France, Italy, Australia, the US and Spain dominate the global wine-making industry. But other countries with thousands of years of wine-making experience are fast ascending the ranks. Greece is one of them, and also happens to be one of the oldest wine-producing nations in the world.
Greece’s natural landscape is home to range of varietals that have long been cultivated to make some of the most interesting wines on the market. They have largely been enjoyed by locals, but Greek winemakers are now looking to share their wines with the world.
Hospitality speaks to the Wines & Spirits Professional Center’s Konstantinos Lazarakis and Nico Lazaridi’s Federica Lazaridou about Greek varietals, cultivation and vinification processes and the current challenges of exporting Greek wine.
Winemaking has a lengthy history in Greece going back six millennia. Ancient Greek civilisations were instrumental in pioneering new methods of viticulture and vinification, making the country a central wine hub. The ‘50s saw a rise in people trying their hand at winemaking, using grapes grown in their own backyards to produce wine for local tavernas and their own homes.
Bottled wine did not become prevalent until the turn of the century when a number of brands emerged, which considered things like packaging and shelf life as well as the commercial potential of Greek wines, which are now competing against global giants.
Konstantinos Lazarakis has been dubbed ‘the master of Greek wine’ and is the president of the Wines & Spirits Professional Center in Athens. He published his first book The Wines of Greece in 2005 and has deep understanding of Greece’s wine culture.
“In the ‘80s and ‘90s producers turned into smaller ventures, focusing on premium wines,” he says. “Boutique-image wine production was immensely helped by the revolution of on-trade restaurants in Greece.”
Wine has long been an integral part of Greek culture, but the local industry is often overlooked in the international market. “We are an intriguing mix of being very old and very young at the same time,” says Lazarakis. “We have adopted a lot of grape varieties and very interesting styles of wine, but we’re still learning and are largely unexplored … maybe not seen by wine lovers around the world.”
There are more than 1,000 wineries operating across Greece including Nico Lazaridi. Head Oenologist Federica Lazaridou says the country’s diverse natural environment is ideal for winemaking. “Greece goes from Thrace down to Crete and wine is produced in all these regions, so there is different climates and soils,” says Lazaridou.
Greece is widely regarded for its white wines, but also makes different reds and Rosé, which have all increased in popularity over the years. “We produce around 60 per cent white wine, 10 per cent Rosé and the rest is red wine,” says Lazaridou. “We go from fresh, fruity and refreshing whites to old, well-structured reds.”
The grapes cultivated across Greece include common varieties such as Merlot, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon. Wineries are also utilising lesser-known indigenous grape varietals. “We have more than 300 [indigenous] grape varieties currently produced or researched,” says Lazarakis. “We have amazing luck these varieties are endemic and you cannot find them anywhere else.”
Lazarakis names Assyrtiko as one of the most prevalent grapes grown in the country. “The clear leaders are the wines coming from the volcanic Aegean Sea island of Santorini and the grape variety is called Assyrtiko,” he says. “It’s the first grape variety of Greece that could be called ‘international’.”
Nico Lazaridi have two vineyards located in Kavala and Drama, each focusing on different styles of wine. “In the area of Kavala, we produce fresh, fruity white wines with lower alcohol and higher acidity because it’s closer to the sea,” says Lazaridou. “Drama is more suited to well-structured white wines and long-ageing red ones.”
The winery is looking to expand its portfolio to include indigenous grapes, but it has been a journey of trial and error. “Many varieties are found in other parts of Greece,” says Lazaridou. “Drama and Kavala are very young, they only started making wine in the last 35 to 40 years, so we don’t have a [specific] variety from the area. At Nico Lazaridi, we are trying to find some varieties suitable to our climate.”
Mavroudi is a red grape variety grown along the Greek-Bulgarian border that flourishes on the vineyard. Other indigenous grapes are also succeeding as the winery continues to expand its portfolio.
“We are very satisfied with Assyrtiko and Malagousia,” says Lazaridou. “Another variety we are working on but not cultivating is Xinomavro. We buy the grapes from Naousa because it’s from its area.”
Nico Lazaridi currently produce 22 different labels including the award-winning Black Sheep range, which consists of a red, white and Rosé. “The white is a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon from Kavala,” says Lazaridou. “It’s fresh, easy and fruity and it doesn’t need to be paired with food. The red wine is a blend of Syrah and Merlot, and the Rosé is Syrah and Xinomavro.”
The winery makes wines that vary from entry-level labels to premium-quality bottles, but each have their own unique characteristics. Vinification protocols differ depending on the style of wine. “We have protocols for fresh whites and we have a different one for [wines] aged in oak which generally stay at the winery a little bit longer,” says Lazaridou. “It’s based on the area where we’re harvesting, the variety and what we’re planning to do with the different wines.”
Grape variety is also a huge factor, with different methods used depending on the fruit. “If you press red grapes, you can you get white juice like the famous Blanc De Noir, which is a white wine that comes from black grapes,” says Lazaridou. “The main difference in white and red wine vinification is we have to have contact with the skin of the red grapes to extract the colour and tannins.”
Controlling the temperature during the process is also integral when it comes to the extraction and fermentation of wine. “The alcoholic fermentation for white wines is usually done in lower temperatures with a maximum of 16-17 degrees Celsius,” says Lazaridou. “The red wines start from 22 and go up to 28-29 degrees Celsius.”
Although Greek wine is rising in the ranks, the country still has a long way to go when it comes to production, especially compared to its international counterparts. “People believe Greece is up there with Spain, Italy or France, but you have to keep in mind we’re talking about a country that produces less than half of what Bordeaux produces in a year,” says Lazarakis.
Lazarakis also hopes exportation numbers will increase in the near future. “We are a small-producing country, and we enjoy drinking our own wine, so we export less than 20 per cent,” he says. “We have a very peculiar situation: a lot of Greek producers don’t have to export because they can sell everything from their winery in their own backyard.”
Numbers aside, there have been some positive improvements when it comes to the promotion and production of Greek wines. “We’re seeing some developments and more people are willing to try different wines from other countries,” says Lazarakis.
The progression and innovation of higher-quality wines has changed the game considerably in recent years. “Premium Greek wines had a very bad reputation 25-30 years ago in the international market because the wines were low quality,” says Lazaridou. “Greek wines started to gain a better reputation thanks to their white and red wines.”
The rise of Greek restaurants and eateries has also encouraged the public to experience Greek wines. “Greek and Mediterranean gastronomy in the international market is improving, and this means more sales for Greek wines,” says Lazaridou. “Wineries are focusing more on new technologies and better blends and are investing in promotional events and expos so other countries can get to know Greek wine.”
Exporting to Australia has come with its challenges for Nico Lazaridi as the country already has a strong local market. The winery has executed various strategies to communicate with the hospitality sector and its customers.
“From our experience, you have to focus on educating the consumers, the importers and distributors,” says Lazaridou. “The Greek community has a lot of very good restaurants in big cities promoting high-quality Greek wine.”
Producers have harnessed their expertise and skill to deliver wines that reflect Greece’s diverse landscape. Lazarakis believes the industry will continue to thrive if recent times are anything to go by. “The whole idea is getting out, meeting key professionals, hosting masterclasses and doing promotional work which allows the product to speak for itself,” says Lazarakis. “You have to make people taste the wines – they are unbelievable, truly different and are wines everyone would enjoy.”