Greek Wine A to Z

 


The Greek alphabet begins with A and finishes with X. The names of two of the countries greatest red grape varieties also begin with these letters, namely Agiorgitiko and Xinomavro. Both are responsible for some of the most stunning and exciting red wines produced. But at the same time, both are complete opposites.

Agiorgitiko

Agiorgitiko’s true home is the area of Nemea, in the northeast of the Peleponnese. It is also cultivated in other parts, but think of Nemea as a synonym to Agiorgitiko. With about 2800 hectares under vine, it is the largest red wine appellation in Greece. The climate is typical for the Peloponnese with mild winter and scorching summers. The altitude of the vineyards varies from approximately 750 up to 3000 feet. As with many other grape varieties, Agiorgitiko produces the best results when struggling to grow on poor soil. I have seen vineyards in Nemea where large rocks were blasted to make room for vines. Nothing else could possibly grow in such a poor and harsh environment.

I believe Agiorgitiko is best suited to introduce a consumer to the red wines from Greece. I have yet to find a person who was not immediately taken over by it. Its deep colour, extremely open nose of cherries mixed with sweet spices, and rich but finely layered palate ensure its success. It has the Jennifer Aniston effect on people – it is hard not to like her. Agiorgitiko is a charmer with a distinct personality that wins the crowd over. It is never exhausting and can be enjoyed without effort.

The variety produces wines that come in a range of styles: Fresh nouveau wines that are loaded with fruit aromas, medium bodied wines that are soft and charming, and blockbuster masculine wines that are tannic without compromising the fruit character. The majority of Agiorgitiko wines can be kept easily for 3 to 5 years, the top wines will certainly improve for a decade.
Related Imagery
Vineyards in Naoussa
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Xinomavro

Xinomavro is grown in four appellations in northern Greece, out of which Naoussa is best known. This area is a half an hour to an hour drive away to the west of Thessaloniki, which is the second largest city in Greece after the capital Athens. About 700 hectares are under vine. The climate is cool for Mediterranean standards, with severe winds that also have a cooling effect. Vineyards are located at altitudes between 500 and 1500 feet. Greek MW Konstantinos Lazarakis has famously dubbed Xinomavro as one of the great divas in the vineyard, as it is quite difficult to deal with.

Xinomavro means “sharp and black” in Greek. Is often compared to the fickle Pinot Noir or the robust Nebbiolo. This gives only a very general idea of what can be expected from the wine. Xinomavro is unique; there simply is no other wine similar to it in style. The colour is always fairly pale with tawny hues, the nose intense and dominated by the scent of fresh, ripe tomatoes. It is not a fruity wine, rather a spicy and herbal one. It starts opening up tremendously after three hours in a decanter. It takes effort getting used to and is the exact opposite to the global blockbuster wines we are all so used to. Finesse is the key – there is so much going on that one can literally spend hours analysing it. It keeps changing in the glass for many hours. There are not many wines in the world that are capable of offering this experience. It is an exciting and fascinating grape variety. The wine pairs almost perfectly with a wide range of food; it has high acidity levels and is always tannic. One word of caution though – poorly made Xinomavro wine tends to be nothing but aggressive juice. It takes a talented and good vintner to master this variety.

In general, there are two styles of Xinomavro, traditional and modern. The former can often be a little rustic, offering authenticity that has remained more or less unchanged for the last 2 centuries. The latter is driven by the desire to produce a more elegant, softer wine. In my opinion both work well, it is fascinating to see that a new generation of vintners is bold enough to experiment carefully with some modern approaches of winemaking.

Xinomavro wines can have an amazing lifespan – already most basic bottlings can be kept for 5 years. A large percentage should be drunk after a 10-year maturation period, the top wines will last for decades, similar to top Bordeaux wines. The tomato aromas become even more evident over time, and it is a treat to indulge on old vintages from the top producers.

