Byers: Ancient vines make modern wines
Anyone who has traveled to Greece, or simply seen travel posters, can easily picture images of sun-drenched white-washed houses, azure skies and cobalt seas.
But the wines, some people think, wrinkling their noses, are another matter. For many, their only experience with Greek wine has been with Retsina, a peculiar pine resin-scented beverage. Once considered Greece’s national drink and a curiosity for tourists, this odd-tasting wine leaves most with little interest in sampling Greek wines ever again.
“That is unfortunate because there is no more exciting place in the wine world today than Greece,” said Michael Pavlidis, a Greek native who now lives in Grass Valley.
Pavlidis knows. He is the West Coast sales manager for Athenee Imports, the largest, oldest and best importer of quality Greek wines to the United States.
“Right now Greece offers the perfect combination of modern technology matched with ancient varieties, making it unique in the wine world,” Pavlidis said.
There’s no question Greece has a very long wine history, dating back to between 3,000 and 2,000 B.C. While other early civilizations celebrated wine, the ancient Greeks really took it seriously, allocating one of their 12 gods, Dionysus (later Italianized as Bacchus) to supervise the cultivation of vineyards and the merriment of drinking.
The influence of ancient Greece on wine is significant. They pioneered viticulture and winemaking techniques that they exported throughout the Mediterranean to communities in what are now France, Italy, Austria and even Russia.
The Greek historian Thucydides wrote in the fifth century B.C., “The peoples of the Mediterranean began to emerge from barbarism when they learned to cultivate the olive and the vine.”
As early as the fourth century B.C., Greek innovations included the study of vineyard soils and their proper match to specific grapevines, the minimization of yields for more intense concentration of flavors and quality and the practice of using plant cuttings for new vineyard plantings. The Greeks also developed the system of vine training for easier cultivation and harvesting, rather than letting the grapevines grow untrained in bushes or up trees.
The Greeks also recognized the influence of climate and were the first to create their own Appellations of Origin. Their system of different Appellations of Origin was taken very seriously, and strong penalties were imposed on violators in order to ensure the authenticity of their wines.
Other Greek innovations included harvesting deliberately unripe grapes to produce a more acidic wine for blending and boiling grape must as a way of adding sweetness to a wine.
Hippocrates studied wine’s medicinal uses to cure fevers, to ease convalescence and as an antiseptic. Greek doctors prescribed wine as an analgesic, diuretic, tonic and digestive aid.
Pavlidis explained that what really ties ancient Greece to the modern world is that we can actually drink some of the same varieties today. The philosopher, Aristotle, mentions “Limnia Ampelos” meaning the vine from the Greek island Limnos. That is the same as the modern Greek varietal, Limnio, making it the oldest known wine grape still in cultivation.
Other Greek grape varieties, such as Athiri, Aïdani and Dafani, are all surviving examples of ancient Greece.
Wine is so much about “place” that the possibility of drinking the same wine that Aristotle would have enjoyed more than 2000 years ago is simply too cool an opportunity to resist.
With the rise of the Roman Empire, the wine spotlight switched from Greece to Italy. It was a long downhill slide from there. Greece continued to produce and trade in wine, but it was often controlled by outside forces, and there were multi-century rough patches along the way. Greek independence in 1821 left a united but impoverished country, and the first half of the 20th century was no better, marred by wars, including a nasty civil war.
For most of the 20th century, the Greek wine industry produced inexpensive table wines. Finally, as tourists started discovering the beauty of Greece and Aegean Sea in the 1960s, inferior bulk wines and Retsina were what visitors were offered to drink.
“That has changed,” Pavlidis explained. “Recently, the Greek wine industry has undergone enormous improvement with serious investments in modern wine making technology. A new generation of native winemakers is being trained in the best wine schools around the world. Their efforts are paying off as Greek wines are starting to receive the highest awards in international competitions.”
Amy Olsen, a Grass Valley-based special events coordinator and marketing specialist, has been working with Pavlidis to promote Greek wines.
“Kefi is a word the Greeks use that translates to joy of life,” Olsen said. “Part of the excitement is experiencing Greek culture through the wines.”
Championing Greek wines will be challenging. There are countless indigenous varieties with unfamiliar names, like Agiorghitiko or Roditis, with few consumers who know if they are even red or white, much less what flavors to expect.
That’s also what makes Greece so exciting. For any wine drinker with an inquiring palate, this is wide-open territory to explore with adventure lurking in every bottle.
“The wines have similarities that we are used to. Still they are unique,” Olsen said. “They’re different enough to be interesting yet familiar enough to be approachable.”
Pavlidis summed it up, saying, “Greek people are very proud of their history, about philosophy, democracy, theatre and arts, so keeping indigenous varieties alive is just part of the kefi, the vibrancy of our Greek culture.”
Rod Byers, CWE, is a Certified Wine Educator and wine writer as well as a California State Certified Wine Judge. You can find information about his upcoming series of Sierra College Kaleidoscope Wine Classes starting in February at http://www.pinehillwineworks.com and he can be reached at (530) 913-3703.
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