Greece, Sweet Greece
First, I must confess that I have a special fondness for all things Greek. When I was 17 years old I spent the summer living with a family in Athens as an American Field Service exchange student, and it was a life-defining experience. My Greek parents and two sisters welcomed me into their family as if I had always been a part of it. Many of our meals were spent with extended family, most of whom didn’t speak English, so my Greek vocabulary consists of mainly tableware and food (although I did learn the Greek words for all the colors from their five-year-old cousins Giorgos and Kostas). The experience didn’t just set the hook for my love of travel, it made me want to immerse myself in other cultures and get to know the people. And so, I’m biased. I love Greece. I love the people, the landscape, the history, the food, and, of course, the wine.
While Greek dry wines have been making a name for themselves lately, the country has a long tradition of making dessert and fortified wines. Styles vary by region/island, but I decided to sample three of the most well known: Muscat of Samos, Vinsanto from Santorini and Mavrodaphne of Patras from the Peloponnese. Finding them in retail stores is a bit of a challenge, unless you live near a Greek neighborhood like Astoria, Queens (Omega wines has a good selection), but they are featured on wine lists in most Greek restaurants.
Greeks usually pair them with cheese and fruit. I tried mizithra, a fresh sheep’s milk cheese, drizzled with honey and graviera kritis, a firm Swiss-like cheese also made from sheep’s milk. It’s hard not to include baklava on the table, as no Greek meal would seem complete with out a bite of gooey phyllo, honey and walnuts. However, this is best served on its own as it is just too sweet and makes the wines tart.
Muscat of Samos
Winemaking on the island of Samos, just a mile off the west coast of Turkey, can be traced back as far as 1200 B.C. The main grape here is Muscat a Petit Grains, grown on terraces that line the slopes of Mt. Ampelos. The altitude (up to 900 m) tempers the hot Mediterranean climate and helps retain that all-important acidity. Since 1934, all production has been in the hands of the Union Of Winemaking Cooperative of Samos. Although some dry wines are made, the island is most famous for the sweet versions, which comes in two basic styles: one made from sun-dried grapes and the other fortified with grape spirit (i.e. vin doux naturel). The Samos Nectar is made from grapes that have been dried in the sun and then aged in oak barrels for three years. This deep golden wine isn’t overly sweet; instead it has a bright liveliness to it, with Muscat’s signature grapey perfume and notes of orange marmalade, raisins, honey, and walnuts. It was a spot-on match with the mizithra cheese and honey, and a bargain at $19.99.
Santorini may provide Greece’s postcard industry with the country’s quintessential scene—cliff-top, whitewashed homes set against the cerulean blue Aegean—but the island is also one of the country’s most prominent areas for winemaking. Its volcanic soils happen to be perfect for growing the Assyrtiko grape, whose dry wines are currently making a name for themselves in the U.S. Historically, however, it is the sweet versions of the grape that the island has been known for. Greek Vinsanto (one word), not to be confused with Italy’s Vin Santo (two words), dates back to the 16th century when the island was controlled by the Venetians. Vinsanto means wine from the island of Santorini, and is now a protected name designated for the dessert wines from Santorini (Italy is still allowed to use Vin Santo). While Assyrtiko is the main grape, it is blended with Aidani and Athiri. The grapes are left to ripen on the vine late into the season, then dried in the sun for two weeks until they’ve shriveled into raisins. They are then fermented on the skins, and the wine is aged in oak barrels for 2 to 4 years. This Vinsanto made by Koutsoyiannopolous is a deep amber color and a delicious combination of strawberry jam, stewed plums, and dried cranberries. (Sample provided).
Mavrodaphne of Patras
Given Greece’s ancient roots, Mavrodaphne of Patras is a relative newcomer to the wine scene. In 1859 a German immigrant name Gustav Clauss moved to the northern Peloponnese near the city of Patras, and planted his property with black currants and a few local grapevines. Although the region made mostly dry wines, Clauss decided that these dark skinned grapes might make a good port-like wine. He stopped fermentation with the addition of grape spirit to retain some residual sugar and then aged the wine in open oak barrels for several years. For a long time producers would leave the barrels outside, but nowadays they are kept indoors. The result is a wine similar to a Ruby port with some oxidation. Koutarki is owned by Greek Wine Cellars and is fairly ubiquitous in the U.S. This wine is a deep ruby color and more viscous than the other two, but surprisingly complex with flavors of dried cherries, figs, raisins, dates and caramel. You feel the heat at 15% abv, but there’s so much going on in the glass it makes for a very pleasant sip, especially at $10.99.
So, I raise a glass to Greece and especially my Greek family. I’m so proud of my sisters, who’ve created a successful shoe and accessories company Sorelle. XO