These two grape varieties really show off their different characteristics. But both are capable of producing exciting wines that will capture your attention. They do have a few things in common: The best examples are true terroir wines. Trust me, Greece has an abundance of amazing soil structures, but only in recent years has the quest begun to properly match vines with it. Also, the winemakers have an almost obsessing passion for their work, willing to go that extra step. To do this, it does not matter if you plant A or X. I encourage every reader to sample these wines – I look forward to receiving your comments on them.

Markus Stolz is a Greek wine insider based in Athens, Greece.


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Comments

  • Snooth User: ThomasPe
    270987 15

    Nicely informative. Markus, you've done it again!

    Oct 05, 2009 at 5:06 PM


  • Snooth User: mikesuech
    239730 3

    As someone who visits Greece frequently and has had the opportunity to visit Nemea, I can attest to the author's description of Agiorgitiko. It is one of my favorite wines and every time my wife and I have had family and friends try it, they instantly fall in love. I wish the wine could gain greater popularity in America and could be found more easily in local stores.

    If you do wish to try great Agiorgitiko, I recommend Palivou Estate. The wine is incredible and I believe anyone would have a hard time not enjoying what they produce (http://www.palivos.gr/).

    Oct 05, 2009 at 6:50 PM


  • Thomas, thanks for the heads up. Mike, I second your comment on Palivou. This estate is a great example for the variety of styles that can be made from this grape: The basic Anemos Agiorgitiko has not received any oak treatment and offers pure and fresh red fruits. It is delicious and can be easily drunk on its own. The second label is a generic Nemea, which has been matured for about a year in new French oak. The wood integration is done very carefully, resulting in a wine that is very elegant in style. The top label from this grape is called Ammos Reserve. This is very different in style, a tannic and full-bodied monster that will improve for a decade.

    Oct 06, 2009 at 1:00 AM


  • Snooth User: Paul D
    Hand of Snooth
    30339 49

    Great to see some coverage of my favourite wine region.

    Oct 06, 2009 at 2:51 AM


  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 221,149

    Glad to see some love for Greece.

    Of all the great wine producing regions of the world I think Greece has the most potential for growth right now but people need some help. It's hard enough pronouncing Agiorgitiko, much less understanding what it is. Thanks to Markus for a great first step.

    Oct 06, 2009 at 8:20 AM


  • Snooth User: Les Grove
    252210 1

    I have been living in Greece for the last 14 years, after 25 in Calif. The Agioritiko is my favorite red in Greece. The winemaking here has improved 500% since I arrived, and gets better, and more costly each year.

    Don't forget the whites!

    Les Grove

    Oct 06, 2009 at 12:34 PM


  • Snooth User: pilavachi
    262176 2

    Nice article. In my opinion Agiorgitiko is Greece's best hope in the international red wine market. It might be easier to market under its English name, St. George although the French may have some questions about "Saint-Georges"... by the way, is this the only grape variety named after a saint?
    Costa Pilavachi, London

    Oct 06, 2009 at 1:09 PM


  • Paul, glad to hear that Greece is your favourite wine region. That just made my day!

    Gregory, I'd like to point out that I am available for any questions anyone might have in regards to wines from Greece. Honestly, I will do my best, it's all about engagement, so please don't be shy to comment.

    Les and Mike, how about Xinomavro, what are your thoughts on this?

    Costa, Agiogitiko is certainly more easy to market, as it appeals to wine drinkers from all sorts of backgrounds. I don't think its English name should be used though, after all folks are happy to ask for a bottle of Ducru Beaucaillou, which is not much easier to memorize :) I am not sure if another grape variety is named after a saint, Agiorgitiko takes its name from an old village in Nemea that is called "Aghios Georgios". There are for sure many villages named after a saint...

    Oct 06, 2009 at 3:15 PM


  • Snooth User: Philip James
    Founding Member Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    1 12,550

    Whats the availability of wines from these varietals in the US? I tried Greek wines while living in the UK, but don't really see them in the US

    Oct 06, 2009 at 3:17 PM


  • Philip, I believe that (for Greek standards) medium sized producers with 50 ha vineyards like Palivou or Tselepos (Driopi) have a descent distribution in the US. Both of them produce Agiorgitiko. As for Xinomavro, I know that Thimiopoulos is very successful in the US with his Uranos label. I would guess that Alpha Estate and Kir Yiannis are also distributed. But I do not know the US market well. If anyone else could weigh in on this, it would be appreciated.

