Opa! Greek Wines Create Some Buzz

Hillside Vineyard, Samos, Greece.
Walter Bibikow | Age Fotostock | Getty Images
Hillside Vineyard, Samos, Greece.

Somewhere, Bacchus is smiling. Despite political and economic turmoil in Greece, wines from the region are becoming the toast of some of America’s top toques.

Walk into celebrity chef Daniel Boulud’s Boulud Sud in New York, and you’ll find nearly two dozen different Greek bottles on the menu, from Peleponnese to Crete. At nearby Le Bernardin, sommelier Aldo Sohm enthusiastically offers a $70 bottle of Gaia Estate Thalassitis from Santorini, a wine he deems “super-minerally, sleek, fresh, and focused” – and perfect for pairing with the restaurant’s celebrated seafood.

Anywhere you go in the culinary world – Berkeley’s Chez Panisse, Chicago’s Girl and the Goat, or San Francisco’s Slanted Door – a similar trend is taking root. “The quality of Greek wines is great, and they are being increasingly well selected by importers,” notes sommelier Juliette Pope of New York’s Gramercy Tavern.

“Greece has an unbelievable amount of indigenous varietals that are only grown there,” says chef Michael Psilakis, whose New York restaurants include the acclaimed Kefi. “You have warm sunny days, cool evenings, and vines typically growing on the slopes of mountains. The juice is very special.”

While Greece has been crushing grapes for 4,000 years, its output, until recently, did not attract much acclaim in the United States. Sohm recalls, “Until a few years ago, people only associated Greece with retsina” — a resin-spiked spirit with a flavor detractors describe as "Pine Sol meets turpentine.”

Today, improved production techniques, coupled with aggressive marketing, is changing minds: though domestic consumption has withered (largely due to local economic woes), Greek wine exports rose 7.5 percent in 2011.

Experts say there’s another reason for the bottle breakthrough: While names like Assyrtiko and Xinomavro don’t roll off the tongue, they do please the palate – and the psyche as well. “People -- especially people who like wine -- love an adventure and a discovery,” explains Chris Adams, CEO of Sherry-Lehmann Wine & Spirits. “We are seeing increased excitement and demand.” This fall, Sherry-Lehmann’s wine catalog will feature its first section devoted solely to Greek wines.

That excitement may well be a direct payoff of Greece’s recent turbulence. While Gramercy Tavern has been serving Greek wines for more than 14 years, Pope says, “Greece is now on everyone’s mind, so whether people are ordering it to support Greece or not, some people are more inclined to give Greek wines a shot.” Says Sohm, “You have to hand-sell these wines, unlike a California Chardonnay or Veuve Clicquot Champagne. But that’s what makes it fun.”

And in many cases, customers who go Greek often are willing to taste more – and spend more – in their search to savor something new.

“It used to be difficult to sell a Greek wine that was more than $100,” says Psilakis. “But when you compare what’s in these bottles to a French or Italian wine for the same money, you’re getting significant quality and value.” Psilakis says these days he serves Greek wines ranging from $25 to $250 a bottle.

Connoisseurs say Greek wines are generally meant to be consumed young. This means, among other things, that the velvety, well-cellared taste one would expect from an aged French Burgundy is out of the question.

But that doesn’t mean Greek vintages aren’t poised to enter the pantheon of world-class wines someday. “As they get more sophisticated,” adds Adams, “I wouldn’t be surprised to see an even higher level of quality -- and higher prices to match.”