WHAT: There might never be a better time to try Greek wines than right now.
Quality is high, prices are low, and the industry is making a major push to educate North Americans about Greek wine.
You might not know an Assyrtiko (pronounced a SEER tee ko) from a Savatiano, but you will like both grapes, and in the coming months you are likely to learn a lot more about them.
“We will see more and more of these wines because the distribution is getting better,” said Sofia Perpera during a telephone interview from Greece. She is director of the Greek Wine Bureau-North America.
Wine has been made in Greece for centuries, but the real quality evolution occurred in the 1980s and 1990s.
“It is amazing what has happened in a decade,” Perpera said. “There has been a Greek wine Renaissance. Sommeliers have really embraced Greek wines because they are very food friendly and affordable.
“And Santorini is leading the way.”
Greek wine sales in the United States are up more than 30 percent in just a few years, and several large American companies have started importing Greek wines. Economic problems in Greece have made it difficult for winemakers, and some vineyards were abandoned. But the industry has rebounded with vigor.
“Winemakers are having lots of fun,” Perpera said. “They’re trying new things.”
The Domaine Sigalas Assyrtiko-Athiri blend is a traditional Santorini wine and a great example of what the Greeks are doing. It is unlike anything I have had before, and that’s what the Greeks like about their wine.
“The main thing for us on the world market is we have something unique to offer,” Perpera said. “Around the world, quality is taken for granted. Uniqueness matters now.”
This is a wonderful marriage of two grapes indigenous to Santorini.
In the glass, the wine is yellow with green tints. Floral and citrus aromas lead to an intense flavor. Athiri adds the aroma, while the intense flavors are typical of the Assyritiko grape. Refreshing acidity and a mineral aftertaste come from the volcanic soil found throughout the island.
The vines are more than 50 years old and trained in basket shapes to protect the grapes from intense wind. In most of the world vines are grown up along a trellis or as “head-trained” bushes to get maximum sun to the grapes.
The juice undergoes fermentation and aging in stainless steel tanks under controlled temperatures.
Athiri has a lemony character and is often blended with other grapes. The Assyrtiko is used to make crisp, dry wines similar in style to dry Riesling, and often is blended.
Greece has a warm climate and it is surrounded by water, so there are many ideal locations for growing grapes. About 60 percent of their production is white wines. Perpera also said excellent dry rosé is made throughout Greece.
“The climate is subtle,” she said. “We don’t see extremes in temperatures. We get sea breezes in summer. In winter it never gets really, really cold. We make very good seafood wines with great acidity.”
She said most Greek wines are made to go with food, and rarely exceed 13 percent in alcohol. More than 300 varietals have been discovered in Greece, with about 60 still used in production today.
“Greek wines are still not so well known, so they still have a great price to quality ratio compared to better known wines,” Perpera said.
Greek wine production will continue to grow, but that growth will be slowed by European Union rules restricting new plantings to no more than one percent of existing vineyards.
WINERY: Founded in 1991 by Paris Sigalas, Christos Markozane and Yiannis Toundas, Domaine Sigalas wines started in the converted family home. A new production plant for crushing, fermentation, bottling and aging was built in 1998 in a privately owned area of Oia, on the northern part of Santorini.
Sigalas grows Assyrtiko, Aidani, Athiri, Mandilaria and Mavrotragano varietals in vineyards near the village of Oia, which with more than 3,000 years are considered the oldest continuously cultivated vineyards in the world.
Mild winters, cool summer and volcanic soil create a unique terroir for the grapes, unlike anywhere else. Santorini is dry, so irrigation is permitted post-veraison, and the vines are limited to four bunches of grapes each. Yields are low, but quality is high.
The company produces 250,000 bottles of wine a year, with the capacity to grow. Their philosophy is to blend tradition with modern technology.
Sigalas offers winery tours and tastings in Oia. Visitors can sample local foods while sitting outside and gazing at the blue Aegean Sea. It sounds like an idyllic setting.
GOES WITH: Most Greek white wines are great with seafood, so I decided to see how the Domaine Sigalas Aa would pair with chicken. It was outstanding.
I made a chicken stir fry that has a little bit of heat, and this wine held up to it really well.
The powerful flavors of the wine were not overpowered by the spiciness of the stir fry and the multiple flavors in the vegetables. I use chicken broth, soy sauce, ginger, red pepper flakes and sherry to flavor the dish, so the wine really needs some body.
The wine also would go well with traditional Greek recipes such as roast chicken and pork, all kinds of seafood, lamb or gyros, as well as with a fruit plate. Serve it chilled.