Greek wines are an integral part of Greek culture since ancient times. Dionysus was known as the god of wine and they organized festivals in his honor.
Greece is one of the oldest wine-producing regions in the world, as evidenced by the discovery of mashed grapes that proved to be 6,500 years old.
Of course, the ancient Greeks created several myths related to wine. According to mythology, Stafylos was the son of Dionysus and Ariadne. In another myth, Stafylos was a shepherd.
As he was grazing his goats, Stafylos noticed that one of them was constantly eating a certain fruit and that was making him crazier than the others.
So he collected several grapes and offered them to his king. The king made a juice which he called “wine,” and gave the fruit the name of his shepherd, Stafylos, from which stafyli (grape) wine was made.
The King was named Oineas, and he gave his name to the drink, calling it “oinos.” The word “oinos” likely became “vino” in Latin, which gave us the word “wine” in English.
The enormous economic importance of wine in antiquity brought about its protection in courts of law. In the museum of Thassos island in Greece, there is a law engraved in marble dated 5th century BC which is considered to be the first law regulating wine.
The earliest written evidence for the transport of wine by sea is given by Homer in his work the Iliad. The ancient Greeks loved wine and they used a wide variety of vessels related to the use and transport of wine such as amphorae, craters, goblets and others.
In Greece there are many mountainous wine-growing areas at high altitudes that help maintain the high acidity and freshness of the wines that are produced there.
A key factor for Greek wines is the cool sea breeze that they enjoy from the Aegean or the Ionian Sea. During the summer this cool breeze performs the vital service of helping the grapes maintain somewhat cooler temperatures amid the sweltering heat.
Below are the ten best Greek wine varieties you absolutely owe it to yourself to taste.
Agiorgitiko, native to Nemea in Peloponnese, is the main grape variety of the region. Like ancient Nemea, it is a wine that carries with it the history of the region.
In Greek it means “having to do with Saint George.” It is a red wine with flavors of sweet raspberry, blackcurrant and nutmeg, with subtle notes of bitter herbs and smooth tannins.
Yet its deep red color and robust taste brings to mind the Nemean Lion, a vicious beast in Greek mythology which only Heracles could slay. It is definitely in the top of red Greek wines regarding consumption.
Originally, this was a Greek white wine known to be produced only on Santorini, the grape getting its fine notes from the volcanic soil of the island.
Now Assyrtiko is produced all over Greece. A grape that maintains its acidity as it ripens, it creates a rather light white wine with lemon flavors and a subtle bitterness and saltiness in the finish.
The grape is sensitive to winds but is perfectly adapted to dry, warm environments.
Winemakers consider assyrtiko to be the best Greek white wine variety.
Originating from Macedonia, malagouzia is a fairly recent grape variety produced in northern Greece. It is one of the fastest-rising Greek wines in popularity and is now produced all over Greece.
Malagouzia makes for white, full-bodied wines, with balanced acidity and fine aromas. It has a moderate body, moderate acidity and leaves a sense of oiliness in the mouth.
It is quite fragrant, with notes of white flowers like jasmine and citrus flowers, along with ripe peach and apricot and citrus fruits such as lime, grapefruit and lemon.
Literally meaning “black laurel” in Greek, mavrodaphne is a grape variety grown mainly in the Peloponnese and Kephalonia Island.
The best known mavrodaphne wine is a very sweet red with a distinct, heavy taste due to its blend with raisins and high tannins. It is close to a port.
This particular Greek wine variety is shunned by connoisseurs for being too sweet to accompany dinner and even too sweet for dessert.
Yet there is a dry variety of mavrodaphne that is slowly gaining in popularity. It has a medium to full body, moderate acidity and tannins, and deep purple color in the glass.
It uniquely combines the density of the fruit, which could be plum, sour cherry, or cherry, with a sense of herbs, including eucalyptus, laurel, and sage.
Moschofilero has been connected with the plateau of Mantineia in the central Peloponnese, which produces PDO white wines from 85 percent of its vineyards.
In addition to white wines, it is also good for very aromatic rosés with a light rosé-salmon color but also impressively sparkling when produced by the traditional method.
Moschofilero Greek white wines have an almost transparent color with gray or salmon tones, medium acidity and a light body. Its aromas are intensely floral, with notes of rose, jasmine and lemon blossom and citrus fruits as well as green apple.
When aged, it develops notes of dried fruits and apricot as well.
Muscat of Samos
A good sweet Muscat of Samos has a magnificent richness of aromas and a velvety, unforgettable sweetness with a millennia-long tradition.
The myth says that the god Dionysus himself taught the Samians the cultivation of the vine and the method of vinification, in return for their help in his victorious battle against the Amazons.
Muscat of Samos comes in different varieties, both dry and sweet, but always with quite aromatic notes. Among the most popular Samian sweet muscat wines is the Vin Doux.
With its Greek name meaning the “Saturday grape,” this Greek white wine is the main variety cultivated in the Attica region and it is definitely appropriate for every day of the week.
It is one of the most widely cultivated varieties in Greece because of its impressive resistance to drought and heat.
The grape is very good in not only dry but also in sweet wines as well. Unlike most Greek white varieties, it behaves nicely in the barrel, where it acquires interesting aromas of honey and dried apricot.
One of the oldest Cretan white grapes, Vidiano has become the most popular among the local varieties of the island. It was nearly extinct until Cretan winemakers came to understand its potential and worked hard to revive its great complexity.
Vidianο is an elegant Greek wine with moderate acidity, medium volume body and a pale lemon green color in the glass.
The characteristic aromas are apricot, peach, bergamot, chamomile, citrus blossoms and a slight sense of minerality, especially when the vine is grown at high altitude. Vidiano also has a special, oily texture that gives it volume and character.
Another great variety from Santorini owes a great deal to its volcanic soil. This sun-dried sweet wine is made of sun-dried grapes of three white grape varieties — Assyrtiko, Aidani and Athiri.
It is a PDO Greek wine with aromas of raisin, dried apricot, raspberry and maraschino cherries, while it offers stunning contrasts between sweet and bitter flavors caused by its noticeable tannins, something that is unique in white wine.
Xinomavro, which in Greek translates to “sour black,” is the main grape variety of Macedonia, grown mainly in the areas of Naoussa and Amyndeo.
Xinomavro is a uniquely special variety. It makes for a Greek wine with very characteristic aromas and flavors that can be recognized even with one’s eyes closed.
Despite its name, the color of the grape is not a very deep red. Many liken it to Nebbiolo or Pinot Noir because of its grassy aroma and high acidity and tannins.
It is a very demanding variety as it needs special attention both during cultivation and maturation and during winemaking.
What about retsina?
Retsina is the old stereotype foreigners have for Greek wine. Many believe that Greeks drink retsina all day long, which couldn’t be further from the truth.
The truth about retsina is that it was created thousands of years ago, when the ancients used to store wine in amphorae, adding pine tree resin to preserve it and seal the amphora.
Of course, they quickly noticed the special aroma that the resin gave to the wine and made use of it.
Unfortunately, in later years, resin was abused, when excessive amounts of it were used to cover the taste of stale, bad quality wines.
Today retsina is served in very few tavernas and can be found on the lower shelves in super markets.