Modern Wines From Ancient Grapes

By Kathy Spiliotopoulos
Executive V.P., Nestor Imports, Inc,

Well more than 2,000 years ago, Hippocrates, the father of medicine taught:

"Wine is wonderfully wholesome for man in sickness and in health, provided that it is taken at the right time and in the right quantity to suit individual needs."

The health and other virtues of moderate wine drinking have stood the test of time, as we hear and read nearly every week in the news. This has helped boost wine consumption in the USA, but not necessarily helped increase consumption of Greek wines. Kind of outrageous, when you think about the facts that in ancient times the Greeks were the winemakers to the world, and Greece was the birthplace of medicine! Why not, and what is happening with Greek wines in today's world?

First, a little history: Greeks have been making wines for at least 6,000 years. It was the wine and olive oil trade that brought wealth and power to ancient Greece and helped expand its empire. In fact Greeks planted many vineyards throughout Europe including in southern France, Italy; Spain, Portugal and other countries.

Photo of 17th century BC (Minoan period) wine press
in Vathipetro, Crete, which has been preserved and can
be seen there today. Superimposed is a photo (actually
part of a photo) of a 15th century BC (Minoan period
three-handled amphora in the palace style from
Knossos, Crete

Greece is credited with inventing the first wine labels. The ancients stored wine in clay pots called amphorae. Stamps of origin and type were fired into the vessels, the original appellation control system! This guaranteed the origin (winemaker and location) of the wine, and also could include the grape variety - key elements of modern wine labels.

Perhaps you can picture. the ancient Greeks cultivating their vines, harvesting the fruits oftheir labors, crushing the grapes, of course with their feet, and fermenting the juice in the amphorae until the wine was ready.

Greek winemaking flourished through the fall of Rome under Byzantium and continued under the rules of Constantinople, but, Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Empire, and 500 years of domination by Islam, which forbade its followers to drink alcohol. However, Islam allowed wine to be made, because it was great source of tax revenue, just as it is today in the USA at the federal, state and local levels.

A map of Greek wine trade in ancient times

However, under Ottoman rule, travel was difficult, requiring a hard-to-get permit, and thus, wine became a cottage industry: Monasteries and village farmers maintained the vineyards throughout Greece, with consumption mainly limited to the wine maker and his local neighbors. Then came the war for independence, 100 years with a new Greek state that was bankrupt; after that a couple of world wars, followed by a bitter civil war.

As Greece was going through these two harsh centuries of history, France, Italy; and other European countries developed "wine cultures", cultivating vineyards that in some cases had been planted by ancient Greeks.

Poor Greece remained in the wine making dark ages. As late as the 1960's and early 70's most Greek wine was not sold in bottles. Villagers and visitors filled their jugs at the local grocer, tavern, or wine maker. Effectively Greece only started emerging as a modern wine nation, in hte 1970's

Today Greek Wine making is conducted by trained oenologists using modem wine making techniques. That is not to say that barrel wines have disappeared these can still be found in most village homes and in local tavernas, even in Athens. Some of these home­made wines taste a bit like a mix of vinegar and sherry; others are quite quaffable.

In 1984, when Aristides and I founded Nestor Imports, Inc., few here in the USA were aware that Greece produced drinkable wines. To make matters worse, the word "cuisine" was not associated with Greek food. Greek restaurants, mostly located in ethnic enclaves, such as Astoria Queens, sometimes referred to as "Athens West" had limited lists of bargain priced wines, often with very short shelf lives. Most Greek wines were consumed in Greek-American homes and purchased from a liquor store or local Bakaliko (small grocery store) depending on state liquor laws.

Meanwhile, as the French and Italians and other Europeans enjoyed a wine renaissance (those many years ago during the "dark ages" of Greek winemaking) they also enjoyed a surge of wine sales here in the USA. Wine drinking had become fashionable, Italian and French restaurants were flourishing, and expanding to cover regional cuisines, and so were their wines. The tens of millions of dollars that these and other European countries spent each year on advertising and promotion also had much to do with the large volume of sales.

Unfortunately; Greece could not offer tens of millions of dollars to promote Greek wines or foods here, so Greek wine and food importers had to fend for themselves. Thus, it was in 1992, that Eric Moscahlaidis, President of Krinos Foods, founded the Greek Food and Wine Institute, and convinced me, my wine suppliers, and an array of other Greek wineries and Greek food companies to join as members. The Greek Food and Wine Institute, a not-for-profit association, directs its efforts to North American consumers, food and beverage professionals, retailers, educators and journalists. The Institute's goal is to increase awareness of the quality; variety; uses and healthfulness of Greek foods, wines and spirits. I am proud to be the Vice President of the Institute, a post I have held now for fourteen years!

