Laura HayesBryan Smith, wine importer and distributor for Salveto Imports, believes Washingtonians are beginning to cling to Greek wine. One of the two importers he works with says D.C. is their top market for Greek wine sales, while the other says D.C. comes in third. It’s for good reason. Greece’s varied climates and unique soil compositions make for a diverse portfolio of wines, and they sell for reasonable prices.
The modern era of Greek wines launched in the ’70s and ’80s when Greece embraced its native grapes after studying how to modernize winemaking techniques in countries like France, according to Smith. The wines really began to hit the market about 15 to 20 years ago.
Komi and Iron Gate helped put Greek wine on the map locally. The latter restaurant’s previous wine director Brent Kroll created a list of bottles from every wine region in Greece, for which he was recognized in Wine Enthusiast. Now Kroll owns wine bar Maxwell Park where he maintains a list that has about 20 Greek wines by the bottle.
We asked Smith and Kroll, both sommeliers, to break down four of the most popular Greek varietals so you know what to order next.
Try it if you like the acidity of sauvignon blanc and the salinity of albariño.
Greece’s most prominent white grape is predominantly grown on Santorini, a volcanic island that benefits from a near constant sea breeze. Kroll says it’s so windy that instead of growing grapes in neat rows, winemakers cluster vines in woven baskets that they neatly pile up for protection. Assyrtiko is a high-acid white wine that’s food-friendly and versatile. “It has a ton of high natural acid,” Kroll says. “You’d put it up there with sauvignon blanc, but the acid is more sneaky.” It can have citrus notes, or taste of under-ripe tropical fruit. Some producers barrel it, which can make it attractive to California chardonnay drinkers. Assyrtiko also ages well because the acid acts as a preservative. Try it with salads, feta cheese, and seafood.
Try it if you like aromatic white wines like viognier, gewüztraminer, and muscat.
This white wine grape is grown throughout several regions of Greece, but Smith says it’s the cornerstone white whine of the north. It’s best known for its complex, aromatic qualities. “There’s lots of jasmine on the nose and fresh herbs,” Smith explains. “In Greece there are a lot of fresh herbs in the air like oregano and mountain thyme. To me, malagouzia is a Greek grape because it smells like Greece.” Kroll says it’s a good gateway grape for wine drinkers who like floral wines that are juicy. Most malagouzia tasting notes mention peaches. Try it with seafood, poultry, lighter pasta dishes, and vegetable dishes.
Try it if you like nebbiolo from Piedmont, Italy, or red varietals from Provence, France.
Xinomavro translates to “acid black.” That should tell you that this red varietal grown in Naousa, Goumenissa, and Amyndeon in northern Greece is highly acidic. “The way I sell it to guests and know they’re going to taste it and feel it is that it tastes like tomato and olive leaf,” Kroll says. “It smells like red wines from Provence, but the structure is very much like nebbiolo.” He adds that xinomavro is the Greek wine most worthy of the aging process because of its acid and tannins. “It ages beautifully for a third of the cost of barolo,” Smith adds. It pairs well with meat dishes or anything with tomato sauce.
Try it if you like merlot and other wines from the Bordeaux region of France.
To order agiorgitiko at a restaurant, start by pronouncing both “Gs” as “Ys.” The medium-acidity red varietal is the major red grape of the Peloponnese region of Greece, located a couple hours’ drive from Athens. “The easiest bridge is merlot,” Smith says. “It’s a softened red wine with dark fruit flavors. It’s fruity and jammy.” Think plums and blackberries. Smith adds that it’s one of the easiest Greek wines for the Western palate to get used to. It’s both the most widely planted grape in Greece and it has had the most success commercially. Try it with roasted meats like duck and lamb, cheese-based pasta dishes, root vegetables, and bean dishes.