    Oct 06, 2009 at 3:29 PM


  • Snooth User: Paul D
    Hand of Snooth
    30339 49

    Despite a great deal of initial interest about 5-10 years ago in the UK the wines have yet to make a significant impression on the market in my humble opinion. Unfortunately Retsina and Mavrodaphne are the only representatives in the majority of UK supermarkets/dealers that do sell Greek wine. However that said there are a (very) few merchants that do hold stocks of some excellent wines. Keep up the good work Markus, I look forward to reading about more regions.

    Oct 07, 2009 at 5:15 PM


  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 221,149

    I think much the same happened here in the States once you move away from New York, and maybe Boston to a lesser degree.

    Due to the huge Greek community here in NYC we have several good sources for Greek wines, not to mention the fabulous Greek restaurants that have emerged over the past decade to take their rightful place among some of the city's finest.

    The biggest stumbling block continues to be the language barrier. It's a tough hurdle to clear and the fact that we are at an interim position, seeing both Agiorgitiko and St. Georges on bottles and shelves, just adds to the confusion in the short term.

    I look forward to making things a little bit easy to understand and Markus' help in reaching that goal.

    Oct 08, 2009 at 11:21 AM


  • Snooth User: luvgrapes
    168407 14

    I work at a local liquor store and Boutari seems to be the primary label I see. My husband and I have tried several and always find them interesting...enough so that we are repeat offenders. Moschofilero & Mavrodaphne are just a couple...altogether we carry about 7-10 different bottlings.

    Oct 08, 2009 at 11:29 AM


  • Paul, in the UK, Oddbins certainly was a pioneer for Greek wines. Sadly, after the head buyer and Greek wine enthusiast Steve Daniels left to set up Novum wines, their interest in Greek wines has gone back to zero. Novum has an excellent selection, but of course their market impact is much smaller in comparison. The UK market is tough to break into, but there still is some interest. I did present Greek wines to Julia Harding MW, who is Jancis Robinson's right hand, and also to Joanna Locke MW. Both were impressed by the quality. Unfortunately it is a global fact that Retsina and Mavrodaphne (from average producers) are the "image builders" - as they have little to nothing in common with the wine revolution that has taken place over the last decade. They are of course part of the Greek culture, but do little good for the promotion of Greek wines abroad, rather upholding an image that is disconnected from today's reality.

    Greg, I find it interesting that Greek restaurants present an authentic cuisine in the US, and have a very good reputation. As for Europe, 90+ % of the Greek restaurants outside Greece offer food that has little to do with the Greek heritage. This is a big problem, as most importers of Greek wines are Greeks who sell the wines to the Greek gastronomy. These restaurants often offer food that is cheap, and in quality terms just a few steps above junk food. Obviously they are interested in offering wines that fit the bill. Just about average restaurants offering sub-par wines - in my point of view a recipe for disaster. The non-Greek consumer in Europe simply has few chances of encountering exciting Greek wines. As to the language barrier: I agree that this is a hurdle, however, I do not find it impossible to clear. For foreign markets, the back-labels often offer quite good explanations in the English language. Currently there are about 5 grape varieties exported in significant volumes: Agiorgitiko, Xinomavro, and the white Assyrtico, Moschofilero and Roditis. Eventually these names will stick. As for the names of the estates, this is a different matter. Greek names do sound very foreign, some estates have started adressing this, for example Alpha Estate. But one should not forget that most Greek estates are small to medium sized, often family owned for generations. They are authentic - their family name is part of that.

    Luvgrapes: What a cool username! Boutari and Tsantali, and to some point Hatzimichalis are by far the largest producers in Greece. These names have dominated the industry for decades. They cannot produce such individual wines as the smaller producers, but they do offer volumes at quality levels. This might not be the very top quality, but very fine nevertheless. As you point out, Boutari was responsible for you and your husband seeking out more Greek wines, and trying some different varieties. I am very glad to hear that such a large producer like Boutaris is responsible for this.

