Beyond the taverna: Greece’s improving wine is a revelation to those used to retsina

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I recently held a tasting of Eastern Mediterranean wines covering six different countries. The surprise star of the event was Greece: for both its white and red wines. I have recently written about Greek whites.This week, it is the turn of the reds.

Greek reds have come on leaps and bounds since I first encountered them in the 1980s. This is due to a small band of talented winemakers who are determined to throw off the stigma of retsina and domesticos.

Macedonia in northern Greece is where most of the action has been taking place. Greece has 300 indigenous grapes – which are different from anything we have tasted elsewhere in Europe.

What people tend to forget about Greece is how mountainous it is. It is not all about hot sun and beaches. With vineyards at high altitude, winegrowers are now seeking quality rather than quantity – so they are heading to the hills away from the hot plains of Attica, where the bulk wines 
were made.

Tastewise, if you like Italian or Spanish wines, Greek reds are like a combination of the two. Expect fragrant herby aromas, cherry/plum fruit flavours and vibrant high acidity.

One of the snags is that Greek wine labels are either just written in Greek or with difficult to read double translations. The other problem is that tourists who only visit the resort tavernas often just encounter cheap plonk and never get to taste the country’s best wines – so they don’t look for Greek wines once they return home.

Agiorgitiko and xynomavro are Greece’s most planted and most popular red grapes. The former is usually found in the Peloponnese south of Athens – best in Nemea – quite similar in style to a ripe chianti. The latter has a more fragrant aroma, but with a kick of high acidity and tannin: xinomavro (which translates as sour black) is widely grown in Macedonia in northern Greece. Even more interesting in my book is the tsapournakos grape, which is thought to be the same as cabernet franc – but it tastes completely different – more savoury and complex than any cab franc I have encountered.