Greek wine is on a surge of popularity in the UK right now – sommeliers can’t get enough, it seems, of Assyrtiko, Xinomavro, Mavrodaphne, Malagousia, Moschofiliero and Agiorgitiko – in many cases quite literally. There is a shortage in supply of quality Greek wine in the UK, writes Justin Keay, with most large importers not yet on the bandwagon. There are a couple of exceptions with Cava Spiliadis being the most notable. At its second UK tasting, this New York-based importer showed over 100 quality wines with the least well known being the most popular.
Although Cava Spiliadis is mainly focussed on Greek wines, it also represents producers from Lebanon, Italy, Spain and other Mediterranean countries.
It was at Liberty Wines’ annual tasting back in January that I realised I was far from alone in my appreciation of Greek wine. Over lunch, I found myself sitting next to Brett Woonton, co-founder of Vinoteca, and asked him what was trending at his mega fashionable wine bars.
“The biggest thing right now, without a doubt, is Greek wine. People really love it. The problem is that we just can’t get enough of it,” he said, adding that white Assyrtiko and red Xinomavro are the go-to varieties.
One reason, of course, is that the ongoing Greek wine renaissance has been led mainly by small producers, many producing under 500,000 bottles, some well under 100,000. For reasons both of scale and profitability, their inclination has been to stay focused on the domestic market, particularly island producers; why try and compete in the crowded, mega-competitive UK market when you can sell what are often quite pricey wines to appreciative tourists keen to taste the real Greece?
The other reason is that although Hallgarten&Novum Wines has an impressive and extensive range and Berkmann has also gotten in on the act, adding two producers last year, many big importers – including Liberty – haven’t yet caught the Greek wine wave. This has left restaurateurs searching around, and consumers at something of a loss.
Which makes the arrival of Cava Spiliadis on these windy, Brexit-battered shores very timely. The New York-based importer was established by George Spiliadis in 2007 expressly focused on high end Greek wine, but has since branched out to include rare varieties and small volume, quality producers from other mainly European producers.
Spiliadis had its first London tasting last year, which I missed. I popped into its second annual UK tasting in late January at the swanky Estiatoris Milos restaurant in Regent Street, expecting maybe 30/40 wines. I found over 100, the majority Greek and most very good indeed, judging by the appreciative tasting and spitting I witnessed.
“The trade has been incredibly responsive, especially to our less common selections,” says sales director Andreas Zinelis. “Many of our least known wines have turned out to be some of the most popular. Producers from Greece such as Parparoussis and Tselepos, Vouni Panayia from Cyprus, Sept from Lebanon and Bulfon from Italy were among our least known yet best received wines.”
“Markets such as the UK are beginning to see the quality of Greek wines, and viewing them as quality wines that just so happen to be from Greece. Perceptions have started shifting,” he says.
Cava Spiliadis has been broadening the range, notably to Italy but also Spain and France. The idea, according to Zinelis, is to share the importance of other Mediterranean countries and their historic and viticultural linkages.
“Being able to showcase these wines tells a more complete story of the region. For instance, having Lebanese wines in our portfolio, allows us to highlight the path of grapes brought over by the Phoenicians to Greece and Cyprus and then on to Italy, France, Spain and Portugal. Specialising in the Mediterranean allows us to show what’s unique about it,” he says.
So how were the wines? Out of over 100 wines, here are my Top 10.
Venetsanos (Santorini, Greece) – Nykteri 2018
Pretty much all the Venetsanos wines here were impressive – not least the stunningly rich but just 9.5% Vin Santo 2016 – but if I had to chose two, these would be them (see below). Nykteri is a deliciously balanced blend of 9% Assyrtiko, 3% Aidani and 2% Athiri: wonderful structure, this will evolve magnificently.
Venetsanos (Santorini, Greece) – Liastos 2001.
The Liastos is a red desert wine made with Mandilaria and other native varieties from the island: amazingly rich and seductive.
Petrakopoulos (Cephalonia, Greece) – Mavro 2017
Mavrodaphne, together with Limnio, is one of Greece’s great unsung treasures and this wonderful example – made by winemaker Kiki Siameli using minimal techniques in the tricky terroir in the south of the island – is quite delicious. So too is his white Rebola 2018, a classic take on the Ionian island’s most famous variety.