    Oct 08, 2009 at 3:29 PM


  • Snooth User: ThomasPe
    270987 15

    Greg,

    I'm sure you know the Greek restaurant that I refer to when I say there's a spectacular one in the East Village--I've been away so long, I can't remember its name. Hope it's still there, for my next trip to the city. East 6th or 7th St.


    Markus,

    When I had my little wine shop in Manhattan, I took in a few Greek wines of names I had never known, but wines that were outstanding. We managed to sell them, but it was a lot of work on the sales floor to do it. Yet, after people tasted them in our regular Saturday tastings, the wines began to sell themselves.

    In fact, it was the first time I tasted Moschofilero and got hooked.

    Oct 12, 2009 at 9:14 AM


  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 221,149

    Thomas,

    Are you talking about Pylos? East 7th between First Ave and Avenue A? Great place.

    Next time you're in the city we should get together and organize a little history of wine dinner.

    Markus, Just over the past decade of so have Greek restaurants established themselves as fine dining restaurants outside of the Greek enclaves of the City. There are quite a few high end Greek places Mid-town Manhattan, supplying tourist and native alike with authentic, finely crafted Greek food. they are the best ambassadors for wines and have done a great job raising the level of awareness for these wines.

    Oct 12, 2009 at 9:56 AM


  • Snooth User: ThomasPe
    270987 15

    Greg,

    Pylos it is. Wonderful place.

    A "history of wine" dinner. I love the concept. I have no immediate plans to get tot he city, but I'd get there just for a dinner like that.

    Maybe we should email offline and discuss this idea. I can almost imagine it: wine from Campania (Falerno), wine from Lebanon (Phoenician), wine from Crete (early wine trading partner with Phoenicians at Knossos).

    Many years ago, when I lived in Tehran, I drank some fine Iranian wines. Wish I could get them now--with it and the above, we'd have a complete ancient wine list.

    Oct 12, 2009 at 2:45 PM


  • Thomas, you offer a very practical insight as how things should be done: 1) Be curios enough to try something you don't know well 2) Put in effort to promote your product. If the quality is there, this approach will work. As to Moschofilero, I love this grape when grown in the cooler areas of Greece. Very few people would guess that the resulting wines are from Greece.

    Greg, it is great to here your compliments about Greek restaurants in NY. Give every single one of them a big hug from me :)

    Oct 13, 2009 at 5:49 AM


  • Snooth User: Jazzivins
    233472 23

    Nice if you want to do something similir with spanish wines. Ready to help you if needed.

    Oct 15, 2009 at 6:03 PM


  • Jazzivins, thanks for the offer, but I really only cover Greek wines. That's where I know the growers, help out in the vineyards and have personal relationships with the people behind the label.

    Oct 16, 2009 at 1:11 PM


  • Snooth User: Oenos
    40392 61

    Thanks for your comments about Palivou wines!

    Sofoklis.
    Ex-winemaker at Palivou Estate till Jan-09.

    Oct 17, 2009 at 2:55 PM


  • Sofoklis, great work you did at Palivou - what are you up to now?

    Oct 17, 2009 at 3:04 PM


  • Snooth User: Oenos
    40392 61

    Semeli Wines, Nemea.
    Available at any time to help you about anything you may need about greek wines. If you have trouble finding info or contacts in Greece let me know. Contact me at anytime.

    Oct 18, 2009 at 5:32 AM


  • Snooth User: pilavachi
    262176 2

    For those of you who live in London, you may be interested to know about Eclectic Wines, an importer specializing in quality Greek wines, mainly from the smaller producers. This is owned by the enterprising and charming Mary Pateras who is English but married to a Greek. And it is true that we do not have a first class Greek restaurant here. I have always felt that a restaurant like the wonderful Milos (Montreal, NY, Athens) would work beautifully in London.

    Oct 21, 2009 at 4:14 AM


  • Costa, thanks for sharing the info. Mary Pateras is well respected in Greece, I have heard her name quite often.

    Oct 22, 2009 at 9:20 AM


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