The Wines of Greece

August 28th, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Konstantinos Lazarakis

Classic Wine Library

Mitchell Beazley / Octopus pub.


Review by Christopher Thompson 

Yes, this is a cheese newsletter, but as we are featuring an article on Greek cheese elsewhere in this issue, the boss said we ought to augment the theme with a short review of Greek wines, which we are doing in the form of a book review.  The review follows, but first here’s a quick note about pairing wine and cheese (both of which were possibly invented by the Greeks or one of their ethnic precursors).  First of all, the butterfat in most cheese coats the mouth in a way that kills most of the fruit flavors in a red wine.  The wine and cheese will not taste bad together, and the cheese will usually do fine, but don’t serve a great red with cheese and expect the wine to shine…the flavor will usually just go flat.  (The drier the cheese, the less this fruit-killing effect.)  Second, the salt and fat in a lot of cheese will taste actually bad with a tannic red wine, producing a bitter flavor.  Exceptions to this rule of thumb are hard, dry cheeses paired with acidic Italian and Southern French reds, but even then, you can lose some fruit.  So the basic idea is that cheese goes best with white wines, Champagne, and dessert wines.  Now the review.

Mitchell Beazley/Octopus is a publishing house specializing in popular reference works about things like tulips, puppies, “Fifty Shoes the Changed the World,” and wine (no cheese titles that we could find).  Their Classic Wine Library series has about 20 titles at this point.  The author of their The Wines of Greece, Konstantinos Lazarakis, is currently the only Greek Master of Wine.  This title is conferred, by the Institute of Masters of Wine in the U.K., upon people who have fulfilled the Diploma requirements of the Wine and Spirits Education Trust, and then taken two more years of study and passed an exam.  There are only a few hundred Masters in the world (16 in France, a few dozen in the US, 2 in Finland).  Masters are useful because they look at the big picture, and are not just tooting their horn for specific brands.  Lazarakis does indeed give us the big picture when it comes to Greek wines.  We get a rich, detailed history of Greek winemaking, going back to ancient times and moving through the turmoil of WWII and the political havoc thereafter.  As he points out, his book could only have been written relatively recently, in that Greek winemaking was for millennia a local, do-it-yourself operation, with regional specialties but no standardization of names, grapes, etc.  Entrance into the European Union forced the Greeks to set up an organization and nomenclature system much like those in the rest of the EU.

After the history and the current state of the business, Lazarakis takes us on a 43-page tour of the grape varieties in Greece.  This is fascinating reading.  As might be expected of a nation with so many islands, and where even on the mainland towns tend to be isolated by geography, many varietals are grown only in one place, so the grape name is tied into local history.  And as it turns out, Vitis vinifera (wine grapes) mutates pretty quickly, so that even if Odysseus carried a boatload of his grape plants all over the Eastern Med., by now they would be genetically distinct wherever they were planted.  And there are today between 160 and 200 distinct Greek varietals!

Most bottled Greek wine does not make it into the overseas export market…not enough is made and all of the handling, etc., necessary for export would not be worth it, except for some luxury brands headed into the EU.  But Lazarakis covers them all, in the next sections of his book, organized by region.  He notes the local climate, topography, and soil, the grapes planted, wine styles, producers, and brands for each bottled wine in each region.  And he tells us the stories of the wineries, many of which are run by families, with some tales of family politics and history.  In short, in the last 25 years, a few prosperous Greek families saw a chance at making quality wines and marketing them to the EU, and succeeded, and now new wineries have since been popping up all over, older wineries have been retooling for the new markets, and across Greece ancient lands once under vine are under vine again. 

Cheese Enthusiast’s own tasting experience while in Greece a couple of years ago yielded the following very partial information.  Our favorite white wine grape is the Assyrtico, and our favorite bottlings came from the island of Santorini.  Our favorite red wine grape is the Agiorgitiko, which is grown on the mainland and is often blended with other local varietals.  The regional control designations on the labels include OPE or OPAP for quality wines, TO for regional blends, EO for local blends, and OKP for historic wines such as Retsina and Verdea.  All can be tasty, but the OPE and OPAP are vying for the usual markers of quality:  appealing color and aroma, complexity and length of flavor, and a marked but appropriate style typical of its designation, kind of like Best of Breed in a dog show. 

The book was put together by people who know what a book like this is for: it has maps, excellent appendices, including a glossary, and an ample index.  The size of a hardbound paperback, it is not a coffee-table book with big glossy pictures of vineyards and chateaus.  It is a book meant to be used.

In closing, Lazarikis has a little mantra about winemaking that is as applicable to cheese:  First, you generate a quality product.  Then you let the experts and sellers know you have it (which is where a book like this comes in).  Third, you achieve sales.  For many cheesemakers, this list is in descending order of fascination and difficulty, with “achieving sales” somewhere between rolling boulders uphill and ballroom dancing, or maybe doing both at the same time.  Maybe the Greeks had it right from the start: establish yourself regionally at first, then build that regional charm and reputation into a brand.  Set to the sea in ships, and soon even the Danes want your feta, which is probably what those gnarly Vikings were after all along.

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