Greece has been producing wine for 6,500 years, with at least 200 varietals coming out of the country today. And yet most wine drinkers don't know the Roditis grape from the Moschofilero.
But Greek wines are increasingly moving into the mainstream here and around the country. The most recent figures show exports to the U.S. up 39 percent over the last five years.
"Popularity is growing slowly but surely," says Mark Squires, wine reviewer for Robert Parker's Wine Advocate who writes frequently about Greek wine. "The industry is still in many respects young, despite the vast age of Greece. The producing regions are fairly new. Consider a grape like Robola, and there are all of two famous producers making wine with it."
At Estia, the popular Greek restaurant with locations in Center City and the suburbs, beverage director Neil Ross has made Greek wine a mission of sorts. Over the last year, he has devoted serious study to the subject, traveling to Greece to meet winemakers and building up the restaurant's wine list in all three locations (Center City, Radnor, Marlton) to reflect the diversity of Greek grapes.
"Before I learned more about Greek wine, I was under the impression that Greeks only did whites well, but there was no real basis for that observation. I went to Greece and came back knowing that it was good - all of it." There are now 25 bottles on offer at Estia's Center City location.
And he is not the only Hellenic wine lover in the region spreading the word about these vintages.
At Midtown Village restaurant Opa, for instance, the 80 percent Greek wine list could give an interested drinker a well-rounded overview.
"We do also serve some wines from elsewhere that might be more familiar to our customers," owner George Tsiouris says. "Our hope is that by offering great Greek wines, we can expose more people to them. As it is, most people are coming in with limited knowledge."
Maybe it's a marketing issue - simply a question of awareness and accessibility. After all, as Tsiouris points out, Greek yogurt was unknown to many Americans a couple of decades ago. "Greeks have been eating yogurt forever, but ask an American in the '90s and they probably wouldn't even try it. Now there's Greek-yogurt everything."
Experts agree Greek wine production has gotten noteworthy only in the last three decades or so.
Local wine author and consulting sommelier Marnie Old believes the increased interest in Greek wines reflects wine industry trends.
"Where baby boomers still prefer the safety of renowned grapes and wine regions, younger wine drinkers are much more interested in wines from places and grapes they've never tried before," she says. "In a boon for Greece, millennials also seem to see unpronounceable names as a badge of authenticity."
Also, importers of European wines have already tapped the low-hanging fruit from larger producers like France, Italy, and Spain, she said, "so it's only natural that we're seeing them pivot now to second-tier European Union wine nations like Greece and Portugal to find flavorful new wines at affordable prices."
Though cities with larger Greek populations, such as New York and Chicago, may have wider selections of Greek wine in their stores, it doesn't yet merit a designated shelf in Pennsylvania's Fine Wine & Good Spirits stores. Though with changing laws in the state, the landscape is about to open up dramatically.
South Street's Jet Wine Bar has kept at least one or two Greek wines available by the glass since its opening. "You get great quality for the money with Greek wines," owner Jill Weber says. "You can count on finding a reliably interesting bottle for 10 to 15 dollars, and I am drawn to the amazing amount of history associated with Greek culture. "
One of her favorites among Greek white varietals is Assyrtiko. The grape, grown on Santorini, has a saline, mineral quality. She likes to pair Assyrtiko with kebabs, salad, chicken, and fish.
Gai'a's Thalassitis is a good example of Assyrtiko's vaguely salty flavors, and Ross compares it to Riesling for its aging potential. But this complex white can also hold its own with lamb and with fried foods.
Greek cuisine is dominated by seafood and vegetables made with salt and acidity rather than sugar or fat, and Greek wines have evolved to flatter those ingredients, sommelier Old says. "The result is lighter, brighter wines that are lower in alcohol, higher in acidity, and considerably drier than the norm, whether they're red or white. The closest comparison is to Italian wines, stylistically."
