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Greece: The Grapes & Wisdom of Antiquity

A few months ago, on a quiet afternoon, I was pondering and internally agonizing over the inconceivably dysfunctional and degenerate reality we found ourselves living in. Ignorance, arrogance, vulgarity and good, old-fashioned stupidity have unapologetically invaded our daily lives. Did I wonder, why? Obviously, there couldn’t be one simple answer, but one issue kept reentering my mind; could it be the complete disregard for the past, the neglect of basic knowledge passed onto us by the generations before and utter dismissal of humanity’s historical and cultural inheritance. And right then, I remembered a quote by Socrates from my history course in college: “There is only one good; knowledge, and one evil; ignorance”. And then, another one followed, this time by Aristotle: “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all”. These words were written thousands of years ago, yet their validity has remained timeless. That is why the awareness of the past and the cultivation of its wisdom should always be at the foundation of the shaping of the future.

Wine is a great example of antiquity’s heritage from which humanity has greatly benefited. Wine originated in West Asia around 6000 BCE, in modern-day nations of Armenia, Georgia and eastern Turkey. From there, it was soon introduced to the sea-fairing civilizations of Phoenicia and Greece, where it embedded itself deeply into the nations’ cultures. There is archeological evidence suggesting that wine was present in Greece as early as 4000 BCE and has remained an intrinsic part of the Greek culture ever since. There are references in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey that viticulture was prevalent in Greece by the 8th century BCE. The Greeks even devoted a god to wine, the mighty Dionysus. From the 4th century onwards, Greece’s turbulent history as part of the Byzantine Empire had a detrimental influence on the region’s wine culture, especially its quality.

Starting in the 1960s, we have seen a renaissance of a sort for Greek viticulture. In 1971 an appellation system was implemented to regulate grape farming and the winemaking practices. New domestic and foreign investments have brought about new wineries with young, ambitious winemakers focused on the quality and preservation of tradition. Indigenous grape varieties have been revitalized and brought to their optimal potential. International grapes like Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah were brought in, finding a new home on the sun-drenched slopes of Greek vineyards.

From its mainland to the islands, vines are grown pretty much throughout the entire country. The main regions are: Macedonia, Peloponnese, Crete, Central Greece, Thessaly, Ionian Islands, Aegean Islands, Dodecanese and Epirus.

Greece produces all styles of wines, still dry of all colors, sparkling, sweet and fortified, all made through various winemaking techniques.

In this article, we’ll focus on some of the more exciting and noteworthy indigenous Greek varietals—the ones which are creating a buzz on the international wine stage. I picked five in each of the two color categories.

But let’s first get Retsina out of the way since it is impossible to discuss Greek wines without its mention. It is a wine like no other, and some puritanical critics go even as far as not to consider Retsina a wine. There a few different stories relating to the origins of the wine, the most probable and sensible one is that pine resin was used to seal amphorae’s mouth (ancient ceramic vessels used for both storage and transportation of wine) to prevent spoilage and spillage. The flavor of the resin was absorbed by the wine giving it a unique taste. In its modern version, the pine resin is added intentionally. And that’s it. Whether you want to consider it a wine or not seems rather petty to me. The wine is mainly white, with a tiny percentage of Rose produced. The grape variety mainly associated with Retsina is Saviatano, but Roditis and Assyrtiko are often blended in as well. Recently some ambitious expressions of Retsina won the approval of some wine experts.

White Grapes.

Assyrtiko is one of the more prevalent grapes grown throughout the country, but its most impressive interpretation comes from the island of Santorini. Here, the grape thrives on the volcanic soils of the island. Assyrtiko wines offer a balanced combination of fruitiness and minerality. The classic flavors include passion fruit, lemon, grapefruit, as well as flinty smokiness, almond bitterness and salinity. There is also an oaked version of Assyrtiko wine called Nykteri. Here the flavors are richer, and the mouthfeel fuller with aromas of crème brŭlee, pineapple, fennel and cream.

