Liquids: Greek Wines

Her name was Vasilia, but my hormone-crazed high school buddies and I called her “Darling Viki,” a reference to Prince’s smutty Purple Rain–era ballad “Darling Nikki.” Viki and I took a shine to each other one day in art class, after which we made out in the stairwell.

I remember running home to call her, and when I did her mother grabbed the phone and read me the riot act: “You pretend Vasilia is Medusa—you understand me?—and you never look at her again!” Apparently, Viki’s parents had promised her hand to another man. And that was the end of that.

But with the Olympics upon us this month, I find myself thinking about Viki again, and of her family’s pied-à-terre in Athens. Think about it: I could be at the Olympics right now. Alas, that was 20 years ago, and I have not seen Viki since. When I permit myself to wonder how she’s fared in all that time, I can only hope she’s done as well as the wines of her homeland.

Which is to say that the wines of Greece have made amazing strides, especially in the last decade, and are finally getting international recognition and respect. Of course, this sounds ridiculous if you consider that Greece has been making wine for, oh, 6,000 years. Despite the fact that, in antiquity, Greek traders and colonists pollinated the entire Mediterranean with their wine culture, most wine drinkers today dismiss Greek wine as little more than thin, bitter reds or pine-scented white retsinas.

The language barrier doesn’t help either, when you’re talking about words like “xynomavro” on a wine list (read on). But when Greece entered the European Community in 1981, it embarked on a campaign to sort out its wines and bring them up to EU standards. Since winning the bid to host this month’s Olympic Games, Greece seems to have gone into overdrive to present its wines alongside the world’s athletes. So why not celebrate the Wine Olympics while we’re at it?

First, let’s consider the team and its stats. According to Wine for Dummies, Greece today ranks 13th in the world in wine production. “But quantity isn’t the real news; quality is,” write authors Mary Ewing-Mulligan and Ed McCarthy. “Many Greek wines today are top quality, especially the wines of small, independent wineries, and they make it worth your effort to discover them.”

Discovering them will mean quickly familiarizing ourselves with the players. First, look for these three regions on labels as guides to quality: Macedonia, in northernmost Greece, which produces a spicy red called Naoussa; the Peleponnese, a peninsula in the south, home to dry whites like Patras and Mantinia; and Crete, which produces both whites and reds, some labeled with names of varietals, some simply carrying the appellation “Crete.”

Whites to know include assyrtiko (ahs-SEER-tee-koh), used to make Santorini; rhoditis, used to make Patras white; and savatiano, a grape grown throughout the country. Red grapes to remember include aghiorghitiko (aye-your-YEE-tee-koh), used to make a wine called Nemea, and xynomavro (zee-NO-mah-vro).

As far as which foods to match with these wines, the Greeks would be the last to espouse a formal set of rules. All you need to do, as far as they’re concerned, is explore the cuisine and let your palate be your guide. If you still need specific pairing suggestions, take some advice from Fotios Stamos, general manager and wine director at Mezé Estiatorio in Charlestown. With dishes like moussaka, he recommends a medium-bodied red like the Voyiatzis, and with meats like wood-grilled beef tenderloin, he likes Karipidis’s deep cherry-flavored merlot.

If your neighborhood wine shop stocks Greek wines, chances are that someone there will be able to help you navigate the selections. Or you could let Fotios help you out. His wine list at Mezé is almost entirely Greek, but he divides it among wines imported from Greece, Italian wines produced from ancient Greek varietals, and domestic wines produced by Greek-American-owned vineyards, such as Duck Walk in the Hamptons, owned and operated by physician turned vintner Herodotus “Dan” Damianos and his two sons.

Dr. Dan hasn’t mentioned anything about a daughter. And thanks to my failed courtship of darling Viki all those years ago, I know better than to ask.