“Yeia mas!” shouts a rather jolly Olly Smith, raising his glass enthusiastically at the little crowd huddled in a white plastic tent in the middle of the festival. For a moment I feel like I’m back in school and a charismatic prefect has broken into the headmistress’s liquor cabinet. We’re reverently gathered for an introduction to “Modern Greek Wines” by a man who’d easily win first place for the World’s Nicest Wine Expert if such a contest indeed existed. Decked out in an amusing pink tartan suit, he’s the perfect icebreaker for the mysterious, enigmatic varietals and wine styles which define the contemporary Greek wine scene.
Despite thousands of years of winemaking, modern Greece can prove frustrating to wine lovers unfamiliar with Greek wine regions and the tricky names of indigenous grapes like “Mavrodaphne” and “Agiorgitiko”. That’s why chef Theodore Kyriakou, the organiser of the festival, is a Greek with a mission. A mission to prove that there’s far more to Greece than economic woes and desperate refugees.
Luckily, it’s a job made easy by the incredible quality of Greek produce and an ancient legacy of valuing and enjoying good food. Best known for founding The Real Greek restaurants, in 2013 Theodore started a new project, The Greek Larder restaurant and deli which sits a mere olive stone’s throw from hipster hotspot Granary Square. The focus is quality ingredients and simplicity; diners feast on such delights as 5 month cured beef leg, grilled octopus, Norfolk crab and Colne Valley lamb. Naturally, there’s a stunning all-Greek wine list which boasts an option to tour the country on a three-glass red or white wine flight (£15).
“Our passion has always been to champion, promote and dispense the very best Greek food and wine”, says Theodore, and it’s this passion which inspired the London Greek Wine Festival. Now in its second year, the festival is a fabulous opportunity for producers to connect with a drinking public hungry for both novelty and quality. The October 2016 edition featured dozens of wineries and tasters of everything from syrupy Vinsanto and piquant Retsina to sparkling wine made from the Xinomavro grape and refined old vine Agiorgitiko.
Here’s a rundown of some of my festival favourites (in no particular order), all of which are available in the UK should you wish to sample them yourselves!
1. Domaine Karanika Brut Rose Xinomavro 2013 (available from Maltby and Greek)
Bursting with strawberries and raspberries along with a subtle herbal hit, it’s the touch of sweetness that makes this sparkling rosé a sophisticated yet accessible intro to Greek wines. Domaine Karanika sits up in the north west corner, not far from the Albanian border. Named after Alexander the Great’s grandfather, the region of Amyndeon is especially known for its dry red Xinomavro wines which tend to be aromatic and medium bodied. Appellation rules also permit rosé and sparkling Xinomavro wines, and since the area boasts one of the coolest climates in Greece with cold winters and moderate summers, it’s ideal territory for making fine fizz.
The same winery also make an absolutely stunning Blanc de Noir from Xinomavro, their Karanika Brut Cuvée Special Xinomavro. The fizz spends 12 to 14 months on the lees giving rich brioche aromas, admirable complexity and a creamy texture which marries perfectly with strawberry hints from the grape. It’d make an exotic alternative to that Christmas morning glass of Champers, but don’t leave it too late as the winery only makes a few thousand bottles per year!
2. Gaia Wines Thalassitis Assyrtiko 2015 (available from Hallgarten Druitt & Novum Wines)
Named after the ancient habit of mixing wine with seawater to improve its health properties, this crisp white from the dreamy island of Santorini is made from the 80 year old indigenous Assyrtiko vines. Bone dry with a fierce acidity and distinctive minerality, it’s best enjoyed on a sunny oceanview terrace with a plate of the island’s finest seafood or fish. Failing that, your back garden will also work just fine.
Once you’ve tried the Thalassitis it’s well worth moving on to the Wild Ferment Assyrtiko 2015 which is also made on Santorini by Gaia Wines. Harking back to more traditional winemaking processes, the winemakers use wild yeasts and ferment a proportion of the wine in new French and American oak and acacia barrels. The hands off approach means each tank and every barrel produces a unique wine. The bottle I tasted had an intriguing complexity, revealing layers of pungent vanilla, funky notes from the yeast and striking minerality. Most impressive of all, my non-wine drinking companion fell in love with it at first sip! Job done.
3. Domaine Parparoussis Gift of Dionysos Sideritis 2015 (available from Cava Spiliadis)
I’ll admit that my decision to taste was mostly based on the name, but it proved to be a solid choice. Domaine Parparoussis is located near Patras in the Peloponnese and the family team focuses on the region’s indigenous grape varieties. Made from the little-known Sideritis grape which I’d never heard of before, this is a fresh, young and lively white with pleasant anise, gooseberry and apple aromas. A nice choice for fans of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc looking to try something new.
4. Biblia Chora Areti Agiorgitiko 2009 (available from Cava Spiliadis)
Mined for its rich marble, gold, and silver deposits by the ancient Athenians and revered as the mythical birthplace of Dionysus, today Mount Pangeon in eastern Macedonia is home to the organic vineyards of Biblia Chora winery which sit on its gentle lower slopes. Here the vines benefit rocky, barren soils and cooling breezes from the mountains and the nearby Aegean Sea, producing wines with impressive concentration and balancing freshness. This sublime example of the Agiorgitiko grape spends 12 months in French oak, adding subtle vanilla and sweet spice notes to the ripe cherries and hints of dried fruit. The perfect choice for feasting on tender, slow-roasted lamb or a classic moussaka.
5. Oikonomou Liatiko 2006 (available from Theatre of Wine)
Made from an obscure black-skinned variety called Liatiko traditionally grown on the island of Crete, this brick-red beauty really hit my happy spot. The Cretan winery, Domaine Economou, is the baby of Gianni Economou, an oenologist made wine all over Europe before deciding to head home and resurrect these old family vineyards. The nose exudes intricate, evolving aromas of mediterranean herbs, smoke, leather and dried cherries, while considerable bottle age lends silky smoothness on the palate. Gianni only releases his wines when he feels they’re ready for drinking, and his judgement seems spot on. Sophisticated and elegant, here’s proof that Greece’s rich chocolate box of indigenous grapes have plenty to offer even the most discerning wine lovers.
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