Greek Islands

The islands of the Aegean and Ionian seas are both home to ancient histories of winegrowing and experiencing a revival that’s extraordinarily recent. This is one of those classes I give not out of any particular expertise but because I’ve stumbled over a bunch of interesting wines that I can’t place, and I want to figure out how they fit together.

Start seeking out them out, and you’ll find a bewildering array of placenames, tiny rocks in the sea growing varieties that sound totally unfamiliar: vostadili and tsaousi, malagousia or mandilaria, athiri and aidani and koumari and rozaki, both mavrotragano and mavrodaphne, and a dozen moschatos, all with different island surnames…

Encoded in this diversity are a two thousand year-old genetic record of which grapevines were propagated and what qualities were prized. The red grapes often remind me of varieties in the Republic of Georgia like saperavi, thick-skinned and extravagantly loaded with pigment, highly tannic and acidic, capable of producing wines that remain deep red even with dilution. (Mavro means ‘black’.)

Other sprawling families, like muscat (unrelated varieties carried around the world and named for their perfume), or malvasia (unrelated varieties whose name comes from a port city and spread throughout the Mediterranean on the back of their ability to attain high sugars and create prized, sun-baked sweet wines) are testaments to what premodern wine needed in order to survive sea voyages: preservation via sun-drying or amphoras sealed with pine resin, wines that would have been fortified or sweet or diluted with sea water or mixed with herbs.

Some of the patterns are owed to deep time: the limestone islands of the Ionian Sea, where the prevailing winds are circular and mild, the sea a lighter blue, are a world away the volcanic rocks of the Aegean, jutting out from wine-dark waters and battered by the extremes on hot sun and cold north winds.

These islands have seen cataclysm both political and geological, which is why, despite a long history of wine, they are in some senses always being remade. Santorini was torn into a broken crescent by a volcanic eruption in 1600 B.C. that doomed the Minoans, and it’s never looked the same since. In 1953, an earthquake on Cephalonia destroyed 9/10s of the island’s structures.

Even more than the Greek mainland, which achieved independence from the Ottoman Empire in a war that began in 1821 and took over a decade to finish, the islands could be political pawns: Venice administered the Ionian islands for 400 years (and imported both wine and lots and lots of raisins) until ceding them to Napoleonic France in 1797. In the Aegean, the Ottomans played the Great Game with Russia and Britain, who were interested in using the islands for naval bases. Lemnos and Samos only became part of Greece in 1912.

A little bit like Spain, our access to and appreciation of Greek wine is shaped by dictatorship that followed civil war and a restored monarchy. How and whether it’s exported and packaged is inseparable from decades of financial crisis and rural poverty. The living wines emerging today are a bearers, and survivors, of that history.

Class was on Wednesday, January 13. These were the wines:

How you might see it on a wine list
Sarris, Robola of Cephalonia, Ionian Sea, Greece

Who made it? Panos Sarris (sommelier who returned to the island from Athens to run a restaurant and eventually started making wine around 2012)
Out of what? 50 year-old dry-farmed robola on limestone.
Made how? Part foot-stomped and left on the skins for 3 days, part direct press, aged in a mix of tank and old barrel and bottled without filtration. 
What’s robola? Native to the Ionian islands and especially celebrated from Cephalonia. “Fresh, lightly aromatic, and citrus flavored” wines, says Jancis, that can be quite powerful and prone to a bit of oxidation due to low natural acidity. 

How you might see it on a wine list
Garalis, muscat, “Terra Ambera”, Lemnos, Aegean Sea, Greece

Who made it? Manolis Garalis (first vintage 2006)
Out of what? Dry-farmed, certified organic muscat of Alexandria on volcanic soils.
Made how? Part foot-stomped and left on the skins for 3 days, part direct press, aged in a mix of tank and old barrel and bottled without filtration. 
What’s muscat? A two thousand year old name (Persian muchk, Greek moskos) for the fragrance obtained from the gland of the male musk deer, given to over 200 distinct white, pinkish, or black-berried varieties, all of which share a strong, perfumed aromatic profile. Muscat of Alexandria is an ancient natural cross between muscat blanc à petits grains (small-berried muscat) and a Greek black table grape grown on the islands of the Aegean, in Sardinia, and Malta. Famous in Lemnos, used to make dried grape wines, known in Sicily as zibbibo and in South America (where it’s been grown since the 15oos) as moscatel.

How you might see it on a wine list
Garalis, muscat, “Terra Ambera”, Lemnos, Aegean Sea, Greece

Who made it? Vasilis, Dionysis & Maria Papanikolopoulos (first vintage 1994)
Out of what? Certified organic vertzami planted in 1988 on rocky limestone
Made how? Fermented in steel tank with native yeasts, aged in old barrel for a year and a half, bottled unfiltered with 48mg/L sulfur. 
What’s vertzami? Deeply colored, highly tannic & acidic; 90% of the vineyards in Lefkada are planted to it. Also found in Crete and the western Peloponnese.

Some things to think about as you taste:

Rocks The Ionian islands are built of limestone; the Aegean, volcanic. Do you feel a difference in the shape of the wines, their acidity and astringency, their density or freshness?

Aromatics Many of these varieties are wildly aromatic — some honeyed and floral, others herbal or smoky. Are the aromatics on the nose different than the way the wine behaves on the palate? Do they change with time?

Food Many of these wines feel inseparable from their place at the table. How does pairing them with a variety of foods change your perception of them? What makes them taste better, and what foods to they get along well with?

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