If you love wine, you have the ancient Greeks to thank. They were pioneers who knew how to party, and everyone else wanted to follow suit. The Greeks romanticized wine; think crazy week long romps for their god Dionysis, patron of wine and hedonism. (Later the Romans copied and renamed the god Bacchus). Second, they shipped vines all over the Mediterranean, so your favorite Italian, French, or even Austraian wines may never have existed without them. They also used wine as a measurement of social status. Ancient Greeks shamed their enemies, like the Gauls, who drank beer; a fact I find highly entertaining, but also wonder if they’re to blame for all those pretentious wine snobs.
So why don’t we hear more about the OG of wine production today? Long story short: trade. In the 11th century, the Ventians scored better tax breaks so the Greeks couldn’t compete. Then, Greece was occupied by the Turks who taxed wine production some more (the Turks were Muslim and didn’t consume alcohol) and a lot of Greeks abandoned wine making all together. That’s pretty much the History for Dummies version.
Another reason is the reputation the Greeks gained around retsina wine. In ancient times, wine was transported in big clay amphorae. Oxygen is the number one spoiler of wine so they sealed these jugs with pine resin in an attempt to keep it fresh. This resulted in a very unique flavor, which originally masked any inperfections in the wine. As the quality of wine production grew around the world, this style fell out of favor and many consumers assumed that all Greek wine was made this way.
But I’m here to tell you that there is a ton of great Greek wine out there! Today, the white you’ll most likely find in stores is assyrtiko: a fresh, citrusy wine with slight salinity that usually comes from the island of Santorini. The red that is most commonly found is xinomavro (you can find one at Whole Foods). Xinomavro is a grape from northern Greece, predominately in the region of Macedonia and the neighboring Thrace.
Xinomavro is the Greek answer to French Burgundy or Italian Nebbiolo. It’s a medium bodied red wine with some red fruit characteristics, but leads with earth, herbs, and structure (high acid and tannins). This is one of the Greek wines that can age. The bottle I chose is the 2018 Alpha Estate Hedgehog Vineyard Xinomavro. It’s full of fresh, tart red fruit mixed with roses, forest floor, and a touch of tomato leaf. The tannins on this wine are more delicate than some xinomavros so I decided on a savory chicken dish with kalamata olives and dates as its pairing.
The earthiness of the wine elevated the flavors of the chicken and kale. The olives and capers matches its herbaceaousness. And the dates helped pull out the fruit. I felt that neither the wine nor the food overpowered one another. The acid in the wine cut through the fat in the chicken thigh and the little bit of sweetness in the dates evened out the earth characteristics.
This is a perfect dish for summer as the red wine doesn’t feel quite as heavy as wines like cabernet sauvignon or malbec. You can find xinomavro at Whole Foods or your local wine shop. The bottle I used to pair with can be found on wine.com. I hope you’re inspired to seek out more Greek wines and get in touch with your own inner Dionysis. Cheers!