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December 22, 2011

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Drinking history in Greek wines

I'M particularly fond of wines that are rich in cultural heritage. In other words, I love drinking history. With this in mind, it shouldn't be a surprise that I have a growing fondness for Greek wines.

Recent meals and wine tasting with Greek friends here in Shanghai have greatly stimulated my appetite and curiosity for Greek wines. I have gained from the insights of my erudite gourmet friend Fortis Manoussakis and the renowned Greek winemaker Mihalis Bourtaris who is also chairman and winemaker of Sunshine Vallley winery in west China's Gansu Province.

Recognizing that learning about Greek wines may be somewhat challenging in the beginning and resisting the temptation to say "it's all Greek to me," I invite readers on this worthwhile journey of wine discovery.

The highest appreciation of anything artistic involves more than just the physical senses, it involves imagination. By drinking Greek wines you are appreciating something both enjoyable and timeless that offers a liquid journey into the very formation of what we call wine culture. By themselves the top modern Greek wines are delicious but with historical and cultural awareness they take on a deeper beauty.

New discovery is another pleasing aspect of wine appreciation and although Greek wines are among the most ancient of all wines, they are still relatively undiscovered by the wine world outside of Greece.

As many wine connoisseurs continue to taste the same varietals and styles of wine over and over again, it is indeed refreshing and stimulating to drink something decidedly different, and very good!

Antediluvian roots

When Bordeaux was a swamp and the Iberian and Italian peninsulas didn't know the vine, the mainland and islands of Greece were already making some of the world's best wines. In fact, winemaking in Greece dates back an incredible 6,500 years and while Greece is most likely not the world's oldest wine making culture, it was the first ancient civilization to take the art of winemaking to new heights and spread this knowledge throughout the Mediterranean.

It was the Greeks who first introduced the vine to Italy in Sicily, to Spain in Jerez and to France near Marseilles. More than just spreading vines, Greece was responsible for spreading a deep-rooted and sophisticated wine culture.

No longer was wine merely a beverage, it was becoming an important part of Mediterranean and European culture and the role of Greece in the evolution of this viticulture awareness was fundamental.

Wines with character

There aren't a whole lot of Greek wines available in Shanghai but a few of the ones I tasted offered a combination of quality and distinction. If you favor white wines, try the Cava Athanassiadi, a white wine from Marathon Valley in Attica, Greece.

The wine is made of the Assyrtico and Savatiano varieties and is aged in French oak. The result is a white wine with straw yellow to pale gold color, aromas of citrus fruits with hints of wax and honey and nice yellow fruit flavors and a clean acidic finish.

If red wines are your thing, I recommend two wine from the producer Kir-Yianni, the delicious Xiynomavro wine Ramnista that features a deep ruby red color, aromatic nose of red fruits and black olives and lots of ripe red fruit flavors with palate-coating soft tannins and balanced acidity, and the Xiynomavro and Syrah blend named Diaporos that has a deep red, almost blue color, intriguing nose of ripe black fruit, cigar box and chocolate and concentrated ripe fruit flavors with fine tannins and a weighty, velvety texture and impressively long finish.

Both wines are from Naousa region in Macedonia, Greece, and are good examples of seamlessly blending tradition with modern winemaking. For a good value red wine, I recommend the Harlaftis Argilos that's a quite pleasant example of the important Agiorgitiko grape.

The wine has a dark ruby red color, aromas of dried red and black fruit, vanilla and spices and ripe plum and stewed fruit flavors with smooth tannins.

New quality

While history and culture are significant attributes for wine, for success in international markets including China, there must also be high quality.

For most of the 20th century only a minority of Greek producers focused on quality, while the majority was happy to service domestic consumers with inexpensive, rather ordinary wines.

In the 1960s, the retsina craze in Greece further blighted the nation's international wine reputation.

The growing numbers of international tourists who visited Greece came to associate Greek wines with this rather unfortunate style of white and rose wine that's made using pine resin and often has turpentine qualities.

However, over the past four decades starting in 1971 and 1972 when a new appellation system was established and in 1981 when Greece entered the European Union, Greek producers have made leaps in quality.

The industry has evolved from one with domestic focus with limited investment to a more modern industry making delicious, award-winning wines that are increasingly competitive in international markets.

There's a term used in Greece to define the quality wines of Greece today, the "New Wines of Greece." In fact, these wines combine modern winemaking and technology with ancient traditions and varieties as well as diverse terrior.

The results are impressive. In the hands of the most talented winemakers in Greece today, ancient native Greek varieties are making increasingly impressive modern wines.

Simplifying the diversified wines of Greece isn't easy, but I shall endeavor to highlight the major regions and varietals of this ancient land.

The major viticultural areas can be divided into five zones consisting of Northern Greece, including Thrace, Macedonia and Epirus; Central Greece and Attica; the Peloponnese and Ionian Islands; Crete and lastly the Aegean Islands.

The climate and soils of these areas are quite varied so it's no surprise that there are numerous varieties each with their own personality and potential.

The most important white wine grapes are Assyrtiko, making fresh wines often with citrus fruit qualities and good acidity, and the globally known Muscat varietal which makes rich, dense and highly aromatic wines with moderate acidity.

The two best red wine varietals are Aghiorgitiko that makes deeply colored and concentrated wines with friendly fruity qualities and Xiynomavro, a high-quality varietal that makes elegant, aromatic and age-worthy wines with lots of rich red fruit aromas and flavors along with structured tannins.

International white wine varieties like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc and red wine grapes including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah are also popular with Greek wine makers to make single varietal wines or to use in blends with native varieties.

Food pairing

Should you have the good fortune to visit Greece the natural affinity between Greek wines and foods will be become immediately clear.

Whether it's a classic Greek salad with feta cheese - yes, only Greek feta cheese is the real thing - or grilled fish with a crisp Assyrtiko white or classic Greek-style seasoned meat balls or a beautifully grilled leg of lamb with a top Xiynomavro red, there are countless combinations to please and tantalize the palate. But Greek wines should not only be confined to these culinary boundaries, especially when we live in a city like Shanghai with a wonderfully varied gourmet offering.

After a structured tasting of Greek wines for this column in my office, I brought the unfinished wines to one of my favorite Hangzhou restaurants and discovered some lovely combinations.

Of particular enlightenment was the pairing of two Xiynomavro reds with the weighty meat dish Dongpo Pork.

The ample fruit and tannins of the red wine cut through the fattiness of the pork while highlighting the best savory qualities of the dishes.

The subtle exotic spiciness of the wines also added sophisticated flavor dimensions to the rich sauce. The marriage of two ancient epicurean treasures from different parts of the world was a stunning success.


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