30 juin 2017

The key to Greek wines

Collaborateur - Carswell
© Cindy Boyce

Greece, in the popular imagination, is a land of ancient ruins, rocky islands and sandy beaches, of cubical whitewashed buildings whose cerulean roofs are out-dazzled only by the sea and sky. And Greece is indeed all those things. But as a summer tour of six wineries in six regions recently showed, it is much more besides.

Crossing the country on the flight to Athens, the first thing that strikes you is the ruggedness of the terrain. Greece, it turns out, is the third most mountainous country in Europe. No surprise then that it is a land with a wide range of terroirs. The uneven topography – for so many centuries an impediment to truck and trade – is also the source of another feature of the country, one that persists to this day: marked regionality.

The uneven topography – for so many centuries an impediment to truck and trade – is also the source of another feature of the country, one that persists to this day: marked regionality.

Attica, the southeast mainland, where Athens is located, is hot and semi-arid much of the year; this is fig and watermelon country. Macedonia, in the north, is lush and green, a centre of tree fruit production where some localities receive so much rain that residents are occasionally asked to open their taps to keep the reservoirs from overflowing.

© Cindy Boyce
© Cindy Boyce

While the Peloponnese takes only a few hours to drive across, it is also home to a surprising array of landforms and microclimates: the cool, forested mountains and hot valley floors of Arcadia; the gently rolling, temperate Ionian coast; the seaside-to-mountaintop-in-20-minutes of Achaea; and that’s not to mention the wild and rocky southern peninsulas, which we didn’t have time to visit. Santorini, probably the most famous of the Cyclades islands, is dry as a bone, blasted by winds, rimed in sea salt, covered with soil so infertile that not a single olive tree is to be found; there the only crops of note are grapes, capers, cherry tomatoes and “favas” (a kind of yellow pea), all of which grow close to ground, look more like scraggly weeds than farm plants and yet produce fruit with an unrivaled intensity of flavour.

© Cindy Boyce

Regionality is also key to understanding the country’s wines.

Setting aside international varieties like Merlot and Chardonnay and allowing for some modern-day domestic overlap, each region has a unique set of grapes. In Attica, the native white Savatiano is the star. In Arcadia, it’s Moschofilero for whites and Agiorgitiko for reds. In Elis, you find Refosco, a long-established import from the Veneto at the far end of the Adriatic. In Achaea, Roditis makes whites and Mavrodaphne and Kalavryta reds unlike any other. In Macedonia, the red Xinomavro grape reigns. Though Santorini is best known for its whites from Assyrtiko, Aidini and Athiri, its reds from Mavrotragano and Voudomato are also noteworthy. To the south, Crete is a treasure trove of indigenous grapes. The Ionian islands on the west coast craft stupendous wines from Robola, among other varieties. And I could go on.

© Cindy Boyce
© Cindy Boyce

Wine has been made from these grapes for millennia. Before switching to hemlock, Socrates probably drank Savatiano, possibly flavoured with pine resin, the combination today known as retsina. Hercules may have imbibed Agiorgitiko from vineyards near Nemea, the site of his first labour, killing the Nemean lion (any coincidence that a local name for the wine is Hercules’ blood?). Italy’s vin santo may originally have been an attempt to recreate Santorini’s legendary sweet wine: vino di Santorini. And, yes, I could go on.

Of course, a difference these days is the quality of the wine-making. Many of the vintners we visited trained in France, Italy and the New World. All of them have state-of-the-art production facilities. More importantly, they also know not to abuse the technology. They appreciate that good wine is made in the vineyard, not the cellar. The fruit of their labour is world-class wines, full of taste and character. And since much of the world has yet to realize this, the wines, even the more expensive ones, are bargains.

© Cindy Boyce

Greek food is also regional.

Before heading over, I wondered whether I’d tire of the traditional lunch and dinner: a series of meze, almost invariably including tzatziki and Greek salad, followed by more substantial dishes, in particular grilled meat and fish. Yet on returning, I craved nothing but Greek. The reasons are two: the astounding quality of the raw ingredients and the regional variations. Tzatziki may be ubiquitous but the local differences in yogurt and preparation made each incarnation a new experience. In the north, where the Slavic influence is felt, one of the main dishes was a kid goulash in everything but name. Meals on the shores of the Aegean featured seafood of a freshness Montrealers can only dream about, while dinner in the Arcadia highlands centred around local vegetables, some of them foraged, and a rustic take on porchetta.

However delicious the food was on its own, it seemed completed by a glass or three of wine. And however enlightening it was to sample the wines at formal tastings, they made the most sense in the context of a meal. The way it all came together night after balmy night – on a terrace by the sea, on a vertiginous mountainside, in the middle of a quaint village or sometimes, like on Santorini, a combination of all three – was one of the revelations of the trip.

© Cindy Boyce
© Cindy Boyce

Yet as Quebecers have been discovering, among the wonders of Greek wines is how adaptable they are, how easy to pair with a wide range of non-Greek dishes. We may not have restos where you can hop into the Aegean between courses but we can still enjoy our own regional variations on the Greek art de vivre.

See Brett happens for reports on the wineries visited and wines tasted and carswelliana for details on where we went and stayed and what we ate and saw.