Greece – the mountainous, Mediterranean country in the sun-drenched south-east of Europe – is often considered the birthplace of civilization. Archaeological evidence suggests that wine has been made in some parts of Greece for more than 4,000 years, and wine references in Homer's Iliad and Odyssey confirm that viniculture was prevalent here by the 8th Century BC. Wine's importance is also evident in Greek mythology; Dionysus (the Greek god of wine) appears in legends from every part of Greece, from the plains of Attica to the Aegean island of Chios.
From the 4th century onwards Greece's tumultuous history meant that winemaking did not flourish as it did in neighboring Italy. As a result, Greece's importance in the modern wine world is far less than one might assume, given its early success. In the late 20th Century, however, Greek winemaking showed signs of revitalization, supported by modern winemaking techniques and a generation of motivated, quality-focused producers.
The modern face of Greek wine combines the traditional with the modern. Native Greek grape varieties such as Assyrtico, Agiorgitiko and Xynomavro are found alongside such famous international (French) varieties as Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. The portfolio of 21st-Century Greek wine includes everything from fresh, citrus-scented whites and sparkling rosé to lusciously sweet reds.
Geographically speaking, Greece consists of its mainland and numerous islands. The Greek mainland covers the southern edge of the Balkan Peninsula, jutting into the Mediterranean Sea between southern Italy and Turkey. It is flanked to the east and west by the Aegean and Ionian seas respectively. This has a strong influence on the country's various mesoclimates; the islands and extensive coastline bring a maritime influence to the otherwise Mediterranean climate, and there are even hints of continentality in mountainous far north, along the borders with Albania, Macedonia and Bulgaria. The Greek landscapes vary from rugged mountains and lush river valleys to flat coastal plains and tiny, barely inhabited islands.
Viticulture can be found in virtually every corner of Greece, although its scale differs significantly from region to region. The preferred styles also vary considerably. While the north-west (Greek Macedonia) favors rich, tannic wines made from Xynomavro, the Peloponnese Peninsula in the south complements its Agiorgitiko-based reds with fresh, highly acidic whites made from Moschofilero. The Aegean Islands are internationally famous for the dry Assyrtico-based wines of Santorini and the sweet Muscat-based wines made on Rhodes, Samos and Limnos.
No description of Greek wine would be complete without reference to Retsina. This distinctively Greek, resinated wine style is said to have developed when pine resin was used as an airtight sealant for wine storage vessels. Today, Retsina is made by choice rather than necessity, through the addition of pine resin during fermentation. Modern-day Retsina wines, most of which come from Attica, are typically based on Savatiano, although Roditis and Assyrtico are also used by some producers.
Retsina serves as a link to the past, a reminder of how important Greece was in the development of European wine culture (even the Romans prized Greek wine above their own, as evidenced in the prices realized for Greek imports). Below is a brief overview of Greek wine history from the Middle Ages until the modern day.
The Malvasia trade of the Middle Ages (involving a complex set of grape varieties named after the Peloponnese area of Monemvasia) was a golden age for the Greek wine industry, with its wine becoming a major export to Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). Monasteries were granted tax exemptions and frequently gave land to the industry, setting it up for a period of viticultural dominance that would last until the arrival of the Ottoman Turks.
From the 15th Century, much of Greece was ruled by the Ottomans, whose Muslim religion forbade the consumption of wine. This meant an era of downturn for Greek wine production; vineyards were ripped out, banned, forgotten or planted to more lucrative crops such as raisins. Some remained, but the Ottoman rulers imposed heavy taxes on Greek Orthodox wine production. This period is often cited as the reason that Greece's wine industry is not as well developed as those of France or Italy, despite its long history.
The Greek War of Independence from 1821 to 1832 plunged the country into turmoil, and winegrowing did not resume until well into the later 19th Century. During this time, the phylloxera crisis in the vineyards of Western Europe turned attention to Greek wines, and the country saw a surge in viticultural activity. Unfortunately, the two World Wars and Greece's own phylloxera blight proved devastating to the country's wine industry in the mid-20th Century.
It was during the 1960s that the industry began to pick up and modern winemaking techniques and technologies were employed by Greek wine producers. In 1971, an appellation system was introduced to mimic the great wine regimes of France and Italy and to prepare Greece for entry into the European Union.
Regions of historical significance were among the first to be granted appellation status, with conditions imposed on the varieties to be used and often on the altitudes required for cultivation. The Onomasia Proelefseos Anoteras Piotitos (OPAP) and Onomasia Proelefseos Eleghomeni (OPE) are the two principal designations for quality wine in Greece, covering dry and sweet wines respectively. At the lower level, the PGI-level Topikos Inos (local/country wine) and Epitrapezios Inos (table wine) cover a larger amount of Greek terrain and a wide array of wine styles and grape varieties.
The early 21st Century has been a tumultuous time for Greece, with political instability and an enormous debt crisis threatening the entire economy of Europe. However, heavy-set red wines made from Agiorgitiko and Xynomavro showcase the potential of Greece’s indigenous grapes, while the regions of Naousa, Nemea, Mantinia, Samos and Santorini continue to provide a benchmark for the rest of the country to aspire to. The future remains uncertain for this wine-growing nation that has traditionally relied on grape-growing co-operatives.