Everything You Need To Know About Greek Wine & Winemakers

Everything You Need To Know About Greek Wine & Winemakers

A Brief History of Winemaking in Greece

A proper history of winemaking in Greece would require hundreds of pages, the superhuman distillation of vast sums of data from many disciplines, the devotion of a monk and the patience of a saint. It would still not be complete. It is hoped that someone possessing all or some of these attributes will attempt such a history, as it would be the most interesting story ever written about wine. If reading what I have written piques any interest, the next step is to buy a copy of miles Lambert-Gocs’ The Wines of Greece. Although it is not up-to-date concerning the events of the past decade, that decade is a drop in the bucket of the history of winemaking in Greece.

The Origins Of Wine

It is widely believed that winemaking began in the Neolithic Period (8500-4000 BC). The first evidence of pottery, an important precondition to the vinification and storage of wine, is dated around 6000 BC. The wild grape, or Vitis vinifera, is native to coastal areas of Asia minor, the Black Sea, the Caucasus, the southern coast of the Caspian Sea and much of the Mediterranean, including Greece. The earliest evidence of the existence of wine is located at an archaeological site east of Mesopotamia. In the mid-1990s, Mary Voigt, an anthropologist at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, analyzed residue from clay jars in a dwelling from the Hajji Firuz site in the Zagros mountains of what is now northern Iran. In this residue she found traces of salts from tartaric acid and resin from the Terebinth tree. Tartaric acid in significant quantities exists in natural form mainly in grapes. Tree resin is long known to have been used as a preservative and/or sealant for wine vessels. Charcoal on the site had previously been carbon-dated to 5000-5400 BC. Although this is not definitive proof as to the location of proto-viniculture, the concentration of archaeological evidence, including written references, inclines many scholars to favor the idea that winemaking started in Caucasia, then spread to Mesopotamia, Phoenicia, Egypt, Greece and, from Greece, westward.

There will never be sufficient information to establish with surety the origins of winemaking. With a dearth of absolute empirical data to settle the issue, the subject has become a trap for writers of various nationalities seeking to promote their commercial interests or express their national pride. Some—though not many—Greeks have fallen victim to this temptation at the expense, it should be said, of the promotion of aspects of Greece’s contribution to world viniculture that are 1) far more significant and 2) part of a legacy of resources that will be advantageous in Greece’s attempt to forge a new reputation in the increasingly competitive international market. Any discussion of Greece’s historical role in winemaking should focus on these other aspects. 

In attempting to document the history of wine in Greece, the historian. like the archaeologist, must try to piece together fragments. While cultural and aesthetic references from ancient to modern times abound, there are large gaps in our knowledge. Between unaccounted epochs and a lack of continuity in the technical and botanical nomenclature, much remains a mystery. Because the Greek concept through the ages encompasses so many politically distinct peoples in so many different regions at so many different times, there is also the problem of maintaining a coherent time line in the face of shifting political geography. In concluding each chapter of his 1990 survey of the Greek wine industry The Wines of Greece with a section entitled ‘Classical Reflections’, author Miles Lambert-Gocs dealt elegantly with this problem. Since each wine region is the subject of its own chapter, historical references are tied to textual references, be they geographical, ambelographical, aesthetic, cultural or political. Historical references also appear throughout the text, providing insight, context and bases for comparison between past and present themes and speculation surrounding the origins of current traditions.

The ongoing genetic analysis of her many cultivars will likely contribute greatly to the understanding of Greece’s historical role in the evolution of Western viticulture. The ability to identify ties, including parentage, between Greek and other cultivars will enable historians to fill in some gaps in the record concerning the flow of trade between Greek and other cultures. These threads, both continuous and detached, which have woven their way in and out again through the country’s winemaking history, create a legitimate and exciting fabric in which to clothe the corpus of Greece’s wine industry today. The gaps between the islands of knowledge provided by the written record can be filled in with oceans of speculation, or they can be connected, like dots, with imperfect–but accurate–assumptions based on the migratory trails that surviving cultivar lines reveal in their genetic structure. In sophisticated markets with inquisitive buyers in which the Cultivar is king, this story, which is only now unfolding, is more fascinating, germane and immediate than discussions concerning unsustained past achievements of dubious public relations value to Greece’s new wine industry. The work of those, in Greece and abroad, who are painstakingly applying the pieces of this genetic puzzle are performing a service of great benefit to Greece, for they will, at times, bring attention to the extraordinary wealth of resources still present in Greece’s collective vineyard. That attention can only contribute to curiosity about the expression of that wealth in a modern vinicultural context.

