Dunne on Wine

Mike Dunne on Wine: Americans need to revisit Greek wines

OK, let’s get this out of the way high up: Greek wine is, well, all Greek to me. What a card.

But I have plenty of company in the deck. Greek wines never have developed much of a following in the United States, and the reasons for that are many.

Foremost is that even when their wine labels are in English, the names of Greek grape varieties and the wines they yield are unfamiliar to the American eye and intimidating to the American tongue. Moschofilero? Assyrtiko? Agiorgitiko? Xinomavro?

Secondly, whenever anyone mentions Greek wine in the United States, the word that almost immediately flashes scarily to mind is “retsina,” a dry white wine flavored with pine resin that is introduced during fermentation, a practice that probably stems from the ancient custom of using pitch to seal wine amphoras. The grape and the wine customarily subjected to this abuse has been savatiano.

“Savatiano is underappreciated, but it really expresses the soil. Its reputation was damaged by retsina. Pine resins ruined it,” says enologist Sophia Perpera, director of the Greek Wine Bureau of North America.

Perpera was addressing guests this spring at a UC Davis seminar called “The New Wines of Greece.”

To drive home her point that retsina is but a fading echo of the Greek wine trade, not a single one of the 20 Greek wines poured during the session was scented and flavored with pine pitch. One savatiano that was poured, from the 2013 harvest, was lean and frisky, with a note of diesel that can distinguish riesling, but not a trace of forest. Another, from the 2008 vintage, was riper, huskier, more deeply colored, and had the bottle bouquet of an aged white Bordeaux. Again, no indication of resin.

By and large, the whites were fresh, fruity and crisp, and some could have been mistaken in a blind tasting for sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio, albarino or riesling. Similarly, the reds were dark, rich, complex and solidly built, robust enough to go to the mat with petite sirah, zinfandel and cabernet sauvignon.

Americans should be liking contemporary Greek wines, she indicated. For one, the new Greek wines are food friendly. Many of them are elegant, rarely registering more than 14 percent alcohol. And they are made in a variety of styles, from the immediately accessible – light and crisp – to the age-worthy – big and hard.

In fact, she added, wine enthusiasts in the United States are starting to take to Greek wines. Yearly sales here are inching up, from $10.4 million in 2010 to nearly $11.9 million last year, she reports.

Another speaker, Sacramento grocer Darrell Corti, has been trying to persuade customers to try Greek wine since at least 2004, when he stocked 13 of them, “the largest list of Greek wines (in the country) outside of Greek restaurants,” he said.

Yes, Americans are “linguistically challenged,” Corti said, but he’s optimistic that with exposure and practice they will come to enjoy Greek wines and master the challenges of pronouncing their names. Thirty years ago, he recalled, “people were reluctant to buy cabernet sauvignon because they couldn’t pronounce it.” Today, cabernet sauvignon is one of the country’s more popular varietal wines, and virtually no one shies from requesting it by name.

“We may surprise ourselves at the quality of the (Greek) wines, how they will last, and probably how consumers will react to them,” said Corti. Americans, he added, can be taught most anything, including how to pronounce the likes of moschofilero and assyrtiko.

The flip side of any discussion about Greek wines in the United States is whether there might be a place for Greek grape varieties to be grown here.

“California” was the answer given by seminar speakers, starting with Glenn McGourty, wine-growing and plant-science adviser for the University of California Extension Service in Mendocino and Lake counties.

Like Greece, California has a warm and dry Mediterranean climate. Greek varieties would seem to be a natural fit for the state, in particular its warmer and drier areas, noted both McGourty and Corti.

California grape growers and vintners haven’t shown much interest in Greek varieties, however, even though as long ago as 1949 plant breeder Dr. Harold Olmo of UC Davis returned from Greece with 147 cultivators with which to experiment and study. Then and since, however, California’s wine trade has been oriented more toward emulating the wine-growing success of France and Italy, pretty much ignoring Greece and its long history of growing vines and making wine. “We didn’t know what to do with them,” said Corti of the Olmo collection. “They just sat there.”

That could be about to change. Aimee Sunseri, winemaker at New Clairvaux Vineyard of Vina in Tehama County, briefed seminar participants about experimental plots of the Greek varieties moschofilero and assyrtiko she has been cultivating the past three years. They will bear their first commercial crop this fall. The moschofilero vines are proving to be vigorous, with big clusters, the assyrtiko vines not so much. Yet, she’s encouraged by their development and talks of maybe introducing the winery’s first sparkling wine with the moschofilero fruit.

In the meantime, how should wine enthusiasts start their exploration of Greek wines? Here are a few suggestions:

•  Look for white wines made with the green grape moschofilero, especially from the appellation Mantinia. (It’s pronounced mos-ko-fee-le-ro.) At the seminar, the moschofileros were clean, spirited and balanced, with fruit suggestions ranging from the tropical to the citric, and peach and apple also occasionally in the mix. “I see success with my wines with people who drink pinot grigio,” said Apostolos Spirapoulos, a UC Davis graduate who now is the winemaker at his family’s Domaine Spiropoulos in Greece. Though Greeks prefer their moschofilero dry, lean, young and unoaked, his vineyard-designated Astala has been styled more for the American market – off-dry, husky and with an essence of wood from the barrels in which it was fermented.

•  Look for white wines made with the green grape assyrtiko, in particular from the romantic and scenic island of Santorini. (It’s pronounced ah-seer-tee-ko.) Younger examples were exceptionally fragrant, lean in construction and vivid on the palate with essence of lime, while a current of minerality added zip and interest. The 2013 Cuvee 15 from the producer Hatzidakis was especially forward, expansive and even complex.

•  Look for red wines made with either agiorgitiko (pronounced i-yor-yee-tee-ko) from Nemea in the Peloponnese peninsula of southern Greece or xinomavro (pronounced ksee-no-ma-vro) from Naoussa on Mount Vermion in the Macedonia region of northern Greece. The former were deeply colored and solidly structured, with a younger release showing bright berry/cherry fruit with a thread of anise, while an older interpretation was Rhone-like in its smokiness and porkiness. A 2010 xinomavro could have been taken for a pinot noir for all its strawberry fruit, though on the palate it was far more tannic.