Clare Finney drops by Oliveology’s wine masterclass to find out why Greek wine is so misunderstood—and vastly underrated
“The thing with Greek wine is, it tastes delicious when you’re there, in the sunshine, eating fresh bread and olive oil—and atrocious once you get it home.” Thus my mother maintained when we were growing up—and so, being my mother’s daughter, I followed suit. Greek wine was made for Greek holidays, where you’re too hot to care and the food is good enough to compensate. Then, one startlingly, beautifully hot Thursday in April, I found myself at Oliveology‘s Greek wine-tasting event, and discovered Greece is the word when it comes to wine in 2018.
The wines were selected by Maria Moutsou, of Southern Wine Roads; the food came from Oliveology’s Marianna, and spanned the length and breadth of this ancient land. “The Greeks have been drinking wine for millennia. Homer’s epics are filled with references to wine-drinking,” says Maria. It’s here you’ll find some of the oldest grape varieties on the planet, and certainly the world’s earliest evidence of crushed grapes. It makes sense, therefore, that they’d know a thing or two about winemaking—both in 760BC and in the 21st century.
So where did their bad reputation come from? Maria explains this with the narrative ease and good humour that typifies her style of delivery. “The Greeks used to export a lot of wine, particularly from the islands to the main land. They transported it in clay amphorae, sealed with resin from the aleppo pine tree. By the time they’d reached their destination, they were flavoured with the resin. That was just how wine was. People accepted it,” she continues, “so when they began transporting wine in barrels instead of amphora, they added resin then also, or aged the wine in pine barrels—hence retsina.”
Resinated wine revival
The problem arose when, during the 20th and early 21st centuries, the addition of resin became a means of masking the flaws of substandard wines. Greeks that could afford to drank wine imported from the rest of Europe. Retsina was no longer considered acceptable, and the downward spiral continued. But in recent years there has been a revival of resinated wine, with a number of pioneering producers keen to harness its potential. “Good examples of retsina are very nice. I like it,” Maria continues. “When it is well-made, you notice the wine as well as the extra layer of flavour and texture the resin brings.”
With that she opens her first bottle: a 2014 Markou Shinopefko Retsina made with 100 per cent savatiano grapes. “This is a retsina wine, but it is much lighter and more elegant than the old school retsina you might have had before. The pine resin is subtle”—indeed, if Maria hadn’t said it was in there, we might easily have mistaken the peppery, piquant flavour as a feature of the grape.
Like Marianna with Oliveology, Maria’s mission with Southern Wine Roads is to find small producers that use traditional, sustainable methods, as opposed to industrial practices. But their partnership in this wine tasting event goes beyond simple ideology.
Fatty, salty tang
With every wine that we taste—and there are six in total, making this one of the more generous tasting events I’ve been to—Maria and Marianna have devised food pairings. The Shinopefko Retsina is matched with six-month barrel-aged feta and dakos rusks: “The fatty, salty tang of the feta works very well with the tanginess of the wine,” Maria explains simply. “It really cuts through.”
This feta is one of the crown jewels of Oliveology: a sheep’s and goat’s milk cheese made by the same family since the 1930s. The ageing of the cheese in a brine-filled birch barrel—a centuries-old tradition—adds a new dimension to both wine and cheese. Yet it’s the second pairing, of 2015 Markou Kleftes with fava dip, wild capers and sourdough, which really sings to us: an extraordinary melding of ripe tree fruits and earthy minerality.
“Fava is like hummus, made with yellow split peas,” says Marianna. It’s the earthiness of this pulse and olive oil mix that complements this natural wine, made without sulphites in Attica. The natural saltiness of the capers—preserved in olive oil, not brine, for a more natural flavour—highlights notes of apple, peach and bay leaves.
“In terms of soil and climate, this area of Attica is perfect for grape growing,” says Maria—and where there’s good fruit, there isn’t much the winemaker need add. That’s why natural wine is increasingly popular here. But the most remarkable discovery is yet to come: “This wine is made from exactly the same type of grape as the retsina wine we tried just previously.” The difference is extraordinary, and proof, if proof were needed, that Greece gives great grapes—it’s the treatment of the fruit subsequently that determines whether or not it gives good wine.
We keep on going: through marinated artichoke, leeks, and extra virgin olive oil paired with a 2015 Gavalas Santorini from—well, Santorini. “It’s counter-intuitive,” Maria points out, “but the vines in Santorini are better because the volcanic soil is quite inhospitable.” While the phylloxera virus wiped out most of the vines around Europe in the 19th century, it struggled to take root here and, as a result, many of the vines on the island are some of few that date back a couple of centuries. “The wines are trained to survive,” says Maria. “And old vines give wine of great quality.” One interesting custom of the growers on the island is to cultivate the vines in wide spaces and shape them into crown-like spirals. “The winds are so strong that they can slow down the growing process otherwise.”
We are only half way through. Yet to come is a rosé from 100 per cent xinomavro grapes paired with soft Cretan cheese and grape molasses, and an oak barrel-aged red wine paired with throuba olives. These are unsalted, leathery, moist and as hopelessly moreish as the tannic, textured wine itself. We finish on the 2014 Aivalis Nemea, paired with truffle honey and St Isidore Naxos goat’s cheese. The flavour combination, remarks someone else on the tasting, is “the gift that keeps on giving”—and unlike a certain famous Greek gift, there are no hidden secrets as to its quality or authenticity.
For more information and to book tickets for the next workshop, visit the Oliveology website