During the Roman Empire, Eastern Europe had far more vineyards than the Western Empire. East European wines were considered some of the best in the known world. Following the collapse of Roman rule, however, with the lack of any political stability, the wine industry fell into disrepair. The arrival of Islam during the Middle Ages, followed by communism in the twentieth century, completely demolished all memory of the region’s glorious wine making traditions. But the glory will return, and already some of the old names are returning to the world stage.
GREECE: As discussed elsewhere in my Booklovers' Guide to Wine, Greece has been producing great wines for over 6,500 years. The reputation of, and demand for, Greek wines continued through the Middle Ages and beyond, traded by the Venetians and always commanding high prices in Northern Europe for its sweet white wines. The Islamic, Ottoman Turks controlled Greece for about four hundred years, and unfortunately destroyed the ancient culture of wine production until Greek independence in 1821. However, some wine cultivation survived in the more remote regions, especially on the islands such as Santorini. Since the late 1980s, serious wine production has moved Greek wines beyond the level of the resin-taste of Retsina wine. Wine grapes are now grown throughout the Greek mainland as well as the islands. Top regions include the Cyclades, especially Santorini, where Assyrtiko and other vines are tied into a basket shape to protect the fruit against the continuous wind, and the Peloponnese peninsula, particularly Neméa, which produces full-bodied, juicy reds like Agiorgitiko.
Assyrtiko (White): Perhaps the most famous of Greek varietals, this wine is always associated with the island of Santorini, whose relentless winds and dry, desert like volcanic soil create both dry and sweet white wines with a powerfully acidic and mineral finish. The vines are traditionally woven into a nest-like protection against the winds, which ensures a long, slow, and full ripening. Some of the vines on Santorini are reputed to be over five hundred years old. The Greek Gods created this wine to be drunk with fresh seafood—especially octopus.
Moschofilero (White): This pink-skinned grape from the high plateau of the central Peloponnesian peninsula produces notably aromatic white and rose wines, which are light, crisp, and low in alcohol. With fresh scents of limes and roses, this makes the perfect al fresco wine for summer picnics.
Agiorgtiko (Red): This is the most-widely grown of Greek varietals, and its thick-skinned berries are capable of a wide range of styles, from light-reds to Robert Parker-style fruit bombs. Grown most notably in the northeastern Peloponnesian region of Nemea, the wines have succulent tannins which enable the wines to age well in oak. Delicious with goat roasted over an open flame.
Xinomavro (Red): The most famous wines made with the Xinomavro grape come from Naoussa in the Macedonian region of northern Greece. Xinomavro means acid-black in Greek, which aptly describes both the color of the grapes and the resulting wine. The wines, with their lingering taste of olives, are high in both tannins and acid, which means they can be aged for a very long time. Perfect with Greek salad and feta cheese.
With lush velvety reds made from the Agiorgitiko grape and minerally, crisp, and bone-dry whites made from the Assyrtiko grape, the serious wines of Greece are once again asserting their classic heritage.