During the 1990's, the Institute was very active in conducting promotional and educational activities that were instrumental in awakening the American public to the joys and high quality of Greek foods, wines and spirits. It is the Institute that has long been credited with spurring popularity for Greek cuisine that resulted in the opening of dozens of fine, highly regarded Greek restaurants across the USA. We even helped create and edit a ten part Greek food and wine series on the Discovery Channel. It is the emergence of Greek cuisine, served in upscale restaurants that helped change the face of the Greek wine market here in the USA. Today, more Greek wine is sold in restaurants than in liquor or grocery stores.

Meanwhile, Greek wine-quality and variety was rapidly improving, garnering awards in many international wine competitions around the world. Believe it or not, there are now nearly 1,000 different labels of Greek wine from about 90 different Greek wineries available here in the USA. Not surprising when you consider that Greece has more than 300 indigenous grape varietals, and at least as many wineries. The native Greeks have become much more sophisticated in their wine drinking over the last decades, and their wine production reflects this.

Greek wineries are producing world-class, modern wines made from ancient grapes, as well as modern blends of ancient and "traditional" grapes, and ''traditional'' wines such as cabemet, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and merlot. One example is Angelo Rouvalis, talented wine maker of the Oenoforos winery in Egion, not far from Patras. Angelos, well-known for his Asprolithi Patras, made from the native Roditis grape, has saved the Lagorthi grape from extinction, and produces a wonderful crisp white, with herbal notes from this unusual grapes. Angelos also produces a wonderful Cabemet Sauvignon, and other traditional blends, such as Chardonnay-Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot-Cabemet Sauvignon. Examples from other wineries can be found in the food and wine pairing sidebar. Below is an array of modem Greek wines.

From left to right names and in parentheses, grape varietals (unless part of the name): Calliga Rubis
(unoaked Agiorgitiko), Kouros Patras
(Roditis - unoaked), Kouros Nemea (oak aged Agiorgitiko),
Micros Vorias Lagorthi (described in the article - unoaked Lagorthi), Oenoforos Cabernet
Sauvignon (Oak aged), Micros Vorias Merlot-Cabernet Sauvignon (unoaked), Amethystos
white (unoaked blend of Sauvignon Blanc, ASsyrtiko, and Semillon), Amethystos red
(oak-aged blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Limnio), Kourtakis' dessert wines:
Mavro­daphne ofpatras (oak aged Mavrodaphne blended with a little Black Korinthiaki),
and Samos Muscat (unoaked Muscat a Petits Grains).

Coverage in mainstream media also reflects the evolution of Greek wine over the past two decades. In the mid-1980's we worked closely with major wine media, such as Wine & Spirits magazine to garner coverage for Greek wines. Back then few were even willing to taste them. It is a testimony to the fair­mindedness of Wine & Spirits that they worked with us to make sure that their summer Mediterranean issue included Greece, not only for wines, but spirits, every Mediterranean country produces an anise­based spirit, for example, and of course, food. Who knew in the late 80's and early 90's that Greece had such an array of delectable cheeses?

That bit of awareness produced an interesting issue pairing Mediterranean cheeses and wines with each other, mixing and matching offerings from different countries. Wine & Spirits continues its annual review of Greek wines.

Today, Greek wines are also reviewed in Wine Spectator, Wine enthusiast, Food & Wine and many others. Recently, our wines were featured in a Business Week Magazine article, the first ever for Greek wines, along with a pod cast. [Interested readers can find an "Eprint" of the article, and a link to the "Beyond Retsina" Special Edition Pod cast at by clicking on 'What's New?"] The October 2006 Wine Enthusiast and the November 30th Wine Spectator have extensive reviews of Greek wines. We are really pleased that Kouros Nemea is a "Best Buy/Value" in both. The December 15th Wine Spectator will feature a Greek Wine report. We've come a long way!

At long last, Greek wines are coming out of the dark ages and into the light. I look forward to the day when I can look at published import statistics, and see "Greece" stand proudly on its own instead of being lumped into "other." Sustained marketing efforts on the part of us importers, combined with educational efforts by the Greek Food and Wine Institute, and a little help from the Greek government, which has launched a wide-scale promotional campaign, "Kerasma," will help to bring Greek wines, and foods and spirits, for that, matter into the mainstream.

(Posting date 22 November 2006)

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