Ancient Greece

The arrival of winemaking in ancient Greece is undocumented. Many believe it was brought to Crete by Phoenician traders. It is also likely that it arrived from the north as well, via the land route from Asia Minor. The earliest evidence of winemaking in Greece is a stone foot press at Vathipetro, a Minoan villa on Crete, dated to 1600 BC. The sophistication of the site suggests that Minoan production of wine had been underway for some time. Decoded Linear B tablets from the Minoan site at Knossos in Crete revealed an advanced economy fueled by trade with Eastern cultures, including Egypt. Archaeological finds on the Greek mainland indicate a close connection with the Mycenaean culture. By the sudden end of the Minoan civilization shortly after 1500 BC, winemaking was probably common throughout mainland Greece and the Aegean.

The demise of the Mycenean culture around 1100 BC is believed to have resulted in a brief period of cultural and economic depression on the mainland. The gradual recovery of technical arts and the emergence of ironworking, there and on Crete, characterize a period from around 1050 BC to around 900 BC (Protogeometric or Sub-Mycenean) in which peoples from mainland areas and the Aegean islands also began to colonize parts of Asia Minor and the northern Aegean coast. Trade routes were reestablished, and during the period from 900-700 BC Greece underwent major cultural, political and economic transformations. During this time, urbanization commenced and written language reemerged with the adoption of a Semitic alphabet. It was during this period also that the Homeric poems are thought to have been recorded. More significantly, it marked the beginning of the formal practice of deity worship. The first references to Dionysos appear in Homer, although they do not indicate the existence of cult-worship per se before this time. Some scholars believe that Greek cultism in general had origins in colonized regions of Asia Minor and were imported to Greece during this period of expansion. The first reference to Dionysos is now widely believed to be part of a Linear B inscription found during excavations at the Mycenaean site at Pylos in which appears a deity name approximating ‘Diwonysos’. Whether this deity was associated with wine cannot be proven, but there is little doubt that wine, which already had become an integral element of Greek culture, had developed a religious status by the end of this period. This legacy outlived the polytheism of Greece and Rome, surviving today even in the staid rituals of Christianity.

The period from 750-550 BC saw the establishment of Greek city states. The needs of a growing Greek population were met by further expansion throughout the Mediterranean coast and along the Black Sea. These colonies were able provide the Greeks with a wide variety of staple goods including meat grain, fish, wool and timber in exchange for olive oil, wine and manufactured commodities. Some of these colonized areas were ideal for the cultivation of the vine. Greek colonists from Phocaia in Asia Minor had themselves founded a colony called Massalia, later Marseilles, on the southern coast of what is now France. This event has become a subtext in Greek cookbooks for thirty years, in which claims are made that the Greeks introduced Bouillabaisse to France. This is unfortunate because these relatively meaningless assertions detract from the likely role the Greeks had in initiating an advanced level of viniculture in the south of France. 

By the time of the rise to power of Philip of Makedonia in 359 BC, Greek colonies existed not only in what is now France, but also on the Iberian peninsula, southern Italy, north Africa, Asia Minor and what is now Southern Russia and Georgia. Many of these areas still retain vestiges of Greek influence. Krasnodar Krai, on the Black sea, is still an important Russian wine region. This tradition began with the founding of the Greek settlement Phanagoria in the fifth century BC. The influence of Greek colonization is still felt in the wine industries of Georgia and the Crimea, to which, in ancient times, the Greeks brought all their resources to bear. According to Dr. Kalliope Angelakis-Roubelakis, who co-heads the Greek Vitis Database project at the University of Crete, among European cultivars, the Iberian, as a whole, display the strongest likelihood of being Greek offspring. Whether this is a result of ancient or later migrations has yet to be determined.

