"Everyone thinks all Greek wine is Retsina," begins Andrea Englisis, whose family-owned Athenee Importers is one of the country's largest distributors of Greek wines, beers, and spirits. "But actually, it's less than five percent of total imports."
With the growing global awareness and appreciation of fine quality Greek wines, we recently spoke with the expert about some common misconceptions about the country's products.
1. Greek wines are only good for Greek food
"This is an old-school mentality, the easy way out," says Andrea. (And certainly anyone who has enjoyed anything but an Italian wine with an Italian dish can attest to that.) She remarks that restaurants like New York's Le Bernardin and Marea have carried Gai'a Wines from Santorini for over a year. The trick, as with any food and beverage pairing, is to find the right match. An interesting pairing she recommends? "Assyrtiko pairs great with sushi."
2. Greek wines are expensive
"They're definitely not cheap," she says, but consider also that "there is no mechanization, everything is hand-harvested, plus we have to pay for everything in Euros, which doesn't help much." Then, of course, there is the not-so-insignificant cost of transport. Still, most of the wines in Athenee's portfolio retail for about $12 to $17, which is quite reasonable.
3. Greek varietals are hard to pronounce
Admittedly, knowing how to pronounce the name of a grape like Agiorgitiko is not entirely obvious (it's ah-yor-YEE-ti-ko). But as Andrea points out, it's all in context. You just have to take a little time to learn them as you do with any obscure grape name. Chances are if you can get Gewürztraminer right, then Greek varietals shouldn't pose too much of a problem.
4. The Greek climate is only good for growing certain grapes
On the contrary, says Andrea. "Greece has a great climate for growing everything." Despite there being some resistance on international varietals, the climate actually has an interesting, unique effect on these. As she points out, "a Greek Syrah doesn't taste like an Australian Shiraz or French Syrah, it really opens up your palate." The best ambassadors, she says, are those wineries like Mercouri Estate that create some fantastic blends between international varieties and indigenous grapes.
5. Greek wineries are antiquated
According to Andrea, this is the most false of all the myths about Greek wines. She notes that people have this idea that it's all "cement tanks and fermenting in massive barrels," when actually, in the mid-1990s and early 2000s there was a big push across Europe to modernize facilities.
Also important to remember is the growing number of young oenologists in the country. "There's a strong oenology university in Athens, but they'll also go to France and California and then come back and work with what they think is great." Such is the case with Apostolos Thimiopoulos, who after studying oenology, returned to his family's vineyards and has been instrumental in modernizing the approach and standards for making their Uranos label. Andrea explains that the wine's grape, an indigenous variety called Xinomavro, tends to be tannic and high in acid, "you have to know what you're doing with it, there are very few producers that can do it well." Traditionally requiring extended oak aging, Thimiopoulos does an intense bâtonnage to soften the wine's tannins so that they may be drunk younger (the 2007 vintage is on the market now). "He's one of those guys to watch."