by Markus Stolz

The
Outcast

byMarkus Stolz
September 6, 2011, 23 Comments

Indigenous grape varieties from Greece are unique and authentic. Who needs Greek wines made from international grape varieties? Why bother to highlight those Greek producers that do excel with non-Greek varieties?

My recent post “The Greek Rhone Rangers” triggered an email exchange with Kim Ginsberg, a New York based Wine Consultant/Spirit advisor. With her permission, I publish our conversation here on elloinos. What is YOUR view on the issue?

K.G. Is this REALLY what you want to champion, support, write about in Greek Wines? Do we want to go to Greece for Syrah? The future of Greek wines lies in their ability to hold onto, embrace, what is unique to them. What is special.  Authentic.  And the people that have the courage to do that.   Indigenous grape varieties. Please, don’t encourage winemakers to abandon their legacy.

M.S. I am a huge supporter of indigenous grape varieties. At the same time, there are some wines that are authentic and truly well made, coming from international varieties. This does not happen all that often, but when it does, these winemakers have my full support. I do find your point of view somewhat limited.

K.G. Yes, it IS limited! The fact that XYZ chose to make a Xinomavro-Merlot blend wine tells me that they were misguided by their perceptions of the market, or by what others advised them to do.  They were afraid their indigenous varietals were not good enough?  They felt they had to pander to the market?  I don’t know.  

“Build it and they will come” I say. Who needs to go to Greece for Merlot?  Don’t lose what makes you special.  Don’t pander.   They don’t have to re-invent the wheel.  Look at the fantastic Mavrokalavryta that Tetramythos makes, as elegant and sublime as any Bourgogne rouge out there!  What a treasure trove of goodies lie in the soil of Greece!

At the very same instant that America is craving “artisanal” this and that in other  areas of drink  (single batch bourbons, micro brews..) and food (cheeses…jamons…etc)   the wine industry is still loaded with “International-style” wine production.  Why is this?

Yes, my view is VERY limited, like DOGC etc. I don’t want Velveeta cheese from Reggiano do you?

M.S. I hear what you are saying. The fact that XYZ added Merlot is no misguidance – I actually like the added dark chocolate notes. It is simply not all black and white – winemakers were and are not afraid to experiment, this is not a bad thing.

Don’t get me wrong – for example, I have often said that are only two or three producers in all of Greece that make really good Cabernet, with many others being poor. Does the world need another Cabernet? Not likely, although maybe, if the quality is really outstanding. If there is a Greek winemaker who excels with Cabernet, why should we keep quiet about it?

K.G. For the same reason that Cabernet should not be grown in Burgundy or in Rioja.

When a country’s agricultural groups believe they have something special (wine, cheese, ham, Vidalia onions…olive oil)   and regulate it, to keep the legacy alive, the quality protected, so the consumer has some sense of the product, it becomes more marketable. The regulations help to define the product.

We keep yammering about “terroir” and yet I sense less and less of it these days.  More and more overripe, reverse osmosis, manipulated, over-extracted plonk from all over the world.  

M.S. Should you ever visit Greece, I am more than happy to taste some real top examples of Greek wines from international varieties with you (as I said, there are only view around :) Then you can make up your mind about “terroir”.

K.G. I would love that! Thank you!

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  1. Andrea EnglisisSeptember 6, 2011, 8:19 pm

    Hi Markus,

    The exchange you posted above is quite interesting yet frustrating in many ways. After being in the Greek wine business (US based) for more than 10 years myself, I find this type of mentality just as troubling as those that think all Greek wine is retsina.

    There are many instances where blending indigenous & international varietals together works well. The positive traits of both grapes can be fully expressed. Addiionally, it serves as an educational tool to see what a variety expresses itself on its own as well as in a blend.

    I agree that in some cases there are too many international vareity wines out there (Chardonnay, Syrah & Cabernet Sauvignon), but faulting Greek producers for working with them when the market is there for them isn’t correct either. There are some examples of wines produced in Greece from international grape varieites that are excellent and deserve praise. They serve as a great cross over opportunity to attract more consumers to Grek wines who would not just go out and buy a Xinomavro, Moschofilero, etc… but would be open to trying a Sauvignon Blanc/Assyrtiko blend because they knwo at least one grape in the wine.

