Hargrave Column: A wine revolution ignites in Greece

Oenologist Ioanna Vamakouri in the Boukari vineyard on Santorini, where vines are trained on the ground in a basket pattern. (Credit: Louisa Hargrave)

Oenologist Ioanna Vamakouri in the Boukari vineyard on Santorini, where vines are trained on the ground in a basket pattern. (Credit: Louisa Hargrave)

In my last column, I wrote about the fragility of agriculture on the East End and the efforts of a group of Long Island vintners to create a certified protocol for sustainable farming.

Admirable as it is, sustainability comes at a cost. Compost is more expensive than conventional fertilizer. Cultivating by hand or by tractor is more expensive than spraying an herbicide like Roundup.

While our vintners wonder if consumers will support sustainable or organic practices, in Greece, where I recently spent a week exploring the roots and realities of Greek wines, winemakers have an even bigger concern.

They must change centuries of outmoded practices. Who drinks retsina? Zorba? In today’s wine revolution, Greek winemakers are producing absolutely brilliant wines made with state-of-the-art techniques in new winery facilities. They have planted French grape varieties like chardonnay and merlot to gain acceptance in the international market. These French grapes are the Trojan horse of Greece’s new vintners.

Having had some success with international grape varieties, Greeks are returning to their own indigenous grape varieties. Assyrtiko, moschofilero, xinomavro, mavrodaphne — these have been around since the Bronze Age, but they must be reinvented for the modern consumer.

In preparation for my visit to Greece, I read “The Iliad,” Homer’s saga of the Trojan wars (circa 1185 B.C.), and Henry Miller’s 1939 paean to Greece, “The Colossus of Maroussi.” Relevant to both accounts are the breathtakingly beautiful hills of Nemea and the Argolid plains, where I explored Mycenae’s ruins, now overlooking meticulously planted new vineyards. Zeus, Athena, Aphrodite and Apollo were still up in the vast and stormy sky, arguing among themselves over the fates of Achilles, Agamemnon, Hector and Helen.

In “The Iliad,” Achilles always splashes a little wine on the ground in sacrifice to the gods before drinking his own portion in preparation for battle. Archaeological research suggests that these wines were flavored, not with resin, which came later, but with herbs like narcotic rue, milk, honey, fermented barley and grated cheese. The new emphasis on indigenous grapes will probably not revert this far, but will take a fresh look at the sort of wine applauded by Henry Miller, who reveled in mavrodaphne, saying, “It slips down like molten glass, firing the veins with a heavy red fluid which expands the heart and the mind. One is heavy and light at the same time; one feels as nimble as the antelope and yet powerless to move … above all it makes the heart glow.”

Alluring as this sounds, I found that for today’s Greek vintners, the goal is to apply modern techniques yielding more delicacy and less anesthesia.

I got a hint of the quality of new Greek wines at Cucina Povera, a casual Athens restaurant popular for its internationally savvy wine list, locavore comfort food and attentive service The owner/sommelier, Yiannis Kaimenakis, prepared me a spectacularly stimulating series of wine-food pairings, including an exquisitely dynamic, textured and aromatic Macedonian moschofilero with crusted wild greens; a spicy, tannic but balanced xinomavro from Naoussa with mushroom ravioli; and a fascinating, intensely sweet, red mandelaria with bitter chocolate profiteroles.

Flying on to the volcanic Greek island of Santorini, I saw the Greek wine revolution being played out as growers adapt vines with a history from the 16th century B.C. (400 years before the Trojan War). With an average of only 250 millimeters of rain per year, persistent winds and intense sunshine, Santorini’s acidic, phenolic white grape, assyrtiko, struggles to survive, pruned in a unique basket shape, rooted in deep volcanic soils and watered almost entirely by fog.

Traditionally, Santorini’s wines have been heavily oxidized and highly alcoholic. But in 1989, Boutari, Greece’s most prominent wine company, saw potential for a radically new style of assyrtiko. By picking the vines three weeks earlier than usual, Boutari (and others who followed suit) have made intricately textured, delightfully aromatic and refreshingly bone-dry wines. Boutari’s French-trained oenologist, Ioanna Vamakouri, told me that Santorini’s old-time growers had difficulty understanding why Boutari would sacrifice alcohol content and reduce yield to make these more delicate wines until they realized that, by marketing the modern style of assyrtiko internationally, Boutari could pay them twice what they earned just two years ago.

As much as Boutari wants to add organic protocols to its new vines, the cost is not yet supported by the marketplace. Competition with developers for the island’s land and a local workforce that would rather serve in restaurants than tend grapevines adds extra pressure to the Greek wine paradigm.

Sound familiar?

Ms. Hargrave was a founder of the Long Island wine industry in 1973. She is currently a freelance writer and consultant.