When I was studying for my WSET Level 3 exam, I had this to say about the Greek wine region:
Greece is one of those wine regions that fascinates me, simply because the tradition of winemaking is so old. I’m one of those people that gets joy out of studying wine because it takes me into different cultures and different cultures’ histories. I kind of wish this section was a bit bigger in the WSET text book. But, I guess that gives me more room to dive deeper either on my own time or, dare I say it, in pursuit of my WSET Diploma??
And here I am, indeed studying for my WSET Diploma and there is much and more to know about Greece in our D3 text. I’m covering just three of the major PDOs here, along with conjunctive tastings.
For a general overview of Greece as a wine producing country, based on Level 3 material, please see Wine Region Overview: Greece
“In the poetry of Homer and Hesiod, the earliest Greek literature, wine is an essential part of life. It is naturally drunk by Greek and Trojan heroes at their feasts, but also used in the rituals of sacrifice, prayer, and burial, to solemnize agreements, and for therapeutic purposes; it is also the human drink, whereas gods drink nectar.” —Oxford Companion to Wine (Fourth Edition).
I thought I’d start with that quote because it feels very true of the Greek wine culture, as portrayed in our D3 text. Greece’s wine industry is one in which native varieties both thrive (there are over 300 accounted for) and fail (domestic consumption is heavily biased toward international varieties). It is both well-known (for its history, mythology, and dreamy vacation spots) and unknown (spell the top three most-planted grape varieties without looking and name four places in your neighborhood where they might be sold). In its perfection and imperfection, Greek wine, wine culture, and wine industry is so utterly human.
Most wine-producing island regions are located in the Aegean Sea, where there are strong winds, low rainfall, and rocky soils with poor water retention. Difficult conditions means viticulture is expensive and many have sold off land for tourist developments.
The dominant PDO is Santorini, an island that lies on a volcano. Winds are particularly strong here, thus vines are trained low to the ground in a basket shape, usually in a hallow in the ground. Vines are trained like a basket weave, lignified wood is woven around the previous year’s growth and the when basket gets too bulky (20 years+), it is cut off and a new basket starts from a new shoot. “Specialized work that requires about four times the labor of conventional trellis systems,” states our text.
NOTE: Another benefit to this training system, besides shielding from forceful winds and providing shade from extreme heat, is that it helps trap the early morning moisture. With very little rainfall, growing season can be completely dry. The only moisture comes from fog which rises every morning. Volcanic soil found on Santorini is very infertile, thus contributes to the low vigor and low yielding vines. To help with low water availability, vine densities are very low.
Santorini PDO is for white wines only—both dry and sweet (the sweet referring predominantly to Vinsanto). Dry wines must have at least 75% Assyrtiko; sweet wines 51% Assyrtiko. Best of the best are single varietals. Pop Quiz: Describe the winemaking method for creating Vinsanto. How, if at all, does this differ from Vin Santo in Italy?
Assyrtiko—“Top-quality, intense, highly structured Greek island white that retains acidity even in the heat.” (Wine Grapes, 2012; Robinson, Harding, Vouillamoz). Vigorous, relatively productive, compact clusters of large berries that retain high levels of tartaric acid, very late budding and late ripening.
Wine: Gaia Santorini Thalassitis Assyrtiko 2018
Appearance: pale lemon
Aroma: medium (+) intensity—yeast, lemon, chamomile, fresh green and yellow apple, under-ripe white peach and white nectarine, wet stone minerality
Palate: dry, high acid, medium body, medium alcohol, medium (+) intensity—confirming the aromas, adding a hint of lemongrass, lemon pith and lime flesh, smokey/flinty/match-sticky on the back-breath
Finish is medium (+) in length
Conclusion: This is a very good wine in which the high acidity does well to carry the primary fruits throughout the length of the tasting. Fruits are all fresh in nature, ranging from citrus to pomme to under-ripe stone expressions; primaries contain floral and earthy aromas/flavors as well, such as white blossom/chamomile, wet stone, and that hint of matchstick flint—the latter more prominent on the palate than on the nose and found lingering in the back of the palate. There is clearly some secondary characteristics as well from what I expect is time on the lees with the addition of yeast aromas—more prominent on the nose than on the palate, but still adds depth of complexity to the wine and adds to the overall medium body of the wine. The modest use of alcohol does well to give the wine some weight and lift without overwhelming the palate. While the wine certainly has intensity of aromas/flavors, complexity, and balance, the finish did fall shy of long at a medium (+) and thus I cannot qualify the wine as outstanding, but it is very good indeed.
