Connoisseur Andreas Zinelis Talks Greek Wine

Nerai is a modern restaurant in New York City, serving up innovative expressions of traditional Greek cuisine.

Boasting a mouth-watering menu of fresh seafood dishes and rich, juicy, meat dishes, it is immediately clear that this establishment does not skimp on flavor. In addition to a fabulous food menu, Nerai offers an impressive beverage menu, featuring an extensive wine list of about 135 selections – 30% of which are Greek wines.

While Greece has been making wine for centuries, wine growers and producers there haven’t always seen the spotlight. That’s why a Greek wine focused list is exciting to see at a successful contemporary restaurant. TNH caught up with Andreas Zinelis, the talented beverage director at Nerai, to discuss Greek wines and his restaurant’s selections.

Though he went through college with a plan to pursue medicine, the American-born Zinelis – his parents were both born just outside of Karpenisi and he grew up in Athens –  says he couldn’t shake off the “hospitality bug” he developed growing up in the industry. His father owned a restaurant in Los Angeles, so he was no stranger to the kitchen and the service industry, and his passion drove him to attend culinary school, become a sommelier, and devote himself to the industry full time. He says that looking back he’s never regretted the choice to forego medical school for the pursuit of food and beverage, and glancing over the beverage menu at Nerai, one really gets the sense that this is the right path for him.

Nerai opened last May, with Zinelis at the helm of beverage selection. He shared his vision for the wine menu: “I wanted to create a wine list at Nerai that was easy to navigate through for our guests as it is broken down based on flavor profiles with selections that can satisfy the most discerning palate…What makes me excited is when I come across a wine that people just have to try as it is most likely flying off their radar and it would be a crime not to share with our guests.”

Many wonderful Greek wines do go unnoticed by consumers who are unfamiliar with indigenous varietals to Greece, or with Greek winemakers. There are very talented winemakers in Greece and on Greek islands, and they’re making a variety of styles – refreshing, crisp white wines, brooding reds – and they pair beautifully with Greek cuisine. The market for Greek wines is steadily growing in the United States, and trying a new wine by the glass at a great restaurant is the perfect way for consumers to learn more and explore that territory. Zinelis gives us more insight into his delicious world of wine:

TNH: Do you find that your clientele are already familiar with Greek wines, styles and varietals or are they exploring new territory?

AZ: Most of our guests are not familiar with Greek wines, however many have grasped certain buzz words such as Santorini, Assyrtiko, Nemea, etc., that intrigues them to learn more about them. We are always happy to educate our guests about Greek wines as well as spirits that never seems to disappoint them.

TNH: What advice would you give to someone looking at a list of Greek wines who is unfamiliar?

AZ: I would recommend by trying what they offer by the glass as an introduction as it highlights a lot of Greek flavor profiles. If a sommelier is available at a restaurant, I would take advantage of that and have one go over certain Greek wines with them. At Nerai, I always tell our guests especially when it comes to Greek wines, that ordering a bottle is not like buying a house, I would be happy to bring something for them that they will be happy with instead. Thus, our guests feel more comfortable ordering something that they know nothing about, but trust the sommelier blindly.

TNH: What changes have you seen in Greek wine, and in the Greek wine industry in general, since you started your career?

AZ: Greek wines have come a long way. Over the decades, winemaking techniques including viticulture standards, vinification methods and planting indigenous varietals where they develop best, have improved drastically, thus illustrating an elevation in Greek wines as a whole. Greek wines due to unusual and difficult to pronounce Greek varietals, unattractive labels, higher costs then other competitive wine making countries for similar quality have all been hurdles that Greece had to overcome in the past. However, they have improved in all aspects of course except in shortening Greek names. I find that they can often compete with top wine producing regions in the world and they will continue to do so in the future. I just can’t wait till that arrives!

TNH: How do you think the Greek wine market in the United States will progress in the coming years?

AZ: As more Greek wines enter the U.S. market, the quality continuously improving, educating consumers and offering more competitive pricing when applicable due to Greece’s economic plight are all propelling factors for Greek wines success in the U.S. In addition, as consumers enjoy the adventure and passion that comes with new wines from all over the world and price vs quality equation, Greek wines will find many fans as they offer truly unique flavors from unique and indigenous varietals.

TNH: What are a few of your go-to favorite bottles, Greek or otherwise?

There are many Greek wines that enjoy depending on the mood as well as my meal. Some unique ones that I am a great fan of are: Afianes, Begleri, Ikaria 2012, Hatzidakis, Assyrtiko de Mylos, 2009, Domaine Economou, Thrapsathiri/Vilana, Crete, 2009 for whites. For reds, I enjoy Thymiopoulos, Ouranos, Xinomavro, 2011, Domaine Neratzi, Syrah, 2008 as well as Domaine Economou, Liatiko/Mandilari, Sitia, 1999 among others. In addition to Greek wines, I have found many interesting wines that I am enjoying from South West France, Lebanon, North Fork Long Island as well as Sicily.

AZ: Is there a particular viticultural region in Greece that you really enjoy, or any

specific winemakers you have your eye on?

TNH: I believe in many Greek islands being able to produce very high quality Greek wines, Naoussa, which is Northern Greece known for its cooler climate, more specifically Xinomavro, which has tremendous potential as well as some newer areas popping up in central Greece. Obviously, the Peloponnese such as Nemea and Mantineia will be high up on my list as well. Economou, Sklavos, Thymiopoulos, Neratzi, Gerovassiliou and Parparoussis are all producers to look at out for; stylistically all are different and masters of different grapes of Greece.

AZ: What are a few of your favorite food and wine pairings from the menu at Nerai?

I love pairing our charred octopus, with bright and crisp whites; heavier and more aromatic white with our duck moussaka, as well as fish with lighter body reds as for many it is still unorthodox, however carries limitless pairing potentials.