    The main point is that there are many avenues avaiable for all wines provided they are of good quality and reasonable price. Wine professionals/educators that are unwilling to try all types of wines regardless of where they are from are of concern to me. Narrow views and interpretations do not reflect the actual market’s needs. Ultimately it can be a disservice to the clients they work with by not showing all options.

    This is a discussion that goes on all the time. And of course everyone is entitled to their opinions. However, if you are in the wine busienss, you are always learning and to do that you need to taste everything – the good, the bad & the ugly in order to make a well informed decision/opinion. A discussion for the ages that can be applied to other topics as well…..

  2. elloinosSeptember 6, 2011, 8:28 pm

    Thank you Andrea for your insight – you know the market better than many and weigh in with some important points from the view of an importer, I appreciate your comments that give additional food for thought.

  3. Dan MarshallSeptember 6, 2011, 10:03 pm

    Andrea,
    Ditto, well said, I’m with you. For instance, we all know that Greek restaurants in particular need to do a much better job at featuring indigenous Greek wines, but there should be nothing wrong with pouring a Greek Chardonnay by the glass, why not. In fact this might be a big improvement over their ultra low-end, low quality, mass produced Chardonnay from just anywhere. As you know, I promote almost all indigenous Greek grapes, but I’m not opposed to the blending of International grapes. The dynamic young Greek winemakers are just as excited to try new things as the folks in California and elsewhere, we shouldn’t deny them this passionate experimentation. In fact, I assure you that they are going to surprise us with some amazing wines. And yes of course, the future success of Greek will be in promoting what only Greece can do, the indigenous wines of Greece, from Greece.

  4. Val ValderossoSeptember 6, 2011, 10:28 pm

    This is a discussion that really makes me think that some ideas of “experts” really have absolutelly no meaning for the simple wine consumer. I do nor care if a Syrah is Greek or French or Spanish. What I care is if this is a good Syrah. I find outrageous for someone to suggest than a country should limit itself to its local varities! The “internationa” varieties are found everywhere, in Spain, in Italy (that has more local varieties than Greece) in all the countries of the New World. I personally know Greek Syrah and Greek Cabernet Sauvignon that are selling very well in Germany (all the producrion of Ktima Nerantzis is selling in Germany- the Cab. Sauv for 90 Euros!!!). This is an elitistic approach and to me is almost repulsive.

  5. Dan MarshallSeptember 6, 2011, 10:57 pm

    Val,
    I do understand what you are saying and I tend to agree. If the USA only used their own grapes we would still be drinking Scuppernong & Concord grape based wines, not so fun. But I do think that in this really competitive wine world you need to have something unique to get your wines into the market. Uruguay has Tannat, Argentina has Malbec, the Aussies had Shiraz, how will Greece penetrate the market? I believe it will happen with their unique grapes. As a wine retailer, I have sold Greek Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Syrah, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, Traminer, Merlot, Rhône blends, and many others. My clients were very satisfied I might add.

  6. Steve SchranSeptember 6, 2011, 11:15 pm

    The point is not whether experimentalists in the Greek vineyard should involve themselves with international varieties. Sure. Why not? What self-respecting wine geek isn’t interested in such diversity?

    The issue to my mind is the once and future role of “international varieties” in the marketing of Greek wine. As a historical matter, I am quite sure that it has been a bit of a disaster. Both not helpful, and harmful; reinforcing prejudices, and not promoting positive change.

    Back in the day (and for many, many days) Cabernet Sauvignon was (remains?) the chosen grape to illustrate the potential and competitiveness of the Greek vineyard. The best that can be said about this is that at least such growers were fixated on Bordeaux and not Burgundy.

    The most that could have been hoped for was the production of one truly, great Cabernet – what would necessarily have been available in very limited quantities, produced from some little, gifted, (relatively) high altitude patch of land – that would be so recognized by one or more of the referential wine critics. This, at least, could have served as a useful calling card for the larger industry, even if there was no Napa Valley to be created.