Suitability for Aging: I do not think that this wine is suitable for extended aging. While there are some hints of lees aging, overall I do not think there is enough substance incorporated into the wine, nor a high enough alcohol presence to structurally lend to longevity. The nature of the fruits are such that the joy in the wine is the fresh, crisp attitude. With time I fear these elements will fade and the racy acidity will become the dominant sensation, thus creating an imbalanced wine.
This is a peninsula forming the southern part of the Greek mainland and has the largest vineyard plantings in the country (30% of national total) and also has the largest number of PDOs—most important: Nemea and Maninia.
It is very mountainous, thus temperature is moderated by altitude. Soils are poor, rocky. However, there is a flatter area where conditions are hotter and soil more fertile located in the plains.
Most of the Peloponnese is dominated by white wine grapes (most planted: Roditis and Moschofilero). EXCEPTION TO THE RULE: Nemea.
Nemea is close to the Corinth Canal which separates the peninsula from the rest of the mainland.
Climate is Mediterranean; majority of rain falls in the autumn and winter BUT significant differences on the amount vintage to vintage, thus affecting yields and quality of wines AND autumn rain can dictate harvest time.
PDO Nemea is for red wine only from 100% Agiorgitiko—both dry and sweet versions are allowed. NEW STYLE has emerged, producing semi-carbonic wines to enhance fruity flavors and keep tannin levels low.
Nemea is divided into three distinct zones, referenced by altitude:
- Lowest zone on valley floor is the hottest with the most fertile soils. Here grapes can ripen easily and reserved for inexpensive wines and high-quality sweet wines
- Cooler middle zone is considered to be best for quality: poor, free-draining soils limit yields and cooler days slow sugar accumulation while flavor/tannins ripen. There is a range of microclimates due to varying altitudes and aspects and specific soil types.
- In the highest zone Agiorgitiko can struggle to ripen fully due to the cooler temperatures and cool clay soils. Wines have fresh fruit flavors, high acid and harsh tannins, thus grapes are typically used for rosé production which is NOTE: outside the PDO.
Agiorgitiko—“Greece’s most widely planted dark-skinned variety, capable of both high volumes and high quality as well as a wide range of styles.” (Wine Grapes, 2012; Robinson, Harding, Vouillamoz) High yielding, best suited to poor soils and dense planting, late budding and ripening, better vines have small bunches of small, thick-skinned berries.
Wine: Gaia Agiorgitiko 2018
Appearance: pale ruby
Aroma: medium (+) intensity—red cherry, black pepper, violet, rose, red raspberry, wild strawberry, charred wood, hint vanilla, hint chocolate
Palate: dry, medium (+) acid, high alcohol, medium tannins (mature, firm), medium body, medium (+) intensity—confirming the nose, adding baking spices like clove, nutmeg, adding ‘just ripe’ black plum and plum skin
Finish is medium (+)
Conclusion: This is a very good wine that has excellent depth of flavor that spans both red and black fruits. The use of oak is well-integrated, adding subtle spices like clove, nutmeg, charred wood, and just a hint of decadence of chocolate and vanilla that perfectly complement the just-ripe nature of the fresh fruit components. The tannins are fully mature, firm at the moment, but will obviously soften and engage more fully with the wine with time. The alcohol feels like it’s on the low-end of high and thereby adds just enough warmth and a bit of body to the wine without overwhelming the palate or ruining the finish. The finish does, however, end at a medium (+) in length and, thus, though the wine does have excellent intensity, complexity and balance, and thereby is certainly better than simply good, I cannot rate the wine as outstanding, but it is of very good quality.