Echoes of Greek culture from the period of the colonization of southern Italy continue to this day. The influence and continued existence of Greek dialects in Italy to modern times, Grecanico in Apulia and Calabria, and the Greek components of Salentinodialect, are reminders of the enduring nature of the ancient Greek linguistic influence. Even the name “Italy” is thought to originate in the Greek language. Undoubtedly Greek cultivars entered Italy at many different times, but perhaps one or more of Italy’s Greek varieties (Aglianiko, Greca di Velletri, Grecale, Grecanico Dorato, Grecau Niuru, Grechetto Bianco, Grechetto Nero di Todi, Grechettoe Rosso, Greco Bianco, Greco Bianco di Novara, Greco Bianco di Tuffo, Greco Nero and Greco Nero di Cosenza) hark back to this period. 

Of ancient Greek wines much has been written, but little is known. The wine vernacular of the Greeks was intimately linked to a cosmology quite foreign to modern sensibilities, and yet, as Lambert-Gocs writes:

The ancient notions concerning wine and its characteristics are more germane to us than we might imagine, for they were taken by Greek colonists to the Western Mediterranean and thereby entered all subsequent vernaculars… Were it not for that continuity of our orientational glances back at ancient Greece, the language of wine today might bear less resemblance to its actual content, which conceptually has remained virtually homogenous throughout Western civilization, and is not at all different in its fundamentals from what it was in the time of Athenaeus, Plutarch, Hippocrates or Theophrastus. [p.271]

Without an empirical basis for making reliable comparisons between ancient Greek and modern Western wines, descriptions from ancient texts—because of a commonality in both terminology and sensibility—at least provide a clearer concept than we might have of, say, ancient Greek music. Modern Greek grape varieties such as Limnio, Athiri, Aïdani, Muscat, etc., believed to be surviving examples of the ancient oenological palette, may offer some clues to their flavor, yet the local wines of regions where traditions have survived—no matter their varietal complexion—would seem more logical in providing signposts to the distant past. It is known that, at various times, the wines of Hios, Thassos and Lesvos were highly regarded and that the wines of Samos were not. Sweet wines were as highly prized in ancient as in modern Greece, perhaps, in part for their staying power, although aesthetics would more likely have accounted for their popularity. Much has been made of the tendency of the Greeks to mix wine with water, including sea water, and to add other ingredients, such as honey and spices. While practices such as these would elicit horror today, they are indicative of a broadminded, creative and culturally integrated wine tradition as well as a highly-developed Epicurean consciousness that is probably beyond the realm of comprehension of the modern mind. Perhaps if one can accept and enjoy Sangria or vermouth over ice, the notion of even more complex and elemental dilutions of wine can be appreciated, especially in an era before distillation and the more recent development in Europe of cocktails and flavored aperitifs. In a way, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

The Greek trade in wine was extensive. An early system of appellation designation was implemented to assure the origins of esteemed products. Wine traveled wherever ships sailed. This, the first golden age of wine, entirely an age of Greek wine, came to a close with the disintegration of Magna Graecia during the Peloponesian Wars. By the time Athens fell to the Romans in 86 BC, however, the groundwork for advanced viticulture had been laid throughout a vast expanse of the Western World.

The ancient Greeks can be credited with much: the elevation of wine to a deeply-rooted cultural phenomenon; an apparent technical mastery of wine production; and the development of a sophisticated and archetypal level of commerce, all of which have had a profound effect on Western notions of wine and culture. To get at the truth of this role, one must ask what could be expected to exist now in the absence of an ancient Greek antecedent to the development of our collective wine consciousness? It is not hard to imagine that wine itself is sufficiently powerful a force to drive its expansion to all corners of an appreciative world. Yet, without the engine that drove increasing expertise of its manufacture, a religious reverence for its properties and mysteries, commercial innovations such as appellations of origin and even the export of grape cultivars, the outcome could hardly have been what we know and cherish today. Perhaps there would be no Bordeaux as such or Chianti would be known for white wine, perhaps Russia would have dominated world markets during the Middle Ages. The fate of wine in Western civilization was largely in the hands of the ancient Greeks. That it fares so well today is in great part the result of their spirited and industrious commitment to the vine.