On the red side, Agiorghitiko (eye-yor-YEE-tee-koh), or St. George's grape, is a delicious black-cherry-like grape easily overlooked perhaps because of the intimidating-looking name. Though millennials may perceive it as authentic, that doesn't make it any easier to remember. "One of our challenges about selling Greek wine is that people can't pronounce it. But sauvignon blanc is not an easy thing to say, either, so I have hope," Ross says.
By planning events like a Greek wine dinner scheduled for October, Ross hopes to open up more minds and palates to these intriguing and highly drinkable selections. "We need to let people know that European wine is not just Spain, France, Italy, and Germany. Greece has its rightful place."
Says Squires: "No one can have any doubt there are terrific grapes, great makers, and wonderful wines. I think it's a wine destination just waiting to be explored."
Makes 2 servings
2 black mission figs, halved
Salt and pepper to taste
2 pieces toasted Dako rusks or toasted baguette slices (see note)
2 tablespoons goat cheese, brought to room temperature and whipped
2 teaspoons honey, preferably Greek
1 teaspoon microgreens
1. Brush figs with olive oil, season with salt and pepper, then grill until marked and softened.
2. Spread goat cheese on rusks or toasts. Place figs on top of goat cheese. Drizzle with honey.
3. Garnish with 3-4 microgreen leaves and serve immediately.
Note: Dako rusks are twice-baked barley breads available in Green delis and bakeries.
- From chef Bobby Saritsoglou of Opa
Per serving: 245 calories, 9 grams protein, 36 grams carbohydrates, 16 grams sugar, 8 grams fat, 15 milligrams cholesterol, 259 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.EndText
Makes 6-8 servings
1/4 cup diced red onion
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup flat-leaf parsley, chopped, plus more for garnish
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 tablespoons olive oil
42 grape leaves
12 ounces ground beef
12 ounces ground pork
1/4 cup panko bread crumbs
2 eggs, beaten
1/4 cup half and half
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons crushed walnuts, for garnish
1. Puree onions, garlic, parsley, cinnamon, and 2 tablespoons olive oil together until a smooth paste forms.
2. In a bowl, combine paste with ground meats, panko, eggs, and half and half. Season to taste with salt and pepper and mix until thoroughly incorporated.
3. Wrap 1-2 tablespoons of mixture (depending on the size of the leaf) in each grape leaf, then roll into mini-cylinder shape, tucking in the sides like spring rolls or burritos. Grill over medium-high heat until brown and crispy.
4. Garnish with crushed walnuts, parsley, and additional olive oil.
Greek wine to pair with: Skouras 2013 St. George Aghioritiko
- From chef Bobby Saritsoglou of Opa
Per serving (based on 8): 239 calories, 27 grams protein, 8 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams sugar, 11 grams fat, 113 milligrams cholesterol, 172 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.EndText
Makes 4 servings
4 7-ounce Chilean sea bass fillets
Salt and pepper
1 pound onions, halved and thinly sliced
1 green pepper, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup diced carrot
1 Idaho potato, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
28-ounce can chopped tomatoes with juice
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/2 cup fish stock or clam juice
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon capers
1 teaspoon thyme leaves
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Season fish with salt and pepper. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in an oven-safe pan. Add fish to pan and sear on both sides, about 1 minute per side. Remove fish from pan and set aside.
2. Add onions and peppers to the pan and cook over medium heat until onions are softened and golden, 8-10 minutes. Add garlic to pan and stir for about 30 seconds, until fragrant. Add carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, tomato paste, stock, sugar, and cinnamon and stir to combine. Bring to a simmer, stirring and scraping up any fish remnants, then lower heat to a slow simmer and allow to cook for 30 minutes. Stir in thyme and capers and season to taste with salt and pepper.
3. Return fish fillets to the pan, covering them with sauce and vegetables. Transfer pan to oven and cook until fish flakes with a fork, about 30 minutes.
Greek wine to pair with the dish: Gai'a's 2015 Agiorghitiko 14-18 rosé
- Adapted from Estia