Drink Deep

It's all good Greek to her, but thumbs-down on the retsina


I didn't always love Greek wine. My first encounters with it were decidedly unpleasant - and I wasn't even drinking retsina (more on that later). The wines were overly acidic and tannic - and somehow reminiscent of wet dog. But through stubbornness or perhaps foolishness (sometimes it's just so hard to tell), I persisted and found that, just like any other wine region, with judicious selection, Greece can provide astoundingly good wine-drinking experiences.

Evidence exists of wine production in Greece dating back to seventh-century B.C. and remains an integral part of Greek culture today. The ancient Greeks are credited with spreading a great many grape varieties throughout Europe; for example, in Italy's Campania region, there is a grape called aglianico - literally the Greek vine.

Today's Greek grapes, aside from a few wineries planting international varieties (like cabernet sauvignon and syrah), are likely to be quite foreign to your ears. Grape names like aghiorghitiko, xinomavro, mavrodaphne and moschofilero don't exactly roll off the tongue. But that doesn't mean the wines will get stuck in your craw.

On the Peloponnese peninsula, we find the traditional home of aghiorghitiko, more pronounceably known as St. George, named after the patron saint of the Hellenic army. The wine made here is colloquially known as the "blood of Hercules." Legend has it that, after slaying a beast known as the "Nemean Lion," the hero Hercules consumed Nemean aghiorghitiko.

If not properly treated in the vineyard, aghiorghitiko can make some pretty bad wine. If allowed to grow too vigorously, it can make flabby wines without much finesse. The vine is also notoriously prone to disease, which can affect production and quality. But grown carefully, aghiorghitiko can make pleasantly fruity, medium-bodied and occasionally quite complex red wines.

2014 Boutari Nemea ($21 for a 750-milliliter bottle) is a light, very agreeable red with cherry and plum mingling with earthy black pepper and baking spice. On the palate, a mineral, almost sanguine, note emerges, making it a natural pairing for red meat. In general, red wines don't pair well with leafy greens, but this one is so easygoing that I paired it with a kale and walnut phyllo pie, and all was right with the world. Or at least with dinner.

Also from Boutari's Peloponnese property is 2014 Moschofilero Mantinia ($18), a sublimely floral white wine with succulent aromas of orange blossom and honeysuckle and notes of stone fruits and sweet citrus. Being a non-Greek speaker, I can't confirm this, but some sources say "moschofilero" translates to something along the lines of "beloved by flies." This makes sense when one considers that moschofilero thrives in cooler climates, where it ripens slowly and fully over a long growing season. One can almost picture the flies lazily buzzing about the sun-warmed vineyard.

Lulled into a sense of security by these two delightful offerings, I turned to what is probably the most well-known Greek wine on the international market - retsina. Before embarking upon this column, I had never tasted retsina, so my wary opinion of its quality was based entirely on supposition. Resinated wines originated with the ancient Greeks and Romans, who coated the insides of porous amphorae with pine resin to minimize oxygen contact and better preserve wine. Flavors from the resin permeated the wines and, after a while, people decided they liked that. Since then, resin has been added specifically as a flavoring agent.

All I can say is, "Why?" The best description I can give retsina is that it tastes like watery apple juice mixed with Pine-Sol, an utterly retch-worthy drink. I won't divulge the brand of retsina that I tasted because I don't fancy getting sued for libel, but I will say thank goodness it was cheap. In a way, though, I'm glad I tried it because it will make every single other wine in the world taste better. Now I just have to figure out what to do with the rest of the bottle. I'm sure there's a lavatory somewhere in need of cleaning.

So not all Greek wine is good. But if you avoid anything with pine resin added to it, you might be pleasantly surprised. Cook up some roast lamb, add some spanakopita, then you've got yourself a tasty Greek feast, complete with quality wines from a proud, ancient lineage.