    Instead, what came about was what should have been expected given the general climate constraints imposed: some decent to quite nice Cabernets that, for all the obvious reasons, were overpriced. The lesson imparted to the market: Greece can’t make great wine and what it produces isn’t worth the money.

    The more recent hope is that by picking a more climate-appropriate match Greece will show its stuff. And on this, the jury is still out. Maybe some truly great Syrah will be forthcoming. Efforts in Sicily should be inspiring. But even here, why isn’t the focus on Grenache-based wines or Mourvedre?

    And then QPR issue remains salient. I remember back in the day eagerly seeking out the first offering from Manousakis. The wine was fine, and I understood the fact that the project was in its infancy (and regrettably I haven’t followed the winery’s progress) but still, one could get much, much better CdR for much less money. Again, the inference for the casual consumer and member of the trade: Greece can’t make great wine and what it produces isn’t worth the money.

    Finally, there was the issue raised about blending with internationals. I am very uneasy about this as well. If it is to be done, it shouldn’t be featured on the label. It is counterproductive to the message you want to convey. If you want to add some fruit notes to a Xynomavro-based wine, how about Agiorgitiko (what is in fact done)? Folks adding Merlot aren’t doing it because of their love of chocolate….and the irony, of course, is that Merlot is now a dirty word.

  7. elloinosSeptember 6, 2011, 11:30 pm

    Steve, I appreciate your thoughtful input. I just wish to raise one issue – in my opinion (which might well be against the popular wisdom) the few outstanding Greek Cabernet Sauvignon’s are actually produced from grapes grown at a (relative) low altitude. But this might be for a future post…

  8. Dan MarshallSeptember 6, 2011, 11:50 pm

    Steve,
    Thank you for being brave and saying what I was afraid to say. After being immersed in the Greek wine trade for 10 years, I have to say that those early “international” attempts were a disaster for the most part. There were some wonderful wines, still are, but most of them really tasted experimental and way over priced.
    And what about the consumer, what are they asking for? Oh yeah, those folks. I can tell you first hand that they are seeking out the greek grapes, 98% of them, I talk to them daily. Maybe it’s time for the trade to listen to the demand. I’m not saying that we should ignore the international grapes, but let’s get the Greek wine train rolling first.

  9. Kostas KatsoulierisSeptember 7, 2011, 12:31 am

    An interesting topic that is a real spark for debate and can raise quite a few issues. As varied as the wine world is, the fact is we each have our own tastes, likes and dislikes. There’s an argument that some Greek wine producers feel “forced” to make wine from international varieties so that they can introduce themselves to people who don’t know Greek varieties through their Cabernet and Chardonnay, for example, and that should be a gateway to trying wines from indigenous grapes. Generally however there are few Greek Chardonnays, Cabs & Syrahs that I like and I think are worth drinking either in terms of price or because they have a clear identity (a clear example here would be Trifilia Cabs) but that’s just me. I find no problem in blending Greek grapes with international ones either because they blend well and complement each other (Assyrtiko/Sauvignon Blanc being a prime example), produce interesting blends that can produce great wines (Assyrtiko/Semillon or Avgoustiatis/Mourvedre) or where as in France there is a logic behind the blend eg.Merlot being an ameliorator for Xinomavro hence making for a more rounded and earlier drinking experience or the addition of Cabernet to Aigiorgitiko to bolster it and provide structure.

    The reference by Val to Italy is also interesting for there is an argument that, Barolo apart, what really revitalised the Italian wine market in the 1970s & 1980s was the experimentation that came to be known as Super Tuscans. I’m not suggesting that a Super Nemea and the boost that this might bring is around the corner but if there is no experimentation, we won’t know what is possible. Nico Manessi’s review of an Aigiorgitiko / Syrah blend (where a reference was made to “Super Nemea”) proved intruiging enough for me to try that wine and as far as I am concerned I prefer Aigiorgitiko with Syrah rather than Cabernet Sauvignon in a blend. Well done Markus for continuing to raise the issues and create discussion!

