Greek wine

Wine, as a product of culture is an indicator of the development of a place's culture. The French notion of 'terroir', encompasses culture as a determinant of the product of the viticultural and oenological processes. Although it looks like wine was first produced in the Caucasus region, it is in ancient Greece that it became central to the civilization. At symposia, philosophical and political matters were discussed and wine played a central role.

Says Konstantinos Lazarakis MW: ‘Although a state of mild intoxication was considered conducive to creative thinking, drunkenness was intolerable and characteristic of barbarians. A most telling point is the role of the oenohoos, the ‘one that pours the wine’, who was responsible for providing the foods for symposia, selecting the wines to be served and making sure that enough of them would be available, as running out of wine was totally unacceptable. He would also choose the shape of the clay pots, the kylix, for drinking the wine, since the way taste was altered by the type of kylix was very well understood.’ Lazarakis says: ‘Many researchers believe that the word hora, which can be translated as place or land, was more or less used by the ancient Greek wine writers very much in the way the term terroir is used today. Legislation included some very strict appellations, the first encountered in the history of wine, governing elements like wine style, permitted shapes of amphorae, seals of authenticity, prices, and the like. Fraud was dealt with in a severe manner, suggesting a very discerning clientele.

A triumph of Greek wine in the Byzantine era, and even beyond, was Monemvassios Oenos. The name was not derived from the grape Monemvassia, but from the port town of the same name in the south-eastern Peloponnese. The wine was of extremely high quality and immediately became sought after in key markets, like France, Germany and England. Monemvassia, however, turned out to be a victim of its own success. Demand was enormous, the port was small and the large-capacity cargo ships could not approach it. Wine producers from Santorini, Crete and even Cyprus were quick to identify the opportunity and started selling ‘Monemvassios’ wine as well. In this way, the name developed into a generic term.

In the 19th century, as Greece became an independent and proto-capitalist state, it experienced a boom and bust entrepreneurial economic cycle in wine. According to Lazarakis: ‘The end of the 19th century found France in short supply of wine and with countless hectares of phylloxera-infested vineyards. Thirsty French consumers turned to Greece to buy either wine or raisins, which was then turned into raisin wine. For a couple of decades, Greece entered a planting frenzy, reaching an all time high of 200,000 hectares in 1916. Unfortunately, the French had sorted out their phylloxera problems by that time, switching back to their local wines. The blow of surplus wine was so intense, that despite a rapid decrease of acreage thereafter, the Greek government was forced to create co-operatives, securing a buyer for almost every vine grower.’ Cooperatives were a mixed blessing as a policy decision long term. In some cases, such as the Santorini cooperative, they have been central to a sustainable growth. In most, its purpose and use has been abused.

Similar to other developing capitalistic economies, after the stafida bust, wine production consolidated and Greece witnessed the Rise of big powerhouses in wine production such as Achaia Claus, Kourtaki, Kamba, Boutari and Tsantali.

For most of the 20th century Greece was a developing state, economy and society. ‘Poverty prevailed. Wine was always present on the family table, but more as a ‘staple food’, along with olive oil, bread and cheese, rather than as an aspiring beverage.’ says Lazarakis. Retsina became popular for daily consumption due to its capacity not to go bad for a long time. Necessity bred this invention. The main Retsina-producing regions of Greece (Attica and Boeotia) built up wine making capacity. They still produce more wine per year than New Zealand. The need for a national wine legislation that would standardize trade and production was first recognized in the 1950s, but the first one appeared in the 1970s, modeled after the French one. It has been slow to update and mirror modern market conditions. Malvasios (Monemvasios) Oenos became a controlled appellation again in 2010.

As the Greek economy grew in the last decades of the 20th century, it witnessed the emergence of 'boutique wineries', investments by people unrelated up to that point with wine production, but with zeal and fervor to produce high quality Greek wine that will cater to the refined tastes of the increasingly knowledgeable and prosperous Greek consumer.

The main wine growing regions of contemporary Greece are:

Aegean Islands:
Limnos, Paros, Rhodes, Samos, Kos & Santorini

Archanes, Dafnes, Peza & Sitia

Central Greece:
Anchialos, Attica, Rapsani & Thessaly


Ionian Islands:

Amyntaion, Epanomi, Goumenissa & Naoussa

Mantineia, Nemea & Patras

Grape Varieties 

Red Wine

Agiorghitiko (‘St. George's [grape]’) is a variety native to Nemea that grows mainly in the Peloponnese area, producing a soft, fruity red in many styles. Its sensory attributes are similar to Beaujolais Nouveau but, unlike its French counterpart, the St. George ages well for about 5 years.

Xinomavro (‘sour black’) is the predominant grape variety in Macedonia, centered around the town of Naoussa. This variety has great aging potential with a palate reminiscent of tomatoes and olives, and a rich tannic character. It is often compared to Nebbiolo.

Mandilaria, also known as amorgiano, is mainly cultivated on the islands of Rhodes and Crete. Wine from this grape is often very tannic and frequently blended with other grapes to soften the mouth-feel.

Mavrodaphne, or ‘black laurel’, is a variety that grows in the Peloponnese and the Ionian Islands. It is blended with the Black Corinth currant grape to produce a prized fortified dessert wine made in the Solera style.

Kotsifali is a variety mainly grown on Crete. It is blended with Mandilaria or Syrah to enhance its color.

White Wine
Assyrtiko is a multi-purpose variety which maintains its acidity as it ripens. It is similar in character to Riesling, and is mostly island-based, being a native variety of the island of Santorini, whose old vines have been resistant to Phylloxera.

Athiri is a lower acid variety and one of the most ancient. Originally from Santorini, it is now planted in Macedonia, Attica, and Rhodes.

Debina is a white Greek wine grape primarily in the Zitsa region of Epirus. The grape's high acidity lends itself to sparkling wine production.

Lagorthi is a variety mainly cultivated on high slopes (850 meters) in the Peloponnese. The grape produces a very malic and fruity wine.

Malagousia is a grape growing mainly in Macedonia, with a special aroma leading to elegant full bodied wines, with medium-plus acidity and exciting perfumed aromas.

Moschofilero is a Blanc de gris variety from the AOC region of Mantineia, in Arcadia in the Peloponnese. Its wines offer a crisp and floral character in both still and sparkling styles.

Robola is most grown in the mountainous vineyards of the Ionian Island of Cephalonia. It has a smokey mineral and lemony character, excellently complementing seafood.

Roditis (the ‘pink’ or ‘rose’ grape) is a grape that is very popular in Attica, Macedonia, Thessaly, and the Peloponnese. This variety produces elegant, light white wines with citrus flavors.

Savatiano (the ‘Saturday’ grape) is the predominant white grape in the region of Attica, where it displays excellent heat resistance and shows a distinct floral and fruity aroma when cold fermentation is practiced. When fermented without cooling, it makes retsina or rustic un-resinated wines that complement Mediterranean dishes well.