Greek Vineyard & Grape Varieties
Greece has an enchanting landscape and subsoil, with many mountains, a few lowlands and only three big plains where a great range of native grape varieties thrive. The Mediterranean climate of our country, with the strong sunshine, the long, dry summer and the impressive alterations of water, dry lands and highlands creates the ideal circumstances for the growth and fruiting of local wine making grape varieties. The different "terroir" of wine producing regions puts its stamp on each wine's personality and offers intriguing taste complexity.
Viticulture and wine production constitute a large part of Greek history, culture and civilization with the recorded history of Greek wine extending to the 7th century BC. Countless findings of the Minoan and Mycenaean Civilizations prove that the production, consumption and export of wine were growing sectors at that time. Dionysus, a Greek god on Olympus, appears to spend a lot of time enjoying wine, eating and dancing. Hesiod and Theofrastos have written manuscripts on wine production and viticulture. Homer, in the Iliad, refers to cellars filled with wine shipped to Thrace from Achaia by sea. Over the years, wine was also integrated into many religious ceremonies as it became part of Sacrament.
During the Byzantine Empire Age, implementation of viticulture ceased, in contrast with the production and consumption of wine. However, at that time, the use of wooden barrels for the production of barrel aged wines was introduced from Western Europe. At the same time, the technique of sun drying grapes was disseminated and Malvasia wine (from Monemvasia, a Venetian fortress on the coast of Laconia in the Peloponnese) was exported to France, Germany and England right up until the 18th century. During the Fall of Constantinople, in 1453, there was a general decline in wine exporting, while the practice of viticulture continued.
Unfortunately, most cultivable lands were destroyed with the departure of the Turks after the Greek revolution in 1821, with a few exceptions, such as that of Crete and certain islands of the Aegean and Ionian Sea. Muscat wines of Samos, famous since ancient times, were introduced to West and East by the end of the 19th century. Until 1920, when phylloxera destroyed most of the vineyards of the country, nothing remarkable had occurred in the field of viticulture. The same is noticed in the following years, since house wine dominated consumption. Only the international dissemination of Retsina can be noticed this period. Although Retsina was consumed by the Athenians by the end of the 19th century, it gained fame in parallel with the tourism development of 1960s. The result was that, for many years since then, Greek wine was, universally, synonymous to Retsina.
Greek Bottled Wines
In the 1970s, the Greek market of bottled wine was very limited, since there were only 4 companies prevailing: Kampas, Boutaris, Achaia Claus and Kourtakis. Sometime later, the company of Evangelos Tsantalis was added in the list of reputable brand names. Some more notable wineries were created gradually, such as those of Evangelos Averoff, Porto Carras, Dimitris Hatzimihalis and, afterwards, that of Thanassis Parparoussis, Dimitris Katsaros and the Kokotos family.
The greatest development took place in the 1980s, when a lot of emphasis was given in the cultivation of vineyards and the use of proper expertise by highly skilled professionals. At the same time, modernly equipped wineries were founded, setting the standards for the production of high quality wines. Moreover, the terms of V.Q.P.R.D. (Vin de Qualité Produit dans une Région Déterminée) and A.O.C. (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée) were established, according to edicts of 1971 and 1972, thus defining the wines particular characteristics. Over years, these terms were evolved either due to reconsideration of the characteristics of certain regions or due to their recent reform from V.Q.P.R.D. to P.D.O. (Protected Designation of Origin) and A.O.C. to P.G.I. (Protected Geographical Indication).
Greek Grape Varieties
Although the decade of 1970 was considered the beginning of a new era, single variety wines (monovarietal) were not popular, since each region consumers knew just the varieties of their region. Gradually and as single variety wines begun to appear, there was noticed a dissemination of several grape varieties to a wider range of consumers and as expected, to winemakers and vine growers. The Greek varieties initially cultivated by the winemakers were: Moschofilero, Roditis, Savvatiano, Xinomavro and Agiorgitiko and the International ones: Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. In the decades of 1980s and 1990s, the blends of local and international varieties first appeared and over years, the native, indigenous varieties gained ground in domestic and international wine markets. This was not only due to the uniqueness and the Greek character ("terroir") but also due to the impressive, large number of Greek grape varieties.
There are claims that the Greek domestic grape varieties exceed 350 in number, while in some countries there are no native grape varieties for wine making. To be more precise, this number is more likely to be closer to 200, since some of them appear with a different name in some regions and even different vine characteristics. In any case, few of them are widely known and largely cultivated for the production of high quality wines.