  10. Val ValderossoSeptember 7, 2011, 12:42 am

    Dan, Steve,
    I think there is a misunderstanding… I fully agree that the means for the Greek winemakers to penetrate the International markets are the greek grapes. It is easier -they appear exotic with their “greek” names, they do not have to compete with famous producers and their Cabernet- Merlot-Pinot etc wines. What I oppose is the “abolute” way it was put initially: Something like “Greeks stay away of international varieties”. And, I would like to point out that there is not any courage involved for Greek producers in selling Greek wines abroad: There is no way for someone to find a better Assyrtiko or Malagouzia in the international markets. There are no other wines to compare them with.The REAL courage is when a greek producer goes international with an internationa grape!

    So, what we are talking about? Marketing, Sales? Yes, you are right, it is easier to sell greek varieties. And this is exactly what most of the Greek producers do today. But from there to the initial “The future of Greek wines lies in their ability to hold onto, embrace, what is unique to them. What is special. Authentic. And the people that have the courage to do that. Indigenous grape varieties. Please, don’t encourage winemakers to abandon their legacy.” is a very long way.

  11. Bill WarrySeptember 7, 2011, 8:27 am

    Mmm. I think two things are important. The first is to produce a wine that is pleasant to the palate of a large number of people internationally, the second to produce a wine that is essentially Greek in character. If the inclusion of some Merlot to make the wine smoother makes the wine more agreeable internationally, I see nothing wrong with it. The French, a nation of Gastronomes, don’t usually even know the grape varietals in which their region specialises. They know that a Bordeaux has certain characteristics and a Burgundy different ones. It is us foreigners, that will tell them that a Bordeaux is mainly made up of a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon and that a red Burgundy is from Pinot Noir. It is important to take account of the way people’s traditional expectations influence their appreciation of wine. For example, although I know of some terrific Portuguese wines, I think the Portuguese will have a tough time persuading the rest of the world to buy petillant red Vinho Verde. We’re just not used to a red wine being petillant.

  12. Yiannis PapadakisSeptember 7, 2011, 3:52 pm

    Markus, I fully agree with you. My opinion can be summarized in the following points:
    1. Greek wines are not made only to be exported. There is an important domestic market (continuously shrinking due to the financial crisis, unfortunately), part of which is seeking syrahs, cabernet sauvignons, chardonnays etc. Why should Greek producers give up this market segment to imported wine?
    2. Terroir expression is not limited to indigenous grape varieties. If a region in any country can produce world class-say- cabernet sauvignon with unique characteristics (like no other cabernet sauvignon from anywhere else), like for intance Bolgheri in Tuscany / Italy and Triphylia in Southwestern Peloponnisos / Greece (the latter’s potential with this grape has been exploited to a very limited degree to date), why should it give up the opportunity to do so? I personally find certain Greek wines from international grapes having much more terroir expression (i.e. sense of place) than many of their counterparts from indigenous grapes. Examples: Kokkalis Trilogia (cabernet sauvignon), Manousakis Nostos red (Rhone blend), Tetramythos Milia Sauvignon Blanc, just to name a few.
    3. There are regions in Greece (as in any wine-producing country), with no local varieties, where conditions allow certain international grapes to excell. After some years, these grapes become a local specialty, and are considered by locals as “indigenous”. Don’t forget after all thet grenache, now considered by most as a southern Rhone variety, is in fact Spanish, not french (garnacha). Who could blame a Chateauneuf du Pape producer for producing wines from “international” grapes?

  13. elloinosSeptember 7, 2011, 4:07 pm

    Yianni, thank you, very well put. I might also add that there is even different demand in different export markets. Some markets have so little knowledge about Greek grape varieties that it is easier to introduce Greek wines from international varieties. Always keeping in mind that the quality must be extremely high of course. There is NO point in offering anything that does not really stand out.

