When Americans think of Greece, most people think of hot, dry landscapes on islands in the Mediterranean Sea. However, in reality, Greece has a wide variety of topography. It ranges from the famous arid islands to wet, mountainous pine forests that even see some snow in the winter.
The Greeks have been making wine for over four thousand years (the first hints of winemaking there come from 4500 BCE). And the wines? They are as varied as the landscape. In fact, Greek wine was especially prized in Italy during the Roman empire. Greek culture has celebrated winemaking for millennia. Many of these traditions continue even today, such as the celebration of symposia. In the medieval period, wines from Greece were exported to Northern Europe and were highly prized and valued.
Today, Greece’s wine industry is thriving. This is thanks to easy trade agreements with other EU countries and improved winemaking technology. In addition to focusing on quality wines (as opposed to quantity), Greece is also looking to the USA as a major importer of Greek wines. Exports to the U.S. have climbed to more than 80 percent in recent years.
In general, there are four primary wine-growing regions in Greece:
Snow-covered mountains can be found in Northern Greece, along the border with Bulgaria. The islands are typically characterized by long, hot summers. In all of these regions, different grape varieties thrive. Crisp white wines, tropical fruit-flavored wines, and sweet wines are all produced in Greece. But so are powerful, full-bodied red wines like the Xinomavro, Agiorgitko, and Mavrodaphne wines.
This large area of Greece is located on the Eastern side of the Pindus and Agrafa mountains. This area is arider than Northern Greece and has a climate that’s a bit akin to Napa Valley. It’s hotter and drier in the southernmost part of Central Greece as you near Athens.
The northern part of Central Greece focuses on red wines, with the best vineyards found at higher elevations. On the slopes of Mount Olympus, you’ll find bush vines of Xinomavro, Krasato, and Stavroto. The wines are usually blends, and if you are a fan of Rhone wines, you’ll be right at home here.
As you move south towards climates that are hotter and arider, you’ll find more white wines. The Savatiano is common in this area, but it’s also one of the most hated grapes due to overproduction and its vapid taste. However, a lot of the problems with this grape come from cheap production techniques. So in recent years, producers have been looking to find better ways to treat the Savatiano. When done well (which means cultivating it earlier) you can find flavors of sweet honeydew, green apple, and lime. When oak-aged, the Savatiano has flavors of lemon curd, wax, and cultured cream.
The red wines found in the southern part of this region typically come from the Xinomavro grape. You’ll also find blends using international varieties. These reds pair wonderfully with braised Greek meats.
Popular wineries to visit in central Greece:
Greece Vriniotis Winery
The northern region of Greece has great variety in temperature and landscape. In general, white and sparkling wines with Debina grapes are common throughout this area. They have a delicate, floral-and-citrusy character. In the northwest of Epirus, into Macedonia, the Xinomavro red wine can be found. The Xinomavro (translated to “acid black”) has high tannins and medium acidity. Its flavor profiles include dark cherry fruit, licorice, allspice, and sometimes some tomato notes. These are great wines that can be aged successfully.
The most common white grape is the Malagousia, which is kind of a cross between a Viognier and a Chardonnay. It has strong peach, lime, and orange blossom flavors with a soft finish. In Zitsa, in northwestern Epirus, you can find a unique blend made mainly from the Debina grape. This grape has notable apple, pear, and peach notes. Other white grapes in this area include Assyrtiko and Roditis. They are typically blended with Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay grapes. The result is fruity-flavored wines that pair excellently with local fish.
Popular wineries to visit in northern Greece:
Southern Greece is hot-hot! Visitors can find an abundance of great, aromatic white wines here along with the Agiorgitiko, the popular red wine of this region.
In the central Peloponnese peninsula, the Moschofilero grows. This grape produces dry and aromatic white wines that smell like peach, potpourri, and sweet lemon. As the wines age, they develop more nectarine and apricot flavors. Moscato d’Asti lovers will enjoy wines made with this grape.
The Agiorgitiko has notable flavors of sweet raspberry, black currant, and plum sauce, with nutmeg and bitter herbs. The wines are robust and fruity, similar to a Merlot, but with slightly more spice. This grape also makes great rosé wines. These grapes are commonly found in the Nemea region in the heart of the Peloponnese.
On the northern side of Peloponnesus and Kefalonia, they make sweet red wines with the Mavrodaphne grapes. These wines are more similar to port and have notes of velvety chocolate, coffee, and nuts. However, this region is shifting focus to more white varieties, notably Robola and Roditis. Roditis has notes of lime, melon, salt, and bitter lime peel. Robola is harder to find but has sweet lemon, pineapple, and beeswax notes. You’ll more easily find Robola on Corfu, such as on the Theotoky Estate.
Popular wineries to visit in southern Greece:
The Aegean is what most people think of when you talk about Greece. The restaurants here typically serve up fresh, delicious seafood with their minerally, white Assyrtiko wines. The islands of this region are volcanic. The water is salty (even the tap water). Because of the high winds, they don’t train the grape vines to climb along fence structures. Instead, vines are wound near the ground into nests that look like baskets. Grapes grow in the center of the “basket,” where they are protected from the wind and sun.
The Assyrtiko, which thrives in this climate, has passion fruit, flint, and lemon flavors. It’s also subtly bitter and slightly salty.
The Vinsanto, the “Nectar of the Gods,” is a sweet white wine that smells more like red wine. It has notes of raspberry, raisin, dried apricots, and maraschino cherries. The Vinsanto is a blend of Assyrtiko, Aidani, and Athiri grapes.
The honeyed Nykteri wine is traditionally harvested at night when temperatures are lower. This assures stable sugar levels. Nykteri is always oaked and has creamy lemon brulée notes, along with pineapple and pie crust flavors.
The Muscat Blanc may have originated in Samos. The Muscat in this area can be dry or sweet, depending on how it’s made. Vin Doux, a dessert wine, is a blend of Muscat juice and Muscat grappa. Vin Doux is a popular choice in this region.
The island of Limnos is home to a red wine variety from the Limnio grape. It has distinct raspberry and herbal notes. It’s often blended with a little bit of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah grapes, resulting in something that is a bit like a Bordeaux-style red wine.
Crete has the largest vineyards and the warmest climates. It is an excellent place to visit if you are planning to focus on wines. Vidiano is a dry white wine with notes of melon, pear, and red apple; this is Crete’s most popular varietal. Rhodes is known for both its still and sparking white wines.
Popular wineries to visit in the Aegean Islands region:
The following are common grape varietals found in Greece:
If you are going to be touring the wineries of Greece (and we hope you will be, soon!), we have a few closing tips for you to consider. First, sometimes it’s fun to bring along something American for the new friends that you will be sure to make overseas. Some American city/state wine charms are an inexpensive and fun way to share some good cheer with your new international buddies.
Are you planning to stay at a small, boutique inn or bed-and-breakfast where you are sure to get to know your innkeepers? Consider getting a set of wooden coasters for their home. They will appreciate the thoughtfulness. You can get American city/state coaster sets, or have them monogrammed with their family initials.
If you are meeting wine-loving family abroad, the barrel stave wine glass hanger is actually pretty easy to pack. Just pick up a bottle of wine when you get there!