Wine Bill Knott
THE NEW GREEK
‘Of course,’ declaimed the waiter in the Athens wine bar where I had taken refuge, ‘democracy is a Greek word.’
And so are ‘crisis’ and ‘anarchy’, I nearly answered, having just negotiated my way from Syntagma Square along a street completely occupied by a long line of John Deere tractors, owned by protesting, horn-beeping Greek farmers. Instead, I ordered another bottle of Assyrtiko from Santorini – crisp, dry and rather delicious – and plotted a demo-free path back to my apartment.
Some of those farmers may well have been winemakers; certainly, the Greek government has made life very difficult for anyone wanting to grow, crush, ferment, bottle and market grapes. They now have to pay upfront for any capital equipment they might need – oak casks, bottles, machinery – and wine is more heavily taxed than ever.
Commendably, this has not deterred the ‘new wave’ of Greek winemakers. I suspect many Britons still think of Greek wine as something that just about passes muster in a taverna on a Corfu beach, but doesn’t travel well. Repatriated retsina never quite tastes the same, no matter how loud you crank up the Demis Roussos. And Demestica has never quite overcome its name’s unfortunate similarity to a proprietary brand of lavatory cleaner.
In fact, Greece now has an abundance of excellent wine, much of it made not from international grapes but from indigenous varieties, like Assyrtiko, its roots deep in the volcanic Santorini soil, and able to keep remarkable freshness and acidity, no matter how torrid the Greek summer. Haridimos Hatzidakis is the winemaking king of the island: his 2014 vintage can be found at the Wine Society, £12.50.
There are some splendid reds, too. Come 23rd April, I will patriotically crack open a bottle of Agiorgitiko: the wine is easier to get one’s mouth around than the name, which is Greek for Saint George. Try M&S’S Red On Black Agiorgitiko from Nemea, in the north-east Peloponnese, £9 a bottle, or £6.75 if you buy two.
And there is Xinomavro, which literally means ‘acid black’, descriptors that hint at its potential for long ageing: wines made from it have something in common with Nebbiolo (Barolo, Barbaresco), with a deeper colour and a bit more heft. Try the robust and spicy Thymiopoulos Xinomavro, also from M&S: £65 for a case of six, and 25 per cent less if you buy two.
There is no better place to try the full range of Greek wines than in Athens, though. Should you be holidaying in Greece this summer, spend a night or two in the city: as well as By The Glass, the place in which I hid from the tractors, there are Oinoscent, Heteroclito and Vintage Wine Bistro, all within a five-minute walk of each other, handily located between Syntagma, Plaka and Monastiraki.
All of them offer solider sustenance as well, especially some excellent Greek charcuterie and cheese: louza, cured and smoked pork fillet, and arseniko, a salty and lactic cheese from Naxos. Greeks, despite their reduced circumstances, take great pride in their food and drink.
This month’s mixed case from Waitrose includes two bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon from the Halkidiki Peninsula, south of Thessaloniki: it seems to me that buying Greek wine is a thoroughly civilised way to help their benighted economy. Given the quality of the product, it is not a sacrifice, and maybe some of the farmers will have one less thing to complain about.