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Home | Greece | Greece - A Phonologist’s Dream

Greece - A Phonologist's Dream

The Eastern Mediterranean, and Greece in particular, was for centuries the cradle of the wine trade.  Wine travelled from its birthplace in the Middle East through Greece on its way to Western Europe.  Despite challenges over the centuries that have nearly destroyed the country's wine industry, since Greece joined the European Union in 1981, a slow and systematic resurgence in wine production and exportation has been underway.  Greece produces some amazingly unique and affordable wines.  The challenge for Greeks is marketing their product to the rest of the world.  With all due respect to the language, wines made from grape varieties such as Assyrtiko, Agiorgitiko and Xynomavro are hardly household names, and in a culture that already can suppress the ego of a budding wine consumer, if you can't even pronounce the name, well you get the dilemma.  Read on and we will try to arm you with a few basic facts and pronunciations to give you confidence for that next trip to the wine shop.

The Wines of Greece

The wines from Greece are born from an unfamiliar collection of indigenous grape varieties.  International varieties including Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah are grown in the country, primarily to blend with local varieties. 

Red Grape Varieties

Xynomavro (Ksee-no'-ma-vro) – This red grape is grown primarily in northern Greece in the Macedonia region.  The grape produces highly acidic tannin rich, age worthy red wines.

Agiorgitiko (Ah-yur-yee-ti-ko) – From the Peloponnese region, this red grape produces tannic wines with fruit aromas and low acidity.  The grape is also the principal variety in the wines from Nema.

Mavrodaphne (Ma-vro-daf-nee) – Used to produce a sweet fortified wine similar to a port or sherry.  Mavrodaphne is a dark, almost opaque wine with aromas of caramel, chocolate, coffee, and raisins, with alcohol content in excess of 15% ABV.

Kotsifali (Koh-tsee-fah-lee) – This Crete red grape, sometimes referred to as the Merlot of Crete, is the most common variety planted on the island. Frequently used in red blends, the resultant wines are characterized by low color intensity, aromatic, with high alcohol and low acidity.  Tannins are present but soft and rounded, making the wine drinkable soon after release.  The most well-known Kotsifali wines are from the PDOs of Peza and Archanes.

Liatiko This red grape variety from Crete can be vinified dry or sweet. Wines from Liatiko tend to be light in color, rich with fruit aromas, medium tannins and high alcohol content.

Limnio (Leem-nio) – Often considered as a break from big reds, wines from Limnio grapes produce a lighter styled red wine, with a moderately deep color, aromas of herbs and red fruits, moderate acidity, soft tannins and relatively high alcohol content.

White Grape Varieties

Moschofilero (Mosh-ko-fee'-le-ro) – This white (actually pink) grape is similar to Pinot Gris, and is used to make slightly pink wines from the Peloponnese region.  These light bodied wines are made to be consumed young, and exhibit floral aromas and high acidity.

Assyrtiko (Ah-seer'-tee-ko) – Originating from Santorini, this white grape variety is widely grown throughout Greece. Both dry and sweet wines are made, typified by high acidity,minerality, citrus and high alcohol levels. Assyrtiko is a full bodied age worthy white wine.

Muscat – Also known as Moschato in Greece, this well-known variety is widely used to produce sweet wines from several regions within Greece.

Roditis (Row-dee-tees) – Another pink skinned grape from the Peloponnese vinified as both a white and Rose wine.

Athiri (Ah-thee-ree) – From the Aegean Island of Santorini, this white grape is used to make Retsina, a unique wine made using small pieces of Aleppo Pine resin.

Robola (Row-bow-la) - Robola is a white Greek wine grape variety grown primarily on the largest of the Ionian Islands, Cephalonia.  The wines from this grape are dry, medium bodied with aromas of lemon, peach, citrus, and flint.

Vilana (Vee-lan-na) – A little known white grape variety from Crete that is often blended with International white grape varieties, an example being Thalia, a blend made from 50% Sauvignon Blanc and 50% Vilana.

Vidiano (Vee-dia-no) – Good luck finding a wine made from this Crete white grape.  Planted in small acreage, very little escapes the borders of Greece.  Vidiano produces a full bodied white, rich with aromas of lemon, peach and apricot.  Alcohol levels are high but balanced with equally high acidity.

Wine Regions

Greece is in southeastern Europe and it is basically a peninsula, surrounded on three sides by water.  To the west is the Ionian Sea and Italy; to the south is the island of Crete (Greece) the Mediterranean Sea, Libya and Egypt, and to the east, the Aegean Sea and Turkey.  The country is divided into three major political regions, the northern region of Thrace, Macedonia, Epirus and Thessaly, Central Greece and the capital of Athens, and furthest south, the Peloponnese Peninsula, only four miles short of being an thanks to the Isthmus of Corinth.  It is the Peloponnese Peninsula and islands to the east that have the highest concentration of vineyards in Greece.

The Pindus Mountain ranges run from north to south blocking moisture from the Ionian Sea and creating a near ideal climate in the rain shadow for growing grapes.  Never far from ocean influence, temperature differences are modest, the growing season is long, and increasingly Greek wine producers are taking advantage of the hillsides to increase temperature variations.

Another well regarded wine region is the island of Crete, some 50 miles south of the Peloponnese Peninsula.  Here wine making can be traced for over 4,000 years.  In fact, the oldest known wine-press (3,500 years old) was found at the archaeological site Vathipetro on the island.  Crete produces dozens of wines from indigenous grape varieties, primarily red wine and with many on the sweeter side.  The island is home to four appellations, Peza (Dry white Vilana, and dry Red Kotsifali, Mandilari), Archanes (Dry Red), Dafnes (Dry and Sweet Reds made from Liatiko) and Sitia (Dry white and red, sweet red).

Greek Wine Laws

As a part of the European Union, Greece for the most part follows EU rules with a couple of variations.  EU rules specify quality wines as protected designation of origin (PDO).  In Greece PDO wines are further classified as OPE, meaning designating wines from controlled appellations.  There are however only 8 OPEs, all of which only sweet wines.  The second PDO is known as OPAP, again wines from controlled appellations however primarily dry, non-fortified wines from one of 20 areas.

The second EU level, protected geographical indication (PGI), is known in Greece as TO (topikos linos) or regional wine and below TO is EO or basic table wine, accounting for nearly half of Greece's total production.

When seeking Greek wines, it is important to remember that much like the Super Tuscan's of Italy, many Greek wine producers do not like restrictions imposed by the EU rules so are instead opting to produce wines with the basic TO designation.

Armed with a basic understanding of the grape varieties from Greece, and a knowledge that an increasing number of delightful affordable wines are being imported to the United States all the time, why not explore Greek wines, and even try your hand at pronouncing one or two of the grape varieties?

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