For more than 2,000 years, the Greeks have been producing wine. Ancient Greek poets and artists present wine as an essential part of life. This wine culture persists, although frequent invasions and internal strife have frustrated attempts to bring Greek wine to a global audience.
In the 1960s, when Greece decided to begin preparations to enter the European Union, the government began to address the issues preventing the country from developing a world-class wine industry. Greece now has more than 400 wineries, and many of their wines are finding their way to the United States.
Greece has a Mediterranean climate, perfect for growing high-quality grapes. Most Greek wines are still made from indigenous grapes varieties, many of which are not known outside of the country. This is changing, however, as growers are finding that international varieties such as Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc do well in certain areas.
Of the 350 grapes varieties grown in Greece, six account for 90 percent of Greece's dry wine production:
Assyrtiko — native to Santorini and other Aegean islands
Roditis — mainly grown in Peloponnese in the south
Savatiano — largely found around Athens
The Savatiano grape deserves special recognition, because it is the staple grape of most retsina, Greece's most famous style of wine. To make retsina, vintners add small amounts of resin from the Aleppo pine tree to Savatiano grape juice during fermentation, giving the wine its characteristic “piney” flavor. Retsina is adored especially in rural areas of Greece but has failed to win the hearts of international wine lovers.
Agiorgitiko — grown largely in southern Greece
Xynomavro — present in Macedonia, northern Greece)
Mandelari — tannic grape found in Crete and the Aegean islands.
Not to be forgotten is the Mavrodaphne grape, which is used to make a decadent fortified dessert wine of the same name. The wine is akin to port. This grape is most widely planted in Peloponnese.
Greek Wine Laws
As many European nations had done before them, Greece eventually adopted the Appellation d'Origine Controllee (AOC) laws of France as a way of setting quality standards in its wine industry. Sweet wines produced in defined areas according to approved techniques get the Controlled Appellation of Origin designation, while dry wines get the label Appellation of Origin of Superior Quality.
Wines that fall outside this system can be labeled topikos oenos (regional wines) or epitrapezios oenos (table wines). The latter are mainly bulk wines consumed locally, whereas the former have more international appeal since they are often blends of indigenous Greek grapes and varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.