Greek White Wine Varieties
Modern Greek white wines bear little resemblance to the well known retsina of the 1970's. There is a large variety of indigenous white grapes that are largely grown in mountainous regions to take advantage of the cooler micro climate needed to slowly ripen the grapes through the hot greek summers and produce a range of fresh flavours. There are a number of notable exceptions to this rule with the Savatiano and Thrapsathiri varieties among other known for their high heat tolerance and resistance to drought. Popular and well reputed Greek white varieties are listed below, click on the name to learn more and browse wines produced with them.
- Aidani: mainly found in the Cycladic Islands with medium acidity
- Assyrtiko: a native of Santorini producing very dry whites, now widely produced throughout Greece
- Athiri: an ancient variety also from Santorini with low acidity
- Debina: mainly from the region of Epirus and often used in the production of sparkling wines
- Katsano: a scarce variety of Santorini, it is rarely vinified alone
- Kydonitsa: a relatively rare variety produced mainly in the Peleponnese
- Lagorthi: a mountain cultivated variety from the Peleponnese
- Malagousia: an aromatic variety with medium acidity found mainly in Macedonia
- Monemvasia: an historic white commonly used for dessert and fortified wines
- Malvasia Aromatica: highly aromatic variety grown mostly in Crete
- Moschofilero: a grey grape, producing also Blanc de gris, from the PDO Mantineia region
- Muscat of Alexandria: an ancient variety that thrives in Greece's hot climate
- Muscat of Samos: an indigenous grape grown on the Greek island of Samos
- Plyto: a Cretan variety saved from extinction and currently cultivated in low quantities
- Robola: a high acid variety notably used to produce PDO Robola of Kefalonia wines
- Roditis: a rose colored variety used in the production of PDO Patra wines
- Savvatiano: a popular grape in and around Athens with a high tolerance to heat
- Sideritis: a rare variety, grown throughout the Peloponnese region and especially the prefecture of Achaia
- Thrapsathiri: a highly drought resistant variety from Crete producing full body wines
- Vilana: the most famous white variety from Crete often blended with Malvasia and Muscat
- White Muscat: a variety used in the production of dessert wines
Greek Red Wine Varieties
Greek red wine production is led by the well known PDO and PGI varieties of Agiorgitiko, xinomavro and Mavrodaphne. There are a lot more reds than just that though and the most reputed modern Greek red varieties include:
- Agiorgitiko: a flagship of the Greek reds used in the wines from PDO Nemea
- Avgoustiatis: from the island of Zakynthos and is also cultivated in the western Peloponnese
- Kotsifali: a variety indigenous to Crete, often blended with Madilaria
- Liatiko: another variety native to Crete producing both dry and sweet wines
- Limnio: an ancient variety from the island of Lemnos and now produced throughout northern Greece
- Limniona: a hard to find red variety, mainly cultivated in Thessaly in the areas of Karditsa and Tyrnavos
- Mandilaria: mainly cultivated on Crete and Rhodes and blended with many other varieties
- Mavrodaphne: well known for its use in the famous Mavrodaphne wines of Patras
- Mavrotragano: until recently used in Santorini blends, now also used in single variety wines
- Mouchtaro: a variety which few have seriously addressed grown almost exclusively in the Viotia region
- Vertzami: a rare thick skinned variety producing high alcohol wines that age well
- Vlachiko: based in the region of Ioannina, and the wider region of Epirus
- Xinomavro: the most important variety of northern Greece with production centered around the area of PDO Naoussa
Meanwhile, on certain soils, there was noticed an excellent adaptation of some international varieties including: Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Viognier, Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Ugni Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Syrah, Mourverdre, Grenache Rouge, Refosco, Carignan, Petit Verdot, Primitivo, Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Tempranillo, and Pinot Noir.
Modern Greek Winemaking Regions
Nowadays, things are different since each one of the wine producing regions of our country possesses its own microclimate and remarkable, promising wines are produced by indigenous varieties. Naoussa's wines, coming from Xinomavro, excel in Greece, while abroad it has already started their recognition, as it also happens with the Agiorgitiko wines of Nemea, Assyrtiko and Vinsanto of Santorini. The wider area of Macedonia, Peloponnese, Epirus, Central Greece, the Aegean Islands, Crete, Thessaly, as well as a large part of the Ionian Islands, the Dodecanese, the islands of the northern Aegean and Thrace, have large expanses of vineyards, producing high quality wines.
- D. Hatzimihalis, Vitivulture
- Nikos Manesis, The Illustrated Greek Wine Book
- Konstantinos Lazarakis, The Greek Wines
- Haroula Spinthiropoulou, Greek Vineyard wine making grape varieties
- Argyris Tsakiris, Greek Wines
- Argyris Tsakiris, Oenology
- Stavroula Kourakou-Dragona, Oenology Topics - Link to a fascinating interview with the author