Greece MW trip

Greece MW trip

The Mainland

Grapes and wines

The work being done on savatiano is interesting. It will never be a great grape variety, but it is potentially good, and some interesting examples were tasted. It can also age neatly in the mid-term, rather like Hunter Valley semillon but without the high acid and with a bit more alcohol. Malagousia is also capable of making very attractive, easy drinking, wines. Assyrtiko offers good acidity – but rarely gains the focus it achieves on Santorini. It can be useful blending material, however, to add a bit of structure to other grapes.
A number of us were clear that xynomavro is the important red grape of the mainland and should be promoted a lot more. I was slightly more hesitant; many producers seem to me to be exploring how to handle the acid and tannin, and I think more work needs to be done on this. But the best were very attractive indeed. Agiorgitiko, on the other hand, is very much a work in progress, and a few of us felt that it often has to support too much oak for its style – the true fruit of the grape is lost. They may also be over extracted, with tannin out of balance with the medium-body of the wine. The best examples were lovely with precise damson and griotte fruit.

One of the most exciting discoveries was unknown or unexpected grapes making interesting and often gorgeous wines. A gewürztraminer from Evia of all places. Preknadi (the ‘freckled grape’ – a great marketing line there) with weighty stone fruit character. Moutara from Thebes, and the lovely cherry and plum aromas of the red grape vlahiko, with overt acid and light weight.


Crete

This was another unexpected discovery. I think many of us had been looking forward to Crete, but with limited expectations for the wines. But across the board the wines were generally cleanly made, with quite precise fruit characters. They may not have been profound but were often enjoyable. But the other very impressive aspect of the island was the way that the wine industry organised itself. This was the most surprising of the three parts of the trip.

Grapes and wines

Here it was the red wines which were the most striking, and particularly those made from liatiko, which many of us fell in love with. For me it was a bit reminiscent of cinsault (which is not a criticism, having already had this year very good examples of wines made from that grape in both Lebanon and South Africa). Mid-weight, medium tannins but a touch drying on the finish. Sometimes a touch (welcome) acidity and good red fruit characters. Kotsifali, on the other hand – the other leading indigenous variety, doesn’t seem to have the same breeding. It can add colour and tannin – but often too much of the latter. Southern French red varieties did work well here, though, grenache especially.

The main white – many were suggesting us the leading variety of the island – is vidiano. Some soft stone fruit characterised the best, and a bit of body, but the wines often lacked focus or direction. Assyrtiko was quite widespread; as on the mainland it had good acid but lacked the pure and complex varietal fruit from Santorini. For what it’s worth my view is that the best future for a distinctive white on the island could be a blend – ‘Cretan Classic White’ (ha ha), with vidiano dominant but a good tranche of assyrtiko for structure. And a word for the unique aromas of the variety dafni. More on that particular wine can be found on my blog for those who are interested.

Territorial branding

What was apparent as soon as we arrived was that the producers on Crete have collectively got their act together: they seem cohesive, with clear purpose, a willingness to work with each other and a well-delineated image and identity. We were told a few times that it was in 2006 that they decided they had to work together if they were to drag Cretan wine into the modern world, and collectively construct a plan to do this. There is a wine route and developing wine tourism. They need to develop some identifiable icon wine styles (see the previous section) but they seem aware of this and are willing to explore possibilities. Interestingly they seemed to accept that the success of each depends on the success of all with the implication that they should sink their differences in pursuit of common goals. Good luck to them – they deserve it.


Santorini

Many of us probably anticipated that this would be the real highlight of the trip and it didn’t disappoint. It showed the consistency (and more) of Crete combined with the fact that for some time now the producers have known what their icon is and have been honing how to produce assyrtiko. We had a particularly focused discussion on the wines here (and also on market structure and image) so here are some key points of our debate:

  • It was clear to us that there are internal issues, particularly in the value chain – focusing on grape pricing and supply. The price of a kilo has risen from 1€ to 5€ over about eight years. This is necessary in one sense to keep growers in production (and to avoid them selling their land for development) but it’s pushing the price of wine up dramatically. In some ways the grower producer relationship here reflects the same relationship at times in the past in Champagne.
  • Producers also want to cash in on the increasing reputation of the wines. This, with the previous point, is pushing some wine prices way above 30€ a bottle, and on to 50, 60, even 80+ euros. Can the wine style sustain this? Do the wines offer the complexity to make it worth paying so much? Here we disagreed. Some, including me, felt that 20-30€ for good Santorini assyrtiko was good value; higher than that and the value was becoming a bit more questionable. (And it should be added that oaking the wine is not a good reason for adding to the price – especially if the oak is heavy handed). Others were clear that the wines are worth everything asked for them – and some would be good value at 100€. Maybe – but that is the view of the wine expert. I wonder if the typical consumer of these wines (who is already probably highly involved with wine) would agree, especially if you can get (say) good premier or grand cru chablis for less.
  • A lot of the wines we tasted were older styles. A few of us loved these, but some said that, while the wines didn’t oxidise, they were not interesting enough to age for longer than maybe seven to eight years; the ideal age seems to be about two to four years, when the wines have settled a bit but retain their youthful vivacity and austere bite.
  • Meanwhile, there may be problems in the vineyards.We saw one long-term and experienced grower (with a fascinating demonstration of pruning) who lamented that only about ten growers on the island still knew how to prune properly. As grape prices go up production is actually going down, and with more producers looking to buy land and grapes there will be further pressure on supply. This is complicated by the fact that growers are unwilling to commit to long term contracts with producers, making production planning hazardous. One speaker suggested to us (with a carefully constructed and presented argument) that Santorini wines are actually likely to die out in about 20 years.


Overall

What can Greek wine do to prosper? They have one world renowned style, some good possibilities bubbling under and an enthusiastic and dynamic assortment of producers. How can they capitalise on this?

  • There was a debate about using international varieties to capture the attention of foreign markets and then win them over to trying wines made from indigenous varieties. Give people something they can understand first. I’m not so sure. However, the point was made that in many parts of the country syrah particularly does seem to be a ‘soothing’ variety, especially in Crete.
  • In marketing they have to sell the experience and sell a (collective) story. The Cretans are doing well at this as do producers of Santorini. The whole nation needs to learn from them. Tourism, one of us said, is an ‘amazing gift’ – as is Greek cuisine. Why not make an effort to get a couple of good wines into every Greek restaurant in key target markets? Taina Vilkuna MW said, to much applause that this is “the new old world”.
  • Labelling needs rapid attention. Ok, the names can be confusing, but it is worse when they are all spelt differently.
  • They still have a way to go to overcome the international association with retsina.
  • Many of us approved of the way that producers were wanting to push boundaries: new techniques, older grapes, creative blends.

This report is based primarily on my observations during the trip and discussions with other MWs while we were moving around. However, we had a debriefing session at the very end, and I’ve taken account of what members said then as well. It is thus part personal, part a reflection of other viewpoints.

Steve Charters MW
October 2019