Greece has been making wine since ancient times. Remains of grapes and winemaking equipment dating back to at least 2000BC have been found. And, through trade, Greece had an enormous influence on the early development of wine right across southern Europe. Yet, in more recent times, the reputation of Greek wines has dipped dramatically. Even today, mention the country’s wine to some and the reply will be ‘retsina’, often with some derogatory comment attached.
That’s not my experience at all. There are some excellent Greek wines around and, as often happens in places with a long wine heritage, you can find a vast array of distinctively flavoured native grape varieties, some perfectly adjusted to conditions in just one small area of the country.
Take the white grape variety Assyrtiko (“ass-seer-tick-o”) grown on the island of Santorini, for example. Santorini is one of the windiest islands in the Mediterranean. Training the vines along wires would be impossible; the whole thing – vines, posts, wires, the lot – would simply blow over; even growing as a bush doesn’t work in many parts. Instead, the vine has to be knotted into a basket shape, kept close to the ground to protect the grapes from the winds (see picture below). Few grape varieties would tolerate such treatment, but Assyrtiko grows happily there.
Fortunately, in the right hands, it also makes delicious wine. Hatzidakis’ bottling (Grape and Grind, £12.99, Wine Society, £13.50) is crisp and fresh, quite citrusy but with a little weight behind it, too. We found the flavours developed nicely after a while in the glass; my wife suggested that decanting might help – I think she was right.
And that’s what you find with these lesser-known grapes – they give you all sorts of surprises. You won’t like them all, but I always think they’re worth trying once and Assyrtiko, in particular, really should be on every wine lover’s list.