Some wines take time getting onto shop shelves and restaurant wine lists. In the case of fine wines from Greece, made by small producers and showcasing indigenous grapes, it took about 5,000 years.
Ancient Greeks were renowned for vine tending and winemaking, but history dealt repeated blows to production. Byzantine and Ottoman empires prevented the industry from flourishing, but monks and farmers kept winemaking traditions alive. Two world wars and a civil war left wine production hobbled again. Recovery began in the 1960s and ’70s with production of bulk wines and retsina, pine-resin-flavored white wine. A modern appellation system (a requirement for joining the European Union) gave a boost to quality winemaking.
Today, Greek wines are enjoying an exciting new chapter. Small producers, with winemakers who have studied at the world’s best enology programs, have invested in modern technology to produce fresh, sound pours that show off indigenous grapes and unique terroir.
The country’s unfamiliar varietals — more than 300 — warrant more explanation. Only a dozen or so have made it to the US market. Xinomavro (pronounced zee-NO-mav-ro), a grape from Naoussa, in the mainland’s north, gives red wines lively acidity and tannins that need to be tamed by a skilled producer. Agiorgitiko (ai-yor-YEE-tee-ko), sometimes translated on wine labels as St. George, hails from Nemea, on Peloponnese, the southern part of the mainland that looks like a hand stretching into the sea. It produces reds full of cherry and floral aromas, tart acidity, and gentle tannins. Assyrtiko (ah-SEER-tee-ko) is the main grape of Santorini, an island in the South Aegean. These whites have restrained aromatics, bracing acidity, a palate of saline and minerals. The vines grow in extremely low-fertility volcanic soils that have never seen the pest phylloxera. Vines are trained into nests low to the ground to protect grapes from hot Meltemi winds. The name muscat blanc a petits grains may not sound like an indigenous grape, but some believe that ancient Greeks introduced it to France. A union of winemaking cooperatives on the island of Samos, 200 miles due east of Athens, crafts a lovely dessert wine from this white grape.
Labeling is in transition. Most often, appellation wines are marked as PDO (Protected Designation of Origin), made from a single varietal, and draped over the lip of the bottles are printed paper strips (pink for dry wines, blue for sweet). Blends are labeled PGI (Protected Geographical Indication).
Five thousand years is a long time for any industry to wait to be appreciated. But you don’t have to wait a moment longer.
Estate Argyros “Atlantis” Santorini 2011 Assyrtiko, the dominant varietal in this white wine, contributes saline aromas and lemony tartness. Athiri and aidani grapes soften and perfume with stone-fruit notes. Excellent with green salads and seared scallops. Around $18. At Ball Square Fine Wine & Liquors, Somerville, 617-623-9500; Martignetti Liquors, Brighton, 617-782-3700.
Gai’a “Wild Ferment” Assyrtiko Santorini 2011 This white offers aromas of brine, wet stones, and lees, leading to a piercingly tart and citrusy palate with some texture and weight. Wild yeasts produce the most nuanced assyrtiko we’ve tasted to date. Pair with oysters or grilled rich fish, such as bluefish or sablefish. Around $26. At the Wine & Cheese Cask, Somerville, 617-623-8656; Liquor World, Medway, 508-533-7000.
Harlaftis Nemea Dry Red Wine 2009 This garnet-hued red (agiorgitiko) offers aromas of roses, cherry fruit, soil, and spice. Appetizingly ripe with fresh acidity and food friendly tannins. Equally at home with fish or lamb. Around $12. Henry’s Wine Cellar, North Beverly, 978-524-0300; Kappy’s Fine Wine & Spirits, Sudbury, 978-443-6464.
Gai’a “Notios” Agiorgitiko Peloponnisos 2011 A ripe and pretty red with strawberry, rose-floral, and soil aromas. Gentle tannins and a juicy berry-fruit palate. Lovely with herb-rubbed roast chicken. Around $16. At The Spirited Gourmet, Belmont, 617-489-9463; The Wine Emporium, South End, 617-262-0379.
Thymiopoulos Vineyards “Young Vines” Xinomavro Naoussa 2010 Pale ruby with ripe red fruit, leafy soil, and anise aromas. Firm tannins make this an excellent food wine. Finishes with a touch of saline and spice. Delicious with grilled meats. Around $18. D&L Liquors, Waltham, 781-894-1907; Colonial Spirits, Acton, 978-263-7775.
Samos Vin Doux Sweet Muscat Wine 2010 This fortified dessert wine offers aromas of apricot, baked pear, and wildflower honey. The palate is rich with dried stone-fruit flavors and a touch of butterscotch. Around $16. At Winestone, Chestnut Hill, 617-264-0393; Greek International Food Market, West Roxbury, 617-553-8038.Ellen Bhang can be reached at email@example.com.