  14. laurens hartmanSeptember 7, 2011, 4:26 pm

    Dear Markus and Mrs Ginsberg,
    I am a Greek winemaker that uses some Cabernet (30%) in our red wine blends with Xinomavro. It may seem odd but I tend to agree with Mrs Kim Ginsberg, although I would never have stated it in such an absolutistic way..
    This may seem odd. We already do make a 100% Xinomavro sparkling white, and a 100% Assyrtiko white.
    We are proud of our red wines. However: until now we have not succeeded in making the ‘perfect’ red xinomavro wine. Except from our 100 year old vineyard, but this unly produced 300 bottles each year.
    It is our goal to make a 100% xinomavro red wine. In my view the best way to put Greece on the world wine map. But in order to make this perfect XM red wine, a lot of work still needs to be done in the vineyard. Bring back the balance, correct all the ‘mistakes’ of past generations. Secondly, because XM is an extremely difficult grape variety to work with (very late ripening, and extremely terroir sensitive) we need to learn more before we can enter the market with this wine. Today’s wine market is very short-tempered and unfair (thank you internet, twitter, facebook, winewriters etc). If you make one mistake, you are gone…….Therefore for the time being, we use some Cabernet to give more structure to the Xinomavro. And we are very happy with this blend. Which also is a unique blend.
    So I ask from mrs Ginsberg to be a little more patient, and within 2 years all my exported wines will be 100% indigenous varieties: Limniona, Xinomavro (mono and blend) and Assyrtiko. Follow Domaine Karanika in this struggle at Twitter (yes indeed) and Facebook.

  15. Yiannis PapadakisSeptember 8, 2011, 2:37 pm

    Just a couple of additional points after having read all previous comments carefully:
    1. I surely do agree that apart from some exceptions, Greek wines from international varieties are not competitive in the international wine market, lacking in character and qpr. They are mainly targeting the local market, were Greek wines enjoy a very strong image. In a way, Greek wines are overestimated inside Greece, almost as much as they are underestimated internationally. This is a nice topic for a future discussion, don’t you think Markus?
    2. Generally, the consumer does not care that much on a wine’s varietal composition as much as he/she cares about its “style” . In this sense, even wines made from ingigenous varieties that are unique to one country or region, face competition from wines having similar characteristics even though they are not made from the same varieties. For example, a light-bodied, crispy and floral white like a moschofilero is competitive to an Argentinian Torrontes, a steely assyrtico from Santorini has to compete against a German trocken riesling, a xinomavro might be seen as an alternative to a nebbiolo, etc. In today’s global market no product is really unique.

  16. elloinosSeptember 8, 2011, 2:59 pm

    Yianni, I agree that the vast majority of Greek wines made from international varieties are not competitive in the international markets. It is here that my (and obviously your) opinion seems to differ with most Greeks. Given this, you might argue that these wines are overestimated locally. Having said that, I also believe strongly that some Greek wines made from international varieties can be very competitive indeed. There are a view Cabernet Sauvignons, Syrahs, Gewürtztraminers and even Chardonnays being produced that are simply standing out – within Greece, and likely on the export markets as well (given the proper exposure).
    Your second point is a valid one, although I argue that Greek wines in general share some traits that make them unique (moderate alcohol, high acidity, food-friendly, never too heavy). I do not include those examples that are overoaked, overextracted etc. – those are the winemaker’s choice. Of course there are some similarities to be found when comparing them to all varieties from all other countries – you are bound to find this. But as a whole, Greek wines are stylistically well positioned for the global markets.

  17. Yiannis PapadakisSeptember 9, 2011, 10:16 am

    Markus, thanks for your detailed answer. I did not intend to comment further, but the second part of your answer, really surprised me. I agree that those traits (food friendlyness, moderate alcohol, high acidity, non-heavy character) are commonly found in a number of Greek wines, mostly those made from indigenous grapes, but these traits are common to most premium old world regions (Chablis, Alsace, Burgundy’s Cote d’Or, right bank Bordeaux, Mosel, Chianti Classico etc.). Additionaly, I have heard repeatedly many a Greek winemaker being proud because their wines are “richer and bolder” compared to French wines. This perception is very common among Greek wine consumers too.

  18. elloinosSeptember 9, 2011, 10:27 am

    Yianni, to put this into perspective, Greece does have an advantage against the premium old world regions given the sheer number of varieties that are grown here and that do all share these traits. Personally, I cannot see that Greek wines are richer and bolder compared to French wines.

  19. Thomas PellechiaSeptember 10, 2011, 5:40 pm

    Wine grapes across the continents are derivative–few are truly native. That’s why there are thousands of separate varieties.

