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Greek wines: a rich heritage of local grapes

‘You only have to look at a wine list in Greece to see what treasures it has to offer the curious wine drinker’

Andreas Diamantis of Paxos Wines surveyed the well-stocked shelves in his little shop in the tiny port of Lakka, with his father seated implacably at the till. “We Greeks now make pretty good wine,” he said proudly, adding, “but it could be even better.”

I had met Diamantis before only by email and telephone, and felt I owed him a lot. I had suddenly realised a few days before planning to spend a week in a villa on the island with our three grandchildren and their parents that, while I’d ordered the food, I hadn’t laid in any wine. How could I have overlooked this vital element? But paxoswines.com came to my aid and I had great fun choosing some of my favourite Greek wines from the website, most of them under €10 a bottle. On the phone Diamantis had assured me he would deliver the bottles to our villa and we could pop in to his shop some time to settle up. (I should stress that he didn’t know that I had any professional connection with wine.)

I got an email from him the day before we were due to arrive, assuring me that the order awaited us at our villa. I fell asleep that night planning the sequence of my enjoyment of it, only to be woken by the ping of a text from British Airways at 4am saying that the flight to Corfu we were to take four hours later had been cancelled. (This was the day after Heathrow’s Terminal 5 had been turned into a field hospital of holiday dreams.) Cue frantic and frustrating online activity that finally resulted in just two seats out three days later — no chance of finding flights for the rest of the family. We decided that bouncing around a silent villa for seven when we had expected to be chasing after noisy toddlers was not for us, so we abandoned the idea altogether, hoping our holiday insurers would understand. Instead, we tracked down what seemed to be the last hotel room on Paxos. During the day I remembered those bottles of wine waiting for us and sent an apologetic email to Diamantis.

“Don’t worry, Miss Robinson, it’s fine, we love to see you when you come in the island, talk about wine and taste some also, we hope everything go well and finally you visit our lovely island” was the delightful response — a sharp contrast to British Airways’ attitude to customer relations. (They declined to refund our daughter’s family’s return flights because she had not specifically cancelled them, for example.)

I mention all this to illustrate the naturally generous nature of Greeks and would argue that it translates into their particularly attractive wines. Diamantis may have ambitions for them but for me they are pretty good already and the time is ripe for the world to appreciate their very special qualities. Like Portugal, Greece is distinguished by its vast array of fashionably indigenous grape varieties. When we compiled our 2012 record of all wine grapes in commercial production, we found that only Italy, France and Spain — the behemoths of world wine production — could boast more indigenous varieties than the 77 we found in both Greece and Portugal. Yet while Portugal is Europe’s fifth most important wine producer, Greece is only the 14th, which means that it has a very rich heritage of local grapes.

You only have to look at a wine list in Greece to see what treasures (and unfamiliar names) it has to offer the curious wine drinker. Like virtually every wine-producing country, it went through a period at the end of the 20th century of believing that it had to plant the well-known international varieties — notably Cabernet and Sauvignon Blanc — to prove its worth.

But today Greek producers take enormous pride in their own grapes, with their highly distinctive characters. The island of Santorini’s majestic Assyrtiko was arguably the first Greek white wine grape to make a real impression — so much so that it was long ago transplanted to other Greek wine regions and has recently even produced wine in South Australia.

At a generic Greek wine tasting in Vintners’ Hall in London at the end of April, vintners were proudly showing off other Santorini white wine specialities Aidini and Athiri, as well as the increasingly planted Kidonitsa (the “quince”-like grape of Monemvasia, the port that is thought to have inspired the grape name Malvasia), Robola of Captain Corelli’s Kefalonia, tart Debina that can make surprisingly fine sparkling wines in north-west Greece, refreshingly floral Vilana and the recently rescued Vidiano of Crete.

All of these are in addition to the often-leafy Malagousia and grapey Moschofilero that seemed exotic and rare a few years ago but already appear to have entered the Greek mainstream, together with the Roditis and Savatiano that were for long the most-planted white wine grapes of Greece.

A recent dinner at The Greek Larder in London, featuring wines made from Cretan grapes rescued by producers Lyrarakis (imported by Berry Bros & Rudd), was seriously revelatory. Firm Plyto was memorable and not just for its name. I have never come across a grape with a more individual character than Dafni, named after laurel but smelling strongly of fennel to me.

I fell in love with Greek whites long before being won over by the reds, but now that Greek winemakers have mastered oak, and seem to be revelling in Greece’s naturally modest alcohol levels rather than worrying they were too low, I am enjoying more and more Greek reds too. The best-known good-quality red wine grapes are the rich Agiorgitiko of Nemea and ageworthy Xinomavro of Naoussa. But more recent revivals that have been enthusiastically embraced by today’s skilled Greek wine producers include spicy Mavrotragano, elegant Limniona, firm Mandilaria, herby Limnio and, from Crete, the aromatic Liatiko and soft Kotsifali.

This is an exciting palette of possibilities, either as varietal wines or blends — often with international varieties. Most Greek wine is drunk in Greece, with food — a thoroughly healthy practice. And because the Greek economy is not exactly booming, the prices tend to be sensible for both consumer and producer. I’ll drink to that, Andreas Diamantis.

Favourite Greek wines

I gave all these wines a score of at least 17 out of 20 at the generic tasting in London, where I tasted 67, less than half the wines shown. I gave a further 17 wines 16.5 and another 20 earned 16.

Dry whites

  • Hatzidakis Aidani 2016 Santorini
  • Hatzidakis, Cuvee 15 Organic Assyrtiko 2015 Santorini
  • Hatzidakis, Louros Assyrtiko 2013 Santorini
  • Hatzidakis, Nykteri 2014 Santorini
  • Karavitakis, Klima Vidiano 2016 Crete

Sweet whites

  • Hatzidakis Vinsanto 2003 Santorini
  • Samos Co-op, Nectar 2010 Samos


  • Bizios 2011 Nemea
  • Hatzidakis Mavrotragano 2015 Santorini
  • Moraitis, Sillogi 2015 Paros
  • T-Oinos, Clos Stegasta Mavrotragano 2014 Cyclades

For tasting notes see Purple Pages of JancisRobinson.com
Stockists on winesearcher.com
Illustration by Leillo

Writer: Jancis Robinson
First Published on Financial Times