Beyond Retsina


Around the pool, well-dressed people came and went, sampling wine and cheese. Last Wednesday was a perfect day for a wine tasting in Benedict Canyon, mild and overcast; terrific view of the hilly part of Beverly Hills, too.

But the cheeses were feta and kashkaval, the music came from a bouzouki player and the wines--a total of about 80--were all Greek. This was the first Greek wine trade show ever held in this country.

The wine sippers--mostly restaurateurs, Greek foodies and wine fanciers--were guests of Christos P. Panagopoulos, the Hellenic Republic's consul general in L.A. The point of this event at the consul's home was to bring attention to the great strides Greek wine has made in the past 30 years.

Back in the '60s, most Greek wine was still flavored with pine resin and sold straight from the barrel. Greece is the 11th largest wine producer in the world but it was the only European wine-making country with no tradition of bottling fine wines. Today, only about a third of Greek wine is still made into retsina, and a new generation of oenology school graduates has changed the expectations of the Greek public.

The impetus for the change, we found as we strolled and sipped in Beverly Hills, came not just from boutique wineries (of which there were few at the time), but largely from the big established companies Achaia-Clauss, Boutari, Tsantalis and Kourtakis. At their urging, the Greek government produced a wine classification along French lines early in the '70s.

So far, this story has a certain familiarity--the French model dominates in a lot of ambitious wine-making areas, notably California. What makes Greece unique is that it hasn't gone wild for the French grape varieties. Cabernet, Chardonnay and other French grapes are grown in Greece, but they account for only 10% of the production. Greece is still loyal to its estimated 350 local grape varieties. When they use French grapes, Greek winemakers are likely to blend them with local varieties, whose names we'll probably be hearing more of.

In the south of the country, for instance, the leading red grape is Agiorgitiko (pronounced eye-or-YEET-iko: it's also called St. George, which is what the Greek name means). It has an attractive black currant and pomegranate flavor. Achaia-Clauss was showing off two St. George wines from the same general area, Danielis and Nemea, from low- and high-altitude vineyards, respectively.

In the north, the prestige grape of Macedonia is Xinomavro, which literally means "sour-black." (When pronounced with a Greek accent, by the way, "Xinomavro" can sound misleadingly like "Sonoma.") It's a spicy grape with an aftertaste of black olives. Boutari had a straight '95 Xinomavro from Naoussa (light and very easy to drink), a Grand Reserve of the same wine (more powerful) and what you'd have to call a Super-Macedonian--a Xinomavro-Merlot blend with a label giving exhaustive oenophile information on the vines and harvest.

On the other side of the pool from the giant wineries' tables were scores of boutique wines. For instance, there was Katogi Averoff's blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Agiorgitiko, which was the first premium wine to become a hit in Greece in the '70s. It had an attractive, honeyed Cabernet nose. By contrast, a wine from G. Skouras called '95 Megas Oenos used much the same grapes for a big, tannic wine with a truly bold profile.

From Macedonia, the modern showcase winery Domaine Constantine Lazaridi had several wines under the brand name Amethystos (which happens to mean "not drunken" in Greek), including '96 Red of Drama, a Cabernet-Limnio blend with an impressive tarry finish. Nearly all the Greek red wines had hairy-chested berry-like flavors.

The white wines were even more distinctive than the reds. Several, such as Roditis and particularly Asyrtiko, had wildly sweet bouquets reminiscent of litchi nuts or Juicy Fruit gum--like ultra-exotic Gewurztraminers. The '97 Santorini Asyrtiko was as pale as mineral water, but shockingly mouth-filling and aromatic. So this was what was going on under that pine resin all these years.

Greek wine trade shows are also relatively new in Greece itself. This week, the fourth Oinorama is being held in Athens (Thursday through Sunday at the Olympic Stadium). Oinorama has a Web site, by the way:

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