Rome and Byzantium

After the end of Magna Graecia, responsibility for the spread of viticulture fell mainly to the Romans. They, typically described as lacking the aesthetic ideals of the ancient Greeks, were nevertheless sufficiently appreciative of Greek culture to adopt much of its heritage, including its alphabet, considerable elements of its language, its deities, its ideas concerning government and education, and, with special vigor, their reverence for wine. The vine continued its expansion with every Roman conquest. Romans brought their viticulture as far north as Britain, although the extent of it there under their rule is unknown. They produced innovations of their own, of which the change from pottery to wooden barrels may be the most significant.

Greece, meanwhile, although it fared well politically under Roman rule, had lost hegemony over wine. Not until the Byzantine period, when Constantinople became the seat of Roman power, were Greeks in a position to capitalize on their viticultural assets. Slavic incursions from the north around 650 AD had a powerful negative impact on grape growing on much of the mainland as populations abandoned traditional vineyard areas for safer environments. Greece was reclaimed by Byzantium in 1260 AD. A healthy trade in wine, centered in Constantinople, had come to flourish by the end of the first millennium. By the late Middle Ages, however, viticulture fell gradually victim to increasingly feudal land management under fraying Byzantine control. The result was a gradual degradation in wine quality. Monasteries increasingly became the keepers of local wine traditions, acquiring vineyards and outfitting cellars in order to sustain production.

Venice

By the thirteenth century, Greece had become a target of territorial expansion from the west by Frankish warlords and, ultimately, by Venice. In the following century, the Ottomans began cutting away at Greece from the east. These two forces had profound—and sometimes opposite—effects on winemaking in Greece during their respective periods of control over different regions.

The Venetian influence, (felt briefly in the Peloponessos, but mainly in the Ionian islands, Crete and parts of the Aegean islands) was manifested in the promotion of export production. Although the Venetians developed an extensive program of currant and olive production to the detriment of wine grape production in the Ionian islands, the lasting linguistic effect of their rule on cultivar names and wine genres there suggests they at least valued the existence of local winemaking. Author Clifford Wright, in his exhaustive history of Mediterranean cuisine, A Mediterranean Feast, mentions a fifteenth-century Italian reference to a fish stew boiled in Vino Greco. More significantly, the Venetians cultivated extensive markets as far north as England for Malvasia (Malmsey), a highly-prized sweet wine that was a predecessor to the fortified wines of the Iberian peninsula. Malvasia was produced originally on Crete, but eventually became associated with parts of the Peloponessos and certain Aegean islands. This trade began in the thirteenth century, disappearing gradually by the end of the nineteenth, but not without leaving an indelible influence on northern European tastes in sweet and fortified wines.

The Ottomans and Turks

Thessaloniki, in 1430, was the first notable Ottoman conquest in Greece. Piece by piece, the Ottomans took control over every island and mainland region, culminating in the capture of Crete in 1669. The effect of Moslem rule over Greece’s vineyards was predictably deleterious, less the result of religious-mandated temperance than the double-edged sword of taxation. While vineyards were largely encouraged for their fiscal potential during the early phases of Ottoman rule, arbitrary and excessive taxation gradually sapped the incentive of the Greek peasantry to tend them. Even the monasteries, which benefited from some tax relief under the Ottomans, were forced to remand properties in distant jurisdictions. While the trade in Malvasia continued throughout the Ottoman period, and certain regions and islands, such as Samos, thrived with a relative prosperity resulting from the beneficence of Ottoman patrons, wine fell increasingly victim to the more pressing economic and political problems facing the Greek populace.

Independent Greece

The period following the first stages of Greek independence in the 1820s took an even greater toll on viticulture. Wine production was subject to a string of insults during the nineteenth century, including poverty, political upheaval, out and out war, Phylloxera (in northern Greece) and reprisals against vineyard and farmland during the gradual retreat of the Turks from Greek territories. The height of the French Phylloxera outbreak occasioned a brief resuscitation of Greece’s wine exports. The slow and uneven pace of the disease in Greece enabled some producers to meet the desperate demand for blending wines in European markets. While this had temporary benefits for these producers, the adverse consequences of this era, the orientation towards high-production low-elevation farming and the planting of the dual use currant vine, still haunt Greece today. Yet despite its problematic nature, this period marked the start of important wine ventures, notably Ahaïa Clauss, Cambas, Kourtakis and the Boutari Company, that survive today. 