    Having said that, I do believe there is an argument to be made for the viability of certain varieties over others in various locations around the world. Unfortunately, instead of doing the research to establish which varieties do better in variation locations, wineries often select varieties as a marketing decision.

  20. Yiannis PapadakisSeptember 13, 2011, 2:49 pm

    Thomas;
    It is true, but after all, wineries are businesses and need to sell their wine at a profit in order to survive, let alone be profitable. Research on the potential of local varieties and their suitability to various soils/locations is paramountof course, but it is the subject of non-for-profit organizations, such as regional, national or even international wine institutions. Interested wineries have to support these institutions offering them financial and other resources in return.

  21. Thomas PellechiaSeptember 13, 2011, 5:17 pm

    Yiannis,

    What you say is also true, but once the research points to a direction, if that direction is not the prevailing market, what incentive does a winery have to go against the trend?

    The only direction, then, seems to be courage mixed with back-up money.

    Personally, I believe that too many wineries produce too much variation for their particular viticultural location, but who am I to tell them that they can’t make money by selling what the market demands? I often wonder, too, how many purists are willing to throw money at research and marketing in order to maintain what they perceive as purity? It seems that so many people have opinions but will they climb into the foxhole?

    Research and marketing is the job of those with the money to create a market. The job of promotion people is to set the stage for the sale and the job of sales people is to make the sale.

    The job of the producer is to have something that someone wants to buy.

  22. Ted ManousakisSeptember 15, 2011, 11:16 am

    Markus,
    I have read with great interest the back and forth commentary and argument on indigenous vs. international grapes varieties for Greece. I don’t know who put borders on grapes, but I believe, if you asked the grapes, they would not be able to differentiate. So, I will assume for my own comments that the world is, in fact, a place of ‘grapes and wines without borders’.
    I would like to relay a story to all the readers, but especially to those who consider themselves as ‘opinion gurus’. Back in the late 80’s, I read with great excitement of the noble variety of the Roussanne grape grown predominantly in the Southern Rhone of France. Although a beloved variety of the French of the Chateuneuf-du-Pape area, the Roussanne was planted less and less as time went by because of its extremely low yield; the vines could not produce enough clusters to make it economically feasible for commercial purposes. It was really a shame that perhaps the world’s most noble of white grape varieties was disappearing in front of our very eyes. I confess that the more I read about the grape the more I fell in love with it and I lamented at the thought of its possible disappearance. When I was advised by non other than Lucy Morton to plant Roussanne in Crete, I thought that it was a wonderful idea even though I did not expect much success with the grape variety. Three years later, to my most pleasant surprise, the Roussanne presented us with the “problem” of too much yield; so much so that we actually reduced the crop by about 10%. The following year, we conducted green harvest and reduced the yield by 30%. Can you imagine? The grape vines did not realize that they were not in France! In fact they became so comfortable with the soil, sun, mountains and gentle breezes of Crete, that they actually flourished in their newly-found home.
    I hear and very much respect the argument for planting and protecting the indigenous varieties. Above that, however, I believe that, as people in the wine profession, our duty and obligation to our consumers is to craft the finest wine the local terroir allows, no matter what the grape variety, no matter what the country. This does not obviate the growing of local varieties. On the contrary, we must recognize that local grape varieties have flourished in different regions of Greece because the local soils and conditions have been ideal for them. I do, however, object to assigning grape varieties to different countries or regions of the world. Rather, let’s all together call for a world of ‘grapes without borders’.

    Ted Manousakis

  23. David JacksonSeptember 15, 2011, 3:29 pm

    Ted, that is an excellent way of presenting the issue. The nature of all living things, vines included, is defined by the interplay between their genetic make-up and the environment in which they grow. The character of a wine derives neither from one nor the other, but the combination. In many instances, such as the case of the Roussanne varietal you grow in Crete, that combination can be so complementary that it is synergistic in bringing out the hidden wonders of a grape – in breaking down it’s borders.

    So here is to the continued experimentation and the discovery of new frontiers in the universe of wine.

    Best wishes,
    David (an amateur wine lover – but one who has thankfully discovered the spirit, joys and essence of Greek wine)