotragano from Domaine Argyros in Santorini, an earthy, herbal wine with flavors of licorice and dark fruits.
At fifth on their list was the 2015 xinomavro from Dalamara in the Naoussa region in northern Greece, tannic and floral with spicy licorice flavors. Next came a 2014 mavrotragano from Hatzidakis in Santorini, firmly tannic and savory yet harmonious; a balanced, spicy 2018 Troupis from Nemea in the Peloponnese, made of the agiorgtiko grape; and an herbal, earthy, floral 2016 from Domaine Zafeirakis in Tyrnavos, in the Thessaly region of central Greece, made of the limniona grape, another nearly extinct variety that has recently been revived.
An honorable mention went to two more xinomavros, the pretty, herbal 2015 Ramnista from Kir-Yianni in Macedonia, and the lush, licorice-scented 2015 Uranos from Thymiopoulos Vineyards in Naoussa.
None said they anticipated the level of tannins in the wines but felt it was because the tasting was restricted to indigenous Greek grapes. “It may have been that the producers were more mindful of local traditions than they might have been had they been using grapes – like merlot, syrah and cabernet sauvignon – with an eye to the international market,” Asimov said.
So while most Americans may know Greek white wines better because sea food is a favorite at many Greek-American restaurants, the best of the reds showed themselves to be world class with those from other countries who market better.
With the word-of-mouth spreading, it may not be long before Greek wines are more available in wine stores, package stores, supermarkets, and other places allowed to sell them because, noted Asimov, it was disappointing to travel to a place in a Greek neighborhood, to find one only, to open it and find it had oxidized from sitting on the shelf too long.
“The word has been spreading, and these unusual, delicious bottles have become more widely available. Relative to their overall high quality, they are great values. This will continue to be true only so long as they remain largely unknown,” he noted ironically.