The first half of the twentieth century was conducive neither to the renewal of Greece’s vineyards nor to investment in her wine industry. With the national focus on themes more rudimentary and essential than winemaking, the establishment of the Greek Republic in 1924, close on the heels of the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913 and World War I, did little to fuel a nascent wine industry. While bulk production continued on a certain scale, perhaps the best outcome of Greece’s new government was the establishment of a prototype appellation and cooperative for the island of Samos in 1934 and the formation of the Wine Institute of the Ministry of Agriculture in 1937. The establishment of several cooperatives between the two World Wars at least provided a foundation for the survival of grape growers in key regions.

Modern Greece

World War II and the Greek Civil War, back to back, continued the devastation of Greece’s wine industry for an entire decade. In the 1950s, just as Greece’s national fortunes took a turn for the better, a major population shift towards emerging urban centers robbed the countryside–and vineyards–of their human resources. With small-scale local production at an all-time low, and small commercial production practically nonexistent, the stage was set for the creation of a volume-oriented bottled wine industry. The sixties and seventies saw a small group of large producers come to dominate the country in a furious struggle for market share that continues to this day. Despite some worthy products and good winemaking intentions, “the Four”, as they are called by the new generation of winemakers (many of whom had to battle their way tooth and nail past them during the 1980s and 1990s), had no incentive to compete against French wine, the standard in quality at the time. 

During the 1960s, retsina, which had been an important, but non-defining component of Greece’s wine culture, suddenly became the national beverage. Wine regions having no previous claim to retsina, traditionally predominant in Attika, suddenly entered the game. Huge tracts of vineyard, many good for nothing that wasn’t painted over with a broad stroke of resin, were devoted to creating and meeting this demand. As Greece’s tourist industry began reaching dizzying heights, Retsina came to predominate foreign associations with Greek wine.

Forces within the government and the industry, however, saw the writing on the wall. Evangelos Averof had planted Greece’s first Cabernet Sauvignon vines in Metsovo in 1963. Domaine Carras, a large vineyard and winery in Halkidiki on the northern Aegean coast, had opened in 1966. Devoted to producing export-quality wines from both foreign and indigenous varieties, Carras heralded a new era in which quality would become increasingly important to Greek producers. With membership in the European Union believed critical in certain quarters and Greece’s wines (though successful with the Greek Diaspora) a laughing stock in America and other important markets, concerned parties propelled legislation establishing appellation laws in 1971 and 1972. Although the appellations, in some instances seemed designed to preserve the status quo, they contained legitimate provisions for the preservation of valuable traditions and few restrictions that would ultimately harm the better-motivated producers of quality wine. 

Greece Now

The development of this new segment of the Greek wine industry continues. Major new ventures, like the pedigreed Gaia and Voyatsis estates have, in a short time, made a substantial mark. Energetic young producers like Nikólaos Douloufakis, Yiannis Economou and Haridimos Hatzidakis have thrown their hats into the ring, sure to mature over time and to make their presences felt.

At the same time that much attention in Greece during its recent wine revolution was centered on foreign cultivars, few producers, large or small, ever aimed to abandon what remained of the traditional Greek vineyard. While it is true that many successful new ventures of the 1980s and 1990s relied on a certain prestige associated with the use of common Western varieties (whether due to savvy business sense or a lack of confidence in native varieties to attract serious consideration abroad), doubts concerning the future potential of Greece’s indigenous grapes were not played out in the country’s vineyards. For one thing, the abandonment of well-established markets for traditional products of any quality was–and still is–uncalled for. For another, faith in the country’s wine traditions and resources was sufficiently strong to guarantee not only their survival, but their primacy in the identity of a new wine industry. George Skouras, a major figure during the past two decades, maintains that foreign varieties were a passport, a standard against which the abilities of Greece’s producers could be measured. Only with these, he believes, would the outside world have a basis for accepting the abilities of Greece’s winemakers, and by extension, a basis for judging and appreciating the vinifications of indigenous cultivars.

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