June 7 2017 03:22 PM

Hunting for little known gems in Greek wine


Back in January, I recommended a Greek wine to a person looking for bottles to go with their dinner, which was cooking in the oven at home.

The wine was made from the assyrtiko grape by Estate Argyros.

I caught up with this person about a week after, and asked about the wine. In her words: “I didn’t like it. I don’t know ... it was just too Greek.”

Estate Argyros has been named one of Wine & Spirits Magazine’s best 100 wineries in multiple years, and it’s garnered glowing reviews across the spectrum of mainstream wine writing, including Wine Advocate, Wine Spectator and The New York Times.

Suffice to say, the image problem for Greek wines is real, and it’s wrong. And it’s not exactly true that Greek wine has finally transformed, evolved or modernized. It’s more accurate to say that we are finally getting access to good Greek wine.

For this blessing, there is no American more important than Ted Diamantis, proprietor and president of Diamond Wine Importers. Diamantis founded Diamond in 1992 “out of the belief that Greece, with its natural terroir of mountain vineyards, maritime influenced climate, volcanic and alluvial soils, and over 200 ancient indigenous varieties, can once again become a source of some of the greatest wines in the world.”

A quarter century later, the buzz on Greek wine has trickled downstream broadly enough that there’s a proven market need for these wines, even in a tertiary market like Lansing.

The wine industry might be the most romantic industry of all, so it’s no surprise that wistful wanderlusters might be enticed by the otherworldly sea, volcanic cliffs and blue-domed churches on the crescent-shaped island of Santorini. While Piedmont, Italy, might have a better argument for most impressive confluence of food and wine, Santorini is an embarrassment of riches for all things romance.

Assyrtiko is the most important grape on the island, and arguably for Greece as a whole. The grapevines are grown in basket shapes, mostly to protect the berries from getting blown off or damaged by the blustering winds off the Aegean Sea.

Greece is plenty hot, and perhaps assyrtiko’s best trait is its ability to retain acidity while surrounded by heat. What does this mean for the wine? Assyrtiko wines tend to be refreshing and thirst-quenching, as opposed to borderline flabby.

A prime example is a wine from maybe Greece’s best overall producer, Domaine Sigalas. My notes go five vintages deep on this wine, and I’m consistently amazed at its expressive style.

Putting one’s nose into a glass of the assyrtiko 2015 vintage is like walking through an apple orchard as the blossoms bloom. In flavor, the wine shows more tropical, like kiwi or papaya. At about $22, this wine will forever be on hand for me as a must-have companion for Greek cuisine, saltier fish dishes or olives.

Paris Sigalas, founder of Domaine Sigalas, is also directly responsible for the promising trend of Santorini wines made from the mavrotragano grape, another native to the island. Should the good results continue, we will hopefully see representatives of this grenache-like grape on local shelves.

Of course, if you can’t wait to see them stateside, you can visit the winery on Santorini. It might be the most beautiful place in the world.

Most island hoppers bus up to the northern Santorini town of Oia to take in those legendary sunsets, but Santo Wines, on the west coast of the island, might have the best spot for nature ogling.

And to sweeten the deal, its sparkling brut, at just $25, beats out Veuve Clicquot any day. Once again, this is 100 percent assyrtiko, only the fruit of this is more subtle and green, and the body is less minerally and more, well, party-like. This is party wine.

Side note: For anyone looking to find wines that are vintage dated the same year as your children were born, consider Vinsanto from Santorini. It is a dessert wine generally made from the assyrtiko, athiri, and aidani grapes. Often you will see current releases carry an old year, due to the extensive cask aging.

Take a boat leaving Santorini southward, and you’ll eventually climb ashore on the island of Crete. Home to the Minoans, the earliest recorded European civilization, Crete is also home to wine that tastes way better than its price would lead you to believe.

Possibly the star of the show is Douloufakis Winery. Pumping out wine since 1930, these fine folks have had their wine shipped stateside for a few decades, but they’re still reasonably new in the Michigan market. The soil of the tiny region of Dafnes, where Douloufakis is located, is similar to much of France: calcareous clay and limestone. The land is shaped like an amphitheater, with olive trees and grapevines dominating the landscape.

At about $16, Douloufakis’ Dafnios liatiko is a pinot noir fan’s dream, light bodied and refreshing with hints of dark fruits and a slight touch of earthiness. It’s a struggle to get that from Burgundy for less than $30.

Back on mainland Greece, there are other wineries dedicated to quality. Based in the small Greek Macedonian subregion of Naoussa, Domaine Karydas makes a thrilling wine from the xinomavro grape. Meaning “acid black,” this grape is a bit finicky at times, but for $30, the truffle-like aroma with rose petals and black olives should make any fan of northern Italian wine swoon.

As a rule, xinomavro is damned near perfect with lamb and beef. Alpha Estate’s 2006 xinomavro, currently on the market for about $40, is proof that Greek wine can age well and develop a brooding style all its own. Aromas and flavors of tobacco, cedar, black olive, cherry skin, black licorice are there, but it’s all so graceful and never in your face.

Alpha Estate is a high-performing winery in Amyntaio. Its malagouzia, at $20, is another refreshing patio wine, much like its assyrtiko brethren, only a little leaner around the edges. At $18, its sauvignon blanc is one of the prettier dry wines I’ve had lately. Not carrying much of the grapefruit or green notes so common in New Zealand or Loire, France, examples, this wine shows more floral and soft. It’s an impressive wine for those looking for something between a sauvignon blanc and a chardonnay.

Michigan readers may find it helpful to think of Greek wine producers like morel mushroom hunters. The best in both fields need patience, need to understand timing and need to be cognizant of temperature and climate. Come to think of it, morels sound darn tasty with a nice xinomavro.

Justin King is a certified sommelier and owner of Bridge Street Social, a wine and cocktails-focused restaurant in DeWitt. He likes his souvlaki on any day that ends in y.