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Geia sas, enthousiódeis! Hello Enthusisasts, and welcome, Kalos irthate to Wine & the Bottle, the show for wine enthusiasts of all levels. I’m your host Sara, and I am here to take you on a viticultural journey past the pages of the textbooks. Today, we go to a mythical place full of debate, debasement, and drunkenness: Greece! During my WSET studies, I was surprised at the lack of attention to Greek wine, considering the country’s history and association with the drink. In Ancient Greece, wine was considered a gift from the god Dionysus and was used medicinally and recreationally, as a way to elevate the human experience.
If we time travel backwards to look at the wine history of Ancient Greece, I would start in the 4th century BCE, even though Mediterranean winemaking predates that era. But here we find Hippocrates, a physician, who is widely considered to be the father of modern medicine. His writings are some of the earliest documents depicting the medical benefits of wine as both an antiseptic and an analgesic. This great society not only revered wine as medicine, but in the great political circles, drink and philosophy went hand in hand, as the oligarchs were never without libation during their symposia.
But moderation and self-control were also integral to Greek society, as depicted by a poem by Hyginus a few hundred years later circa the 1st century AD. The story goes that as Dionysus was traveling among the countryside, he encountered a farmer named Ikarius and his daughter Erigone who offered him respite and entertainment in their home. As thanks, he gifted them with a cup of sweet wine and grape vines to propagate and share within their community. Ikarius and Erigone shared the sweet wine with some local shepherds, who, unused to alcohol, fell into a drunken stupor. Angered and confused, the shepherds believed Ikarius had given them rancid medicine and, in traditional ancient fashion, killed him in revenge. Poor Erigone found her father’s corpse and lamenting his loss, she hung herself in despair the tree above him. Dionysus was so enraged at the death of his friends that he cursed all the maidens of the village to suffer the same fate as Erigone. A bit of an overreaction, in my opinion, but when you are an ancient god with the power of persuasion, I guess you can do whatever you want! Point taken, sir. I’ll drink in moderation.
So how was this divine drink made if they didn’t have fancy mechanical presses, steel tanks, and automated filtration systems like we do now? Painstakingly by hand, that’s how. The first challenge was the weather. Greece is hot and windy, exdpecially the Easternmost islands, thanks to barometric fluctuations from the Mediterranean Sea. So to keep the grapes ripening safely on the vines, those vines had to be trellised low to the ground. The traditional way of doing this is creating basket like shapes with the vines, and the inflorescences are arranged in the center of the baskets so that the grapes are protected from the wind as they grow. This practice is still employed in Greece, especially on the island of Santorini, which we will be revisiting later. Grapes were pressed by hand – or rather, by feet as depicted on contemporary art pottery. Fermentation took place underground in an oddly shaped piece of pottery called an amphora. These amphorae, the plural, were large and heavy and had two handles so that two people could carry it. The bottom was pointed, so it could be nestled into a circular base or sand. To prevent leakage, the interior of the amphorae were usually coated in pine resin, which created a watertight seal, but also imparted a heavy flavor onto the wine. it was very different from the wine that we know today and is a great example of how technology, or lack thereof, impacted what goes in the glass.
Over the following millennia, Greece would experience a lot of political and economic turmoil, through which its wine industry waned to the brink of extinction, hence why Greece gets barely a handful of pages in modern wine textbooks. But remnants of that ancient history remain. There are 77 ancient native varieties that still grow in Greece, despite the more common international varieties like cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay gaining popularity in the last few hundred years. 60% of wine produced in Greece is white wine. The most prevalent native varieties are Xinomavro, a strongly structured and highly acidic red wine often associated with Naoussa region, Agiorgitiko, a red wine with prominent red fruit and baking spice flavors with naturally smooth tannins associated with the Nemea region, and Assyrtiko, a crisp and citrusy white wine with flavors of stone fruits associated with the island of Santorini. Vinsanto, a sweet wine with nutty and caramel characteristic from oxidation, is made by drying the grapes after harvest and is also associated with Santorini. VinSanto means wine of Santorini. Most of the wine made is Greece today is made in the traditional vinification style that we associate with modern wine. But there is a style of wine still produced in Greece today called retsina which purposefully includes pine resin in the vinification process. However, with modern winemaking practices, the resin is removed during filtration while the flavor remains, continuing the legacy of ancient Greek wine.
Now, I couldn’t find any retsina readily available, but I do have two wines from Santorini to taste today. First is a Santorini assyrtiko from Estate Argyros. “Taste the real Santorini” Still family owned and family run, by the Argyros family who has winemaking roots dating back centuries. Estate Argyros is about 110 years old and boasts the largest collection of privately owned vineyards in Santorini.
Artemis Karamelegos Winery is a bit younger. It was founded in 2004. This is there 2018 Nikteri White blend Assyrtiko 90% with 10% Athiri and Aidani, two other native white varieties.
Garrison, F. H. (1928). An Introduction to the History of Medicine. W. B. Saunders Company.
(Garrison, 1928, pp. 30-31)
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