With summer holidays calling and with the Olympics now underway many of us will find our thoughts turning to Greece. Rather than allowing those thoughts to dwell on the mess that is the Greek economy, let us instead consider Greek white wine.
Not Retsina! I hear you shout. Yes and no. Yes because we cannot ignore the most famous white wine style from Greece, even if it is not strictly speaking a table white wine. No because in recent years a number of boutique wineries have sprung up on both the mainland and the islands and the local wine co-operatives are taking more care to produce fresh, clean and enjoyable white wines.
Anyone who has visited Greece and has eaten in a local restaurant or taverna will have been offered Retsina. For most of us the memory of our first taste of Retsina is not a pleasant one but somehow, when in Rome … (or maybe Athens in this case). Drinking Retsina is as much a part of the Greek holiday experience as eating Greek salad or stifado, visiting ancient ruins and enjoying a banana boat ride in the sea.
Retsina is usually a white wine and is defined by the addition of pine resin to the wine during fermentation. The practice arose in ancient times when jars of white wine were sealed using a mixture of resin and plaster to stop the wine from deteriorating. The wine would last longer but inevitably the smell and flavour of the resin would taint the wine in the jar. However, the Greeks mistakenly attributed the longevity of the wine to the antiseptic properties of the resin so it was not long before resin was being added directly to the white wine. The tradition of adding resin has continued to the modern day, although the resin is now added during rather than after fermentation.
The fact that the pine characteristic is the result of the pine resin being added to the wine rather than the result of being matured in pine casks means Retsina is in reality an aromatized white wine, more akin to Vermouth than a table wine. However, Retsina continues to be the international representative of Greek white wine and enjoys the title of being Greece’s only traditional appellation. If you must drink it whilst on holiday in Greece look out for wines from Attica, Viota and Evia.
Greece’s growing boutique wine industry and the ever improving quality of its white wine have a lot to thank the late multi-millionaire shipping magnate John Carras for. He set up Greece’s first boutique winery near his holiday home on Sithonia on the Greek mainland with the aim of producing the best wine in Greece. Taking advice from Bordeaux wine expert Professor Emile Peynaud and employing one of Peynaud’s protégées as wine maker Carras fulfilled his ambition and Domaine Carras is now one of Greece’s top wineries. Domaine Carras is the only producer under the Cotes de Meliton appellation.
Greek dry white wines are made using a variety of local grapes whose names are unfamiliar to most of us such as Rhoditis, Limnio and Savatiano, although occasionally some blends will include an international grape such as Sauvignon Blanc. The dry whites are usually clean, fresh and fruity and are usually best drunk young.
White wine appellations to look out for include Agioritikos, from the Halkidiki area. The vines are grown on land leased from a monastery and the vines are looked after by Russian monks. The primary winery is Tsantalis and there is a dry and a medium dry white wine, both of which are enjoyable. Whites from Lemnos or Limnos in the Aegean region tend to be soft and flowery whilst those from Mantinia in the Peloponnese are fresh and lively, perhaps reflecting the altitude of the vineyards. Also worth trying are the whites from Robola of Cephalonia and Zitsa. The Robola of Cephalonia white wines are fresh, floral and tangy with a delicate lemon tang whilst the dry and semi-sweet wines from Zitsa are clean and lightly fruity.
If you are on holiday in Greece do not leave without first trying one of the many excellent sweet liqueur white wines produced from the Muscat grape. The best Muscat is claimed to come from Samos in the Aegean where it is produced by the local co-operative. There are a variety of levels of complexity but all the wines are rich and well balanced. Muscat of Lemnos, also from the Aegean, is rich and sweet and is also excellent, although not quite reaching the heights of the Samos Muscat. The most exported Muscat comes from Patras in the Peloponnese. It is a lovely golden colour with an enjoyable raisiny sweetness. Muscat sweet liqueur wine is also made on Cephalonia, part of the Ionian Islands region.