Across Greece, indigenous grape varieties are shedding old associations and offering a new, expanding view of Greek wine
Greece’s borders encompass 6,000 islands, the mainland, and a major peninsula, and the latter two are largely defined by rugged, mountainous terrain. Given this unique and varied geography, it’s no wonder that Greece lays claim to over 300 indigenous grape varieties.
For many, getting a handle on Greek grapes can be a challenge, but that hasn’t slowed down the category; in 2022, Greek imports were up 24 percent according to Gomberg, Fredrikson & Associates. While Assyrtiko, Moschofilero, Agiorgitiko, and Xinomavro have led the way on U.S. wine lists, they’re only the tip of the iceberg, and the rest of Greece’s indigenous grapes are well worth exploring.
“We knew from our early efforts to introduce quality Greek wine into the mainstream that our indigenous grapes were a great marketing advantage, and a way to differentiate ourselves from the usual French varieties that many of the regions were producing,” says Sofia Perpera of the Greek Wine Federation. “At first we tried to keep it simple and focus on four major Greek varieties, but now that Greek wine has become its own category, the market is demanding different varieties.”
Evan Turner, the wine director at Krasi in Boston, is particularly impressed by Greece’s white varieties. “This gets me into trouble with my somm friends, but I make the argument that Greece might be the best white wine-producing country in the world when you take into account affability to food, ageability, diversity of flavor, and quality for price point.”
But that’s not to discount the country’s reds; Turner says Greek reds are rarely rich or opulent, but the country’s more austere reds can often be very food-friendly. Here are several emerging grape varieties, both white and red, that wine professionals should have on their radar.
Vidiano: Crete’s Leading White Grape
As the largest of the Greek islands, Crete is home to several of the country’s indigenous varieties. “I turn to Crete again and again when it comes to grape varieties,” says Turner. Vidiano has earned a place as the island’s leading white grape, emerging from obscurity to spread from its home in Rethymno, on the west end of the island, across Crete and to some of the other Aegean islands and to the Greek mainland. An earlier era that favored high yields did it no favors, but when the vines are restrained by planting at higher altitudes or at cooler sites, Vidiano can produce wines with immense textural interest. It retains its acidity even at higher alcohols, opening the door to a combination of weight and freshness that many grape varieties would struggle to match.
Liatiko: A Savory Red from the Cretan Mountains
“Liatiko is a forgotten grape variety of Crete that’s really doing very well right now,” says Kamal Kouiri, the general manager and wine director at Molyvos in New York City. “They’ve been able to find ungrafted, old-vine vineyards in the mountains. It gives you a lot of texture, and a lot of flavors and complexity in the wines.” Liatiko tends to make a pale wine, prone to oxidation, and in the past producers might have worked the grape too hard to get a deeper color from the grape. Kouiri says the best examples today are unoaked and capture the freshness of the variety, resulting in wines that remind him of cru Beaujolais from Fleurie. “You get the savory elements along with the fruit; I love that combination.”
Kotsifali and Mandilaria: Complimentary Cretan Reds
Crete is an island of extremes, with crystal blue waters and mountains high enough to be home to Europe’s southernmost ski resorts. So it seems appropriate that two of its primary red grapes are opposite in character, but complement each other just as well. Kotsifali is intensely aromatic and prone to high alcohol, but soft in tannins and acidity; Mandilaria, on the other hand, is deeply colored, acidic, enthusiastically tannic, and low in alcohol, struggling to reach 12.5% ABV in many vintages. Two PDOs in the center of Crete, Peza and Archanes, cater to this blend. Elsewhere on Crete, Kotsifali has explored other relationships, and producers have found it works well with a more recent arrival, Syrah. Mandilaria has sought new partners on other islands, proving itself in blends with Mavrotragano on Santorini and with the white grape Monemvasia on Paros.
Robola: An Exciting White from Cephalonia
On the far side of the Peloponnese, Cephalonia, an island in the Ionian Sea, has presented Greece with two grape varieties of note: Robola and Mavrodaphne. The former, a white grape, was long thought to be related to the Friuli’s Ribolla Gialla, perhaps brought to or from the island by Venetian traders, but that turned out not to be the case. Like Vidiano, its vigor must be restrained to get a concentrated wine, but Turner says the results are “stunning, especially if you are a fan of Chablis or Sancerre. The wines are minerally driven, with a vein of lemony citrus notes. I’m really excited about this grape.”
Mavrodaphne: A Western Greek Red With a Fortified Past
It’s rare to see a dry Mavrodaphne labeled as a varietal wine, as two fortified wine PDOs have co-opted the name, Mavrodaphne of Patras and Mavrodaphne of Cephalonia. But producers have embraced the grape for dry red wines as well. “They started making dry Mavrodaphne wines about 10 years ago,” says Kouiri. While early examples of these new, dry wines could be rustic, he says that high-elevation vineyards with little water have proven key to getting the best expression out of the grape. “You’re going to see a beautiful, deep color, and I love the texture. It gives you a lot of blueberry, lavender, and black fruits, and if you extract a bit more it can range into leather, sage, and peppermint.” These new, unfortified examples offer rich fruit on the nose with a dry palate—a combination sometimes compared to drier examples of Amarone, though Mavrodaphne producers do not raisinate their grapes to get that effect.
Malagousia: An Aromatic White from Western Greece
Most of Mavrodaphne’s vineyards today are on the mainland, just north of Cephalonia, an area that’s also the homeland of Malagousia. One of the first Greek varieties to be rescued from believed extinction back in the 1970s, it’s now widely planted on both the mainland and the islands. Unlike Vidiano and Robola, it’s an aromatic variety, combining some of the green notes Sauvignon Blanc drinkers will find familiar with more floral touches found in some Muscat varieties. Most producers capture that generous nose through vinification in stainless steel, but some have successfully indulged in a fuller-bodied approach incorporating barrel aging.
Savatiano: Athens’s Own White
If there’s a grape that encapsulates the changing reputation of Greece’s wines, it’s Savatiano. It’s most commonly found in Attica, the area around Athens, Greece’s modern capital, and for many years it was primarily used for making Retsina, a wine aromatized with pine resin that was long considered little more than a novelty of Greek tavernas. As recently as the 1980s, Retsina was the first thing to come to mind when someone mentioned Greek wine. Modern Savatiano has, by and large, shed its resinous past, though there are some modern, refined examples of Retsina worth exploring. Without the pine resin, Savatiano can show its true colors, yielding a medium-bodied, round wine with some grassy notes and touches of yellow fruit. Like its cousins scattered across the country, it’s flexible at the table, and there’s no reason any of them shouldn’t appear alongside a variety of dishes beyond the classics of the taverna.
Jim Clarke writes about wine, beer, and spirits for trade and consumer publications, including Beverage Media, Fortune, and World of Fine Wine. He is a sommelier and the U.S. marketing manager for Wines of South Africa.