Suitability for Aging: I believe this wine does have the potential to age further in the bottle. The nature of the fruits are such that the will be able to develop into more mature forms (cooked, dried) adding to the depth of flavor and overall complexity of the wine. Further, I think that with time, the tannins will soften and become more integrated texturally. And lastly, the wine has the structural components—acid, tannin, alcohol, fruit concentration—that will lend to longevity.
A large region with a range of conditions: mountains in the north and west; plains to the east.
In the mountains to the north and west the climate is continental and, due to altitude, temperatures are cool. Rain falls throughout the year, thus water supply is not an issue.
On the plains to the east the climate is warm Mediterranean and in the rain shadow of the mountains, thus drier. Soils are fertile, thus production geared toward high-volume, inexpensive wines.
Macedonia is predominantly a red wine producing region. Leading PDOs: Naoussa and Amynteo, typically produce 100% Xinomavro.
Naoussa is on the south-eastern slopes of Mount Vermio; vineyards are planted at altitude. Best sites are sheltered from strong winds from the north, but temperatures remain cool.
There’s a complex mixture of soils and microclimates based on aspect and topography (rather than altitude). NOTE: A number of producers make village or single-vineyard wines highlighting the variation between different sites.
Wines must be made from 100% Xinomavro.
Winemaking varies: Traditional—age in large old wood, producing wine with pronounced spicy and meaty characters rather than fruity ones. 90s style—use of NFO to provide firmer tannins, more body, and oaky notes. Modern—use of riper fruit and cold soaking or whole bunch fermenting to produce deeper colored but less tannic wines.
Xinomavro—“Top-quality, widely planted but pernickety, high-acid Greek variety.” (Wine Grapes, 2012; Robinson, Harding, Vouillamoz). Xinomavro means “acid black,” a reference to the grape’s acidity. Vigorous, very productive, mid-budding, late ripening, best on light/poor sandy soils, canopy management critical to achieve full ripeness; often compared to Nebbiolo; affinity for oak.
Wine: Domaine Karydas Xinomavro 2015
Appearance: pale garnet
Aroma: pronounced—prune, fig, stewed black cherry, sun-dried tomato, violet, cooked rhubarb, wet leaves/forest floor, fresh ripe red and black plum, baking spice (nutmeg, clove)
Palate: dry, high tannin, high acid, medium alcohol, medium (+) body, pronounced intensity—confirming above, adding dried tobacco leaf, hint leather, black licorice and raisin
Finish is long
Conclusion: This is an outstanding wine that is showing a wonderful integration of primary, secondary, and tertiary flavors in both the aroma and palate. The high level of acidity does well to cut through the extremely high tannins and allows the fresher fruit components to come through. The subtle use of oak does well to add just a touch of spice, neither overwhelming the aromas or flavors. The wine is also already starting to show some age/tertiary characteristics and the combination of the primary, secondary, and tertiary characteristics all shine through the length of the tasting and through to the long finish. I cannot fault this wine—it shows wonderfully pronounced flavors/aromas, depth and complexity in flavors/aromas and textures, and balance between innate fruit components and winemaking integration, along with a long finish—thus I cannot qualify any lower than outstanding in quality.
Suitability for Aging: While this wine is already starting to show some age as indicated with the notes of dried fruits, forest floor, and hints of leather, there are still enough fresh components to the wine that tells me it can continue to age in bottle as well. Further, structurally, the wine has all the necessary components to lend to longevity—acid, tannin, alcohol, and wonderful concentration of flavors.
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