On one of the first real summer-like days recently, I was sipping al fresco at the charming Terroir on the Porch wine bar off the High Line here in NYC. With a dependable and diverse selection of great wines on their list, I'd been stuck on what to order. Riesling? Rosé? And then my eyes landed on something that made me shut the menu with a bang and gleefully shout, "Moschofilero, please!"
Moschofilero is a white Greek wine variety, typically with grass, citrus, and white floral characteristics. This one was medium-bodied, but crisp and zingy enough to refresh in the heat.
For most Wineaux, Greek wine has hovered at the periphery of our sipping. The grapes are hard to pronounce, the producers are not well-known, and a lot of people still think of pine-sap Retsina as the (unfortunate) benchmark of what the country has to offer.
But the inquiring Wineau will have a huge payoff if he or she takes a "trip" to Greece. Quality is rising—I personally have noticed an across-the-board elevation in consistency over the past five or six years—and the number of delicious available offerings is growing.
Kostantinos Lazarakis, Greece's only Master of Wine, says, "People are getting bored with homogenous wines. In Greece, we have a diversity you can actually taste in the glass." And trust me, seeking out diverse Greek wines is worth the effort.
For whites, try an Assyrtiko ("ah-SEAR-tee-ko") like the 2013 Assyrtiko by Gaia. With a wonderful nose of ripe peach and a little funk, it's very spicy in the mouth with a bit of straw, and is quite rich. "Yes!" I wrote. ~$30. Or the 2012 Santorini Assyrtiko Grande Reserve with its great melony-taffy nose, and herbs, straw, and tart citrus on the palate. Delicious. ~$28.
Then there's my friend Moschofilero ("mohs-ko-FEEL-er-oh"): the 2014 Spiropoulos Mantinia Moschofilero has a nose of white flowers, melon, and white peach. Lightly acidic, it's very quaffable, with an herby and lime pith finish. ~$17. Spiropoulos also makes a bubbly from Moschofilero (and you KNOW I love the bubbly.) The 2013 Ode Panos (Moschofilero) has a "soapy" nose, is very minerally and fresh, with good citrus and bright spice. ~$21. The 2014 Troupis Mantinia Moschofilero I describe as "sea breeze-y," and has spice, good acidity, nice round expression, with white florals. ~$17. The 2014 Troupis Fteri Moschofilero is also lovely, with pear and jasmine notes, good spice, and a well-balanced structure. ~$13.
Lazarakis said, "Outside of Greece, the white wines are the hero, gathering the spotlight. But we believe our red wines are our best wines." So my tasting moved on to some of Greece's red varieties.
First up, a grape I'd hardly ever heard of: Liatiko. From Crete, the 2013 Doulofakis Dafinios Red has a crazy aroma of raspberry-scented magic marker (remember those?!) with cranberry and bramble fruit. It shows a bright bit of sweet licorice, liquid violets, and is tart and cheeky with good balance and length. ~$13. And a red of some mysterious unknown ancient grape from Pangeon, the 2010 Biblia Chora Biblinos Oenos has a nose of raspberries and lilac, with a round depth of flavor, fresh herbs, integrated soft tannins, and a long length. Juicy. ~$45.
Next, a grape I'm finding more and more attractive, Agiorgitiko (ah-your-YEE-ti-ko.) I love the tasty 2013 Tselepos Driopi Nemea Agiorgitiko, with toast, florals, light berries, very cranberry crunchy on the palate, smooths out into present but integrated tannic finish. ~$20. Lazarakis said, "2013 was the best vintage ever in Greece—all regions." Good to know! The 2007 Gaia Estate Agiorgitiko has a flinty nose, with earth and florals. Lots of blue fruit in the mouth, very well-balanced, yum. ~$115/magnum. Showing how well this grape can age, the 2005 Papaioannou Microclima Agiorgitiko has a fragrant floral nose with ripe raspberries. Black fruits come forward in the mouth, with grapefruit zest. Smooth and integrated. ~$NA. The 2014 Troupis Fteri Agiorgitiko is also tasty, with lots of bright red fruit, cheeky, good balance and length. ~$NA. And the 2013 Tselepos Dryopi Nemea Agiorgitiko has a red licorice element, once again bright red fruit, an herby finish, and nice structure. ~$20.
No overview of Greece would be complete without Xinomavro (ksee-NO-mahv-ro.) To quote Lazarakis: "Xinomavro is a bitch." Dark, acidic, and tannic, Xinomavro often needs a strong guiding hand. There is a bit of a debate in Greece right now—to make this wine in a more modern, fruity style, or a more traditional, rustic version. I did love the 2012 Thymiopoulos Uranos Xinomavro, with its nose of blackberry and smoke. Bright, pure fruit on the palate, cheeky, sassy, good acidity, light tannins, "delish!" ~$25. The interesting 2008 Boutari Naoussa Grande Reserve Xinomavro has a delicate floral, earthy, feminine nose, but is very tannic and oomphy. ~$16. I was really looking forward to sampling the 1997 Kir Yianni Ramnista Xinomavro, but alas, both magnums brought to the tasting were corked. Bummer.
At this New Wines of Greece event, there were also interesting blends on hand, some using international varieties like Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon, although I focused on indigenous grapes. So there's really something for everyone, including few rosés that were delectable: the 2014 Gaia 14-18H Rosé (Agiorgitiko) with its huge strawberry nose, bracing acidity, herb stems, and tomato water essence. ~$15. And the 2014 Moraitis Rosé (70% Aidani mavro, 30% Mandilaria) with rose petals, ripe strawberries, a bit of green stemminess, quite delish, not too acidic. ~$12.
It's true you'll have to seek these out; Greek wines, while growing in popularity in the U. S., are relatively rare—in a good year, the whole country produces under four million hectolitres of wine (the region of Bordeaux itself produces around 4.5 million hls.) But the values are certainly there; "Greek wines are cheap!" says Lazarakis, encouragingly. With retail prices generally in the $15-30 range, you can't disagree when comparing these wines with quality wines from other regions of the world. As always, talk to your merchants and somms and ask for recommendations. You'll be glad you did.
For a region steeped in 4000 years of winemaking history, Greece is really kind of having a renaissance, with no end in sight. As Lazarakis says, "The best is yet to come. We are discovering ourselves—our wines, our vines, ourselves—by the minute."