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Greek Wines Get Back to Their Roots

AMYNDEON, Greece — The landscape of the Macedonian region in northern Greece is tapestried with vineyards. They supply wineries that are producing some of the best red wines Greece has to offer.

The Alpha Estate here in the northwestern corner of Macedonia is a fine example. In a tasting of Greek reds by the wine panel of The Times last August, its 2016 xinomavro, from the Hedgehog Vineyard, came out on top.

That wine tasting covered only wines made from indigenous grapes, notably xinomavro (zee-no-MAHV-ro), the grape used to make the Alpha Estate wine. It’s a name that should become increasingly familiar to wine lovers willing to explore the wines of Greece.

While high-profile Greek winemakers are busy cultivating international varieties like merlot and sauvignon blanc, the spotlight is starting to shine on some of the hundreds of the country’s native grapes, many of which have probably existed since the days of Homer.

Angelos Iatrides, an owner and the winemaker of Alpha Estate, whom I met on a visit to Macedonia and several of the region’s wineries this year, is convinced of the value of Greek varieties, and hopes the rest of the wine world will come around. “Xinomavro is very important,” he said. “We have to understand the purity of these varietals and learn about them.”


His Alpha Estate, established in 1997 on a high plateau surrounded by mountains on three sides (and not far from a ski resort), produces 650,000 bottles annually, 35 percent of them for export.

“It’s a trade-off when it comes to getting publicity for Greek wines,” he said. “It’s a question of who, outside Greece, would buy xinomavro over merlot?”

In the 1980s, exports of Greek wines picked up after decades in the shadows. Poorly made retsina, tasting of turpentine, hadn’t helped Greece’s wine reputation. Scores of new Greek winemakers trained their sights on the international market. They planted well-known European varieties like merlot and sauvignon blanc, often to use in blends, offering a veneer of familiarity to consumers who had no idea what to expect from a bottle of assyrtiko or limnia.

Some wines are 100 percent French varietal, and even win prizes at international wine fairs. Michel Rolland, a French wine consultant who is known to favor assertive, fruit-forward wines, has advised a few of the winemakers favoring international varietal wines.

On a number of occasions during my recent trip to Greece, I tasted whites made from assyrtiko, a grape indigenous to the island of Santorini that has become increasing familiar outside Greece. Many assyrtikos were blended with sauvignon blanc, but I preferred those made without the French grape; they had more character and richness, balanced by refreshing citric acidity. As a wine-loving Greek friend said over dinner in Athens, “pure assyrtiko is the best white wine made in Greece.”

Across Greece, grapes are grown and wine is made in just about every region including the islands, with about 152,000 acres of vineyards planted mostly with indigenous varieties. New respect is being accorded those native grapes in the all-important export market, which accounts for only 13 percent of production but is worth about 82.6 million euros (about $91 million).

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