Gerovassiliou (Macedonia, Greece) – Museum Collection White 2016.
When I visited Gerovassiliou’s winery two years ago, this amazing wine – made from a blend of five local and international white varieties, led by Malagousia, Assyrtiko and Viognier – was only available to buy there. No longer; it and its red counterpart are now available through Cava Spiliadis. Pricey but well worth trying for the sheer depth of expression and the wonderful balance.
Mikra Thira (Santorini, Greece) – Santorini 2018
Together with two other winemakers, Gerovassiliou has just started to make wines with grapes grown on Mikra Thira, the large volcanic rock on the other side of Santorini’s Caldera. This is the less expensive of two wines and is remarkable for its depth of flavour and character. Volcanic wine on steroids.
Tselepos (Peleponnese, Greece) – Amalia Brut NV
If you are looking for a new, attractive style of sparkling wine, look no further: this delicious wine has won several awards and you can see why. Made with 100% Moschofilero grapes by the traditional method, with second fermentation in bottle, it is wonderfully balanced, with brioche and apricot notes, and just the right amount of acidity. Its pink NV counterpart, made with 100% Agiorgitiko, is less appealing but has a great sense of place and is well worth trying.
Canava Chrissou (Santorini, Greece) Santorini Old Vines 2018
Unoaked, with wonderful salinity and great balance, and made with grapes from old vines, this is what all good Assyrtiko should be about.
Jose Piteira (Alentejo, Portugal) Vinho de Talha 2015
Aged for five months in Talha, the Alentejo’s traditional upright terracotta amphora, which here date back to 1826, this is a delicious 50/50 blend of white Roupeiro and the lesser known Diagalves. Winemaker Jose Piteira says the latter variety faced extinction after being widely pulled up after Portugal joined the EU back in 1986; this wine suggests his and other winemakers’ revival of it, was a worthy undertaking.
Emilio Bulfon (Friuli, Italy) – Sciaglin 2018
Sometimes when you taste wines made from revived, near extinct grape varieties, you secretly wonder – Gosh, why bother. Not so with this amazingly floral wine which demonstrates winemaker Lorenzo Bulfon’s skill and verve. His three reds, made from respectively Cianorie, Piculit Neri and Fumat (no, me neither) are also worth trying, demonstrating that Friuli – in this case western Friuli – is right now one of Italy’s most exciting regions.
Sept (Batroun Mountains, Lebanon)– Obeidah 2017
This pretty, delicate wine was made without filtering and no malo; a very appealing take on Lebanon’s best known native variety. The single vineyard Syrah is also very impressive; pricey but bear in mind just 300 bottles were made. Who makes 300 bottles of a wine? Ask winemaker Maher Herb whose winery – adhering to ancient techniques in a little visited part of Lebanon – makes just 19,000 bottles of everything. And all of it good, judging from what I tried.
An impressive range then, reflecting Cava Spiliadis’ pan-Med philosophy, but it was the Greek wines that naturally made the biggest impact.
“They are the new old thing and are here to stay and flourish internationally,” says Zinelis. He says that as winemaking talent keeps growing and the ‘culture of wine’ develops, the knowledge of working with indigenous varieties and the many different terroirs will continue to improve.
“A country with well over 200 indigenous varieties, Greece can tell a beautiful wine story. Expressions and styles are incredibly diverse, with optimal growing conditions throughout most of the country. White wines have led the transformation, via regions such as Santorini. However reds will continue to improve and capture more adventurous consumers – indigenous varieties such as Agiorgitiko, Xinomavro and Mavrodaphne all show incredible breadth and potential.”
What seems clear to me is that this tasting – which was attended by many of the great and good of the UK on-trade – proved that Greek wine is very much an unfolding story here. Expect to see more importers sourcing Assyrtiko and Xinomavro in particular, but also white Moschofilero, Malagousia and Vidiano and red Agiorgitiko. These are attractive, very distinct varieties, with a great sense of place. In other words, they offer what consumers are increasingly looking for right now.