Just about two years ago, Palate Press published an article in which I enumerated the misconceptions and chief arguments against Greek wines and proceeded to provide answers for each. I felt the time was ripe to examine if any progress has been made. My updates are included in Italic. Please note that I only copied part of the original article, the full version can be found here.
“I continually encounter a number of key misconceptions surrounding Greek wines. These prevent the wine drinking public from recognizing the true value of contemporary Greek winemaking. Here are a few:
1. Greek wines equal high-volume Retsina and Demestica
This image is an extremely powerful one, and not without reason; tourists visiting Greece discover that Retsina wines, produced in the backyard of almost every taverna in bulk and offered as a cheap food accompaniment, are indeed an intrinsic and authentic part of Greek culture. At the same time, the three largest Greek wine producers, with market share of over 50% of exports, confirm exactly this image by primarily offering Retsina and Demestica, and at discount prices. High quality Greek wine rarely reaches the shelves abroad, and therefore has not, to date, reached wine lovers’ minds.
Earlier this year, I had an honest and lengthy discussion with one of the above-mentioned export wineries. I was delighted to hear that a shift is currently taking place in their strategy and attitude, as they move increasingly toward the premium segment. This winery in particular has consolidated all of their low cost wines under one umbrella and introduced it with a different brand name, reserving their estate name for only the more serious wines. High volume wines have very little to do with the wine revolution that is taking place in Greece, so this is a highly desirable development.
Not surprisingly, this image still exists and little progress has been made to rectify this. Local Greek tavernas continue to offer mostly questionable quality wines; Retsina and Demestica are likely still the most widely distributed Greek wines abroad. At the same time, some high quality Retsina wines are being recognised and some of the large wineries continue their shift towards the premium segment. It will take much more time to reshape this powerful image with the public at large.
2. Greek wines are of low quality
The first misconception advances this one, but nothing is further from today’s truth. I would go so far as to say that some of the most exciting wines on this planet are currently being made in Greece. A handful of local grape varieties like Assyrtiko or Xinomavro already produce world-class wines. Whenever I present Greek wines to merchants, critics, or consumers abroad, the reactions are similar and repeatable: true surprise and disbelief about the high quality they experience. Whites are either mineral-driven or full of exotic and ripe fruit character, with aromas of lemon and citrus zest, and reds are often deeply coloured, loaded with silky fruit and spicy aromas, harmonious and serious with a velvety finish.
Greece has a real spread of terroir, plus a large and unique variety of grapes. Winemakers have learned to explore and exploit this combination, and it seems that the best is yet to come.
Wow, a lot has happened over the last couple of years. Greek wines are now considered trendy and exciting in many places, especially at top restaurants. The consumer has currently limited exposure as distribution is still an issue, but I am very encouraged by the recent developments. The coverage that Greek wines have received during the last 24 months is stunning. There is no doubt that the wines are being taken much more serious.
3. Good Greek wines are too expensive
In order to introduce their customers to Greek wines, many merchants ask for solid wines that can be sold for less than $10. Whilst these wines exist, the really exciting ones cost more. About 70% of the captivating wines will cost the consumer between $10 and $20, and about 95% of the top wines carry a price tag of up to $35. Not cheap, but there are few countries that offer truly inspiring wines for less than that amount, and a large number whose best wines cost a multiple.
The reaction of one well-known German wine writer precisely demonstrates my point. His response to the above was that, although the wines might be great, that the label states that the wine originates from Greece means they can’t be marketed at a higher price point. Penalizing wines simply due to their country of origin, instead of evaluating them solely on their merits, is, to my mind, an outdated school of thought.
Solid progress has been made: The medium and high end wines are being compared to similar quality wines from other countries, and suddenly do not feel that expensive any longer. More importers do not shy away from the top offerings because of price.
The quality in the medium segment continuously improves, and many wineries have lowered pricing. It is somewhat easier to find exciting wines in the $8 to $12 price bracket. Greek wines have become more competitive.
4. Greek wines from indigenous grape varieties are only interesting to wine geeks
Greece has an abundance of indigenous grape varieties, including some that had been on the verge of extinction. The most important white varieties for the commercial wine production are Assyrtiko, Malagousia, Moschofilero, Robola, and Roditis. For the reds, varieties include Agiorgitiko and Xinomavro.
I have often heard concerns that Greek wines are too far off the mainstream taste to succeed. Yet my experience paints a very different picture. This year, I presented three dozen Greek wines on several occasions to the public, wine critics, and wine journalists. These included international and indigenous varieties. In all cases, the wines that impressed most—and impressed even the wine merchants—were Greek natives, with Assyrtiko and Xinomavro coming out top. Both of these have the ability to clearly mirror their terroir, and are probably the most distinctive and least conventional. Assyrtiko from Santorini is grown in some of the hottest and driest vineyards on earth, and are often bone-dry, salty wines with strong mineral aromas. Xinomavro wines from the north of Greece typically lack fresh primary fruit on the nose and are dominated by vegetable aromas like freshly cut tomatoes. They are quite tannic and need hours in the glass to truly open up.
Unfortunately, the wine merchants always decide in favour of the more mainstream varieties, as they perceive them as a safer option.
The largest shift in perception has probably taken place here. Greek native varietals are now sought after, especially in the US market. Agiorgitiko, Xinomavro, Assyrtiko and Moschofilero are household names for Sommeliers and any serious importer of Greek wines includes them in his/her portfolio. These varieties are now the standard, not the exception.
5. Greek wines are hard to sell because of the language barrier
I often hear concerns that Greek wines may not become successful in the export markets simply because the names of the producers, regions, and grape varieties are too confusing and sound unfamiliar. Some of the newer wineries like Alpha Estate or Wine Art Estate selected their names simply to cater to the foreign markets.
Whilst I agree that the language barrier is somewhat problematic, enough examples of other wine producing countries with similar issues exist. No one argues today that Italy or Spain will fail in the export markets because of this; to the contrary, consumers have embraced their wines and educated themselves about them. Brunello di Montalcino made from the Sangiovese grape is one of Italy’s best-known wines. Are Xinomavro from Naoussa or Agiorgitiko from Nemea really that much harder to memorize?
The names of the Greek grape varieties are not that much of an issue any longer and this will improve going forward. Grower names are a different issue, but the cream will always rise to the top. Greek wines are making headway in the export markets despite the language barriers.”