Malagousia is mainly planted in Macedonia and was rescued from near extinction by Evangelos Gerovassilliou on the Halkidiki peninsula. Now the grape is planted all over Greece and produces both single varietal wines and blends. Malagousia is another pronouncedly aromatic grape with flavors of peach, citrus, guava, jasmine and mint.

Moschofilero is a light, pink-skinned grape that thrives in the area of central Peloponnese. Its flavor profile resembles that of the Muscat grape; jasmine, magnolia, peach and apricot. The wines are intensely fragrant are usually made in a dry style.

Savatiano is the most planted grape in Greece with the main concentration in the Attica region. Savatiano is a low acid, drought-resistant variety capable of producing intense dry wines with herbaceous and floral aromas.

Vidiano is Crete’s most promising grape, and it has been labeled as Greece’s competing alternative to Chardonnay. It produces full body wines. An unusually elevated alcohol level is balanced out by moderately high acidity. It offers charming flavors of peach, apricot, exotic herbs and stone minerality.

Red Grapes.

Agiorghitiko, also called Saint George, is mainly found in the Nemea area in the northeastern part of the Peloponnese. Wines from this grape tend to be full-bodied with certain similarities to Merlot with alluring flavors of cherry, plum, black currant and nutmeg wrapped in smooth tannins.

Kotsifali is one of the oldest European grapes. Native to Crete, this is a red variety experiencing a well-deserved ascent in popularity. It is a low-yielding grape that offers generously flavored wines with aromas of raspberry jam, black cherry, a hint of truffles and sweet spices usually accompanied by high alcohol. There is also a delicious, sweet wine made from sun-dried Katsifali berries.

Mavrodaphne (mavro meaning black in Greek), is a deep dark-skinned grape (hence its name meaning “black laurel in Greek) with its origins in the Achaea region in Northern Peloponnese. The best-known wine from the grape is Mavrodaphne of Patras, a fortified dessert wine in the style of Port. The wine is impenetrably dark, with intense flavors of caramel, chocolate, coffee and raisins. The attempts at producing a dry unfortified result in rich, tannic, and exotically flavored wines.

Mavrotragano is exclusively grown on the volcanic soils of Santorini island. Deemed as a “lowly” grape, most of Mavrotragano vineyards were uprooted during the island’s tourist boom to make room for developments. Later that preserved gave birth to a dense, deep in color, and immensely tannic wine. The grape’s complex range of flavors include spices, dried fruits, leather, minerals, and earth. Its popularity has recently increased exponentially.

Xinomavro is the highest regarded red grape variety in Greece with, Naoussa in Macedonia being its most significant region. The name of the grape is an amalgamate of Xino for sour, referring to its high acid content and Mavro for black. The variety is often compared to Piedmont’s Nebbiolo. Xinomavro is a late-ripening, finicky grape that is terroir sensitive and in need of the right weather conditions to reveal its full potential. At its best, it offers a wide range of flavors; red berries, flowers, olives, tobacco and nuts, among others. With firm tannins and tight structure, the wines exhibit remarkable bottle agebility.

There are a few other native Greek grapes that play an important role in the country’s viticulture and in the preservation of Greek wine culture. And maybe it is in the roots where some of the answers lie, because a man or a nation which abandons their heritage becomes irrelevant and sink into the abyss of obscurity.

The ancient Greeks, with their philosophies, stood against the extremes and promoted a life of balance, harmony, symmetry, excellence, and beauty. These ideals were meant to create well-rounded, aware and conscientious citizens capable of self-governance leading to a healthy and functional society, which we presently so gravely in need of. We still marvel at their political theories, art, drama and architecture. The depth and timeless wisdom of their philosophical teachings have been at the foundations of modern education. It seems that it is that foundation and its principals that have been forgotten are dramatically lacking in the present world.

By: Cezar Kusik


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