Finding wisdom in Greek wines
Iam drinking Aristotle’s wine. It probably won’t make me smarter — and the third glass is definitely not making me more coherent — but it’s fun to know that the history of ancient Greece is not only at my feet but on my lips.
Friends seemed surprised when they heard I was joining a food-and-wine tour of Greece, wondering why I wasn’t off to France or Italy for such a gustatory mission. But the land that spawned Western civilization and the Olympic Games also gave us the ultimate symbol of wine appreciation: Bacchus, the merry Greek god who could find the party in any grape.
The first evidence of humans making wine in the area dates back more than 6,000 years, a pedigree of civilization that the Chinese can relate to.
Aristotle’s sip of choice was limnio, from the eponymous grape that fueled many a philosophic discussion in those good old days. Like many vines with such deep roots, however, limnio all but disappeared as other grapes came to dominate mass wine production.
An epidemic of phylloxera nearly finished the job, as it wiped out vineyards across Europe early in the 20th century.
But cuttings from limnio vines in other parts of the globe were brought back to the old country, and today the Porto Carras winery has made it a star.
Limnio, with notes of pepper, vanilla, bay leaf and bitter chocolate, is a popular export “straight up”, but Porto Carras winemakers say it’s best used in a Grecian formula “Bordeaux blend”, which also includes modern standards such as cabernet Franc and cabernet sauvignon.
Other Greek wineries are looking to China as well. More than half a million bottles with a retail value of $2.6 million were consumed here, most in mainland cities.
“In the Chinese market, around 40 Greek wineries are present, most of them exporting in small quantities,” says Emmanuel Stantzos, minister for economic and commercial affairs at the Greek embassy in Beijing.
The biggest players include Cavino, Evangelos Tsantalis, J. Boutari & Son Wineries, Kourtaki, Malamatinas & Sons, and several wine cooperatives. Greek wines are easiest to find in the biggest supermarkets, such as Jenny Wang’s 3,000-label superstore in Beijing’s Shunyi district, and Greek restaurants — there are 10 in Shanghai and about half that many in Beijing.
“Greek terroirs are mostly mountainous and semi-mountainous, which is reflected in most of the country’s PDO wine zones,” says Stantzos. “These are the best endowed, due to the country’s hot and dry climate.” Other wines come from coastal zones, while the vineyards of the island of Santorini grow on a volcanic terroir, yielding very distinctive wines.
Greece recently launched a campaign to promote its native wine varieties, particularly Assyrtiko, Moschofilero, Xinomavro and Agiorghitiko (“St. George’s”) — the last grape a native of the Peloponnese area that makes a soft, fruity red wine that sells for less than 100 yuan ($16.40) in China.
“These indigenous varieties have recently been targeted by bad-faith trademark applications in China submitted by wine importers who tried to monopolize the market for Greek wines,” says Stantzos. “Our office informed the Chinese Trademark Office of these attempts that we deem extremely detrimental to the interests of Greek wine.”
We know we are enjoying the real deal as we eat and drink our way around Greece, where fresh is the operative word. The capital Athens abounds in sidewalk cafes and fine restaurants where fresh produce, fine cheeses and olive oil, and plenty of seafood come together in a healthy feast, always with a glass of a fine local wine at hand.
Porto Carras wines include local varietals and an excellent 2006 syrah.