An edited version of this article was originally published on www.jancisrobinson.com on 21st March, 2016
I have a bit of history with the wines of Greece. Our last holiday before the end of real holidays (i.e. before we had children) was to Oia in Santorini, back in 2009. A paradise of a place with great food and many great wine discoveries, the most memorable being Vin Santo and Assyrtiko. I had tried neither before that holiday and they have both become perennial favourites.
A particularly life changing experience came with Assyrtiko. We somehow managed to find ourselves attending a classical music concert in some ancient church on a cliff just outside Fira. At the interval we were served nibbles in an idyllic, balmy courtyard, alongside the most amazingly complex, almost Burgundian like white wine that knocked us out. It was Assyrtiko of course and we were smitten. I’m not sure we drank any other white wine for the rest of that holiday.
We discovered a range of amazing Assyrtikos over the rest of the week. We also visited a number of wineries and were amazed by the unique weaving of the ancient vines, known as "koulara". This forms the vines into rings protecting them from the high winds. Since then I have always looked out for Assyrtiko on wine lists or on special offers in merchants (Waitrose carry the Hatzidakis, which is good value at £12.99, especially during their regular 25% off all wine discount).
Before Christmas I did a tasting at the Sampler, where the 2014 Gaia Wild Ferment Assyrtiko was the stand out wine of the tasting, so Assyrtiko has been front of mind again of late. I was then reminded of the plight of the Greek people in the wake of the financial crisis of the last 7-8 years, and the failings of the Greek government for many decades before that, brought to life brilliantly, but depressingly, by Simon Reeves in his recent BBC documentary on Greece. So when I saw the email from Uncorked flagging a tasting of its “small but perfectly formed” Greek wine portfolio on Friday, which included the newly released 2015 Gaia Wild Ferment, I couldn’t resist popping along for a taste.
The Greek financial crisis has had a massive impact on its wine industry. For many years about 80% of Greek wine has been consumed in Greece and there is a real wine culture, particularly in rural areas, where small batch artisan wines are typically consumed. As a result of the financial crisis, Greek wine drinkers have been forced to downgrade their consumption in terms of quality, reverting to wine sold in boxes or large cartons for one or two euros at the side of the road. This has made bottled wines a much harder sell outside tourist and urban areas, forcing wine producers to focus more on export markets to be able to sell their wines.
Fortunately this has been recognised by the Government. In 2014 €44m of funding was allocated during 2014-18 to restructure more than 8,000 acres of vineyards, including varietal conversion, vineyard relocation and the improvement of vineyard management techniques. A further €16m during 2015-18 was allocated for Greek wine promotional activities in key export markets.
The tasting was hosted by Evangelia Tevekelidou, a representative of Uncorked’s agent Hallgarten Druitt. Fortunately, she was able to help me out with both pronunciation and geography, as the five wines were spread from regions across Greece. We discussed the changes in the Greek wine industry and she said that the push for exports was focused on “showcasing the indigenous grape varieties”, which sets Greece apart from other wine growing regions. She is really passionate about the indigenous grapes of Greece, "I always try to fly the flag of Greece, as I truly believe in their potential".
Although I think this is the way forward, as there is real interest and uniqueness in the wines, there is work to be done on the promotion of Greek wines in the UK. Unless they have been there on holiday, many people in the UK are unlikely to have tasted Greek wines and certainly wouldn’t look to buy them. A group of tasters there when I was tasting echoed this point, as two of the three of them couldn’t remember tasting Greek wines before, and didn’t really see Greece as a wine producing country. This is clearly due to the lack of foresight and entrepreneurial spirit of the Greek wine industry and Greek government in general. Why has it taken the Greek financial crisis to think about exporting wine?
It is really frustrating for me and I am just some Scottish guy with no connection to the country. Imagine if Scotland hadn’t bothered to export whisky? According to the Scotch Whisky Association, whisky exports contribute £3.95 billion p.a. to the UK balance of trade, or £125 per second! I’m not for a minute saying that Greek wine could be as popular as Scotch whisky but a bit of effort could have made a significant contribution to the health of the Greek economy over the last few decades.
Despite this, I do think that the recent efforts to provide funding for the wine industry is a step forward. By continuing to focus on indigenous varieties, I do believe that Greek wine can be a success overseas. Assyrtiko in particular can really sell. It creates unique wines of real quality, especially on Santorini. The red wines I tasted also highlighted the quality in Greek red wines.
For what it is worth, I did my bit. After the tasting I bought a case of the Gaia Wild Ferment for personal consumption. If that’s not a recommendation, I don’t know what is!
Here are my thoughts on the wines I tasted;
Gaia Notios White Moschofilero/Roditis, 2014 (£12.50) – made from pink grapes, this was quite floral on the nose, reminiscent of viognier. A bit of sweetness on the palate but dries off on the finish. Light and easy going, this would be good with a summer lunch….ideally in Greece.
Gerovassiliou Malagousia Epanomi, 2014 (£16.50) – this variety was almost extinct before replanting began in 1983. From the North East of Greece, near Thessaloniki, this is very aromatic, with aromas of peaches and stone fruits. Definitely more serious than the Notios and a long finish.
Gaia Wild Ferment Assyrtiko Santorini, 2015 (£17.95) – smokey, almost Burgundian nose followed by flavours of straw, honey and lemon all supported by well integrated oak. Brilliant stuff.
Alpha Estate Xinomavro Hedgehog Vineyard, 2011 (£15.50) – from Greece’s coldest wine producing region, Amyndeo in the North, this was the other wine I was most tempted to buy. A mix of the flavours of grenache and pinot noir, it had dark fruits and leather with nicely managed tannins which made for an exciting mouthful.
Gaia Estate Nemea, 2011 (£24.95) – from the Agiorgitiko grape. Quite a spicey nose, followed by a sweet and round mouthful with plummy flavours. Not quite as exciting as the Hedgehog for me but still very good.
All wines available from Uncorked, with discounts on these prices if you buy a case of 6.