Cradle of Vintners Rocks with Quality; Greeks Were First to Mark Grape as Part of Civilization

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 3, 2002 | Go to article overview

Cradle of Vintners Rocks with Quality; Greeks Were First to Mark Grape as Part of Civilization


Byline: Paul Lukacs, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

You may be surprised to learn that contemporary Greek wine is well worth trying. Today's best Hellenic vintners are employing state-of-the-art techniques to fashion wines from both international and indigenous grape varieties. As a result, Greece, which many Americans associate only with pine-flavored retsina, is one of the world's most exciting emerging wine countries.

Greece is the cradle of wine as we know it. Grapes initially were cultivated farther east, in the Caucasus and Mesopotamia, but the ancient Greeks were the first people to value wine as a mark of civilization rather than just a tool for intoxication. "Wine moistens and tempers the spirits," Socrates said. "It commits no rape upon our reason, but pleasantly invites us to agreeable mirth."

Over two millenniums, the culture of wine appreciation spread from Greece to Rome, then to Gaul and the rest of Europe, and much later to Africa, the Americas, Australia and even Asia.

For most of that history, the Greeks continued to make, consume and export significant quantities of wine. Then in the 15th century, after the fall of the Byzantine Empire, the Ottoman Turks invaded the country. Although the Turks did not condemn wine among the Christian population, they taxed it highly and often restricted its trade, thus effectively plunging Greek winemaking into parochial oblivion.

Foreign occupation, economic deprivation and bloody civil strife combined to isolate Greek winemaking for centuries. Only in the past generation has it started to modernize, in the process beginning to realize its vast potential.

That potential has two sources - the tradition-rich "terroir" of Greek vineyards and the wealth of native grapes that grow there. Unlike most other developing wine-producing countries, Greece is heir to a rich vinous history that can come to life when you pull the cork and pour a glass of wine.

Greek wine's renaissance began in the 1960s when John Carras, a wealthy shipping magnate, founded Domaine Carras in southern Macedonia. Sparing no expense, he planted terraced vineyards overlooking the Aegean and hired Emile Peynaud from Bordeaux as his consulting winemaker. The resulting wines, particularly the Bordeaux-styled blends, attracted considerable attention. By the late 1970s, they were being featured in fine wine shops and exclusive restaurants throughout Europe.

The success of Domaine Carras demonstrated that Greek wines, when made in a clean, modern style, could have broad appeal. Investors took note, as did a new generation of would-be winemakers. These young vintners tended to study abroad, at universities in Bordeaux and Dijon, or at Adelaide in Australia and Davis in California. When they returned home, they brought with them an awareness of the wide world of wine, and they soon began making new-style Greek wines that reflected both local traditions and international standards.

These wines had little in common with the oxidized whites and tart, tannic reds that had dominated the Greek wine market for so long. These winemakers used up-to-date equipment and techniques - temperature-controlled fermentation, stainless steel tanks and French oak barrels - to produce wines that tasted rich and ripe. Soon the large negociants also began to hire younger, foreign-trained winemakers and to upgrade their equipment. By the early 1990s, the country's wine revival was well under way.

There certainly still are many dull if not actually flawed wines made in Greece, some of which unfortunately are exported to the United States. Today's best Greek wines, however, can hold their own with fine wines made anywhere.

Greece produces high-class red and white wines, as well as a small amount of rose. In addition, the country has long been known for the quality of some of its dessert wines, particularly those made from muscat on the island of Samos. …

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