New Wines of Greece
by Konstantinos Lazarakis MW
There are several reasons that fine Greek wine has emerged on the global wine scene in the past fifteen years and not before. The modern wine consumer is nowadays more receptive to the message conveyed by Greek wine. It is not just a matter of quality of these wines, but a matter of dynamics, trends, balances and imbalances throughout the global wine market. Greece is now able to offer unique and far more competitive wines, which makes more sense in today’s marketplace.
The rise in quality, the improving standards of production and accumulated know-how are just half of the story of Modern Greek wine. Actually, this half is not all that exceptional. Over the last two decades, numerous countries or new regions in established wine-producing countries can produce an impressive track record of wine improvement. There are no more secrets to hide in the cellar or in the vineyard, since oenological knowledge is freely available through universities, research centres and even private companies: there are no “bags of tricks” around these days, only top winemakers and viticulturalists with an international view of their trade. Top research executives admit that “there is no way of keeping knowledge away from competitors. All you can hope to do is speed up the process of applying this knowledge and get faster results.”
Freely available knowledge suggests that good quality no longer suffices. In the ’80s and, to a certain degree, the ’90s, quality was frequently perceived as the lack of winemaking faults. If the wine wasn’t oxidised, volatile, unripe or over-ripe, it was just about right. The current standards go far beyond this school of thought and customer expectations are higher than ever. The term “good” has been redefined through modern winemaking practices and, in essence, is now taken for granted. A wine must be “very good”, “fine” or “excellent” to deserve a mention or secure a bright future. Nevertheless, this does not signal a rise in prices; quite the contrary, in fact. For a specific level of wine quality –if such a level can be specific– prices have been going steadily down for a number of years. With the exception of some icon wines commanding sky-high prices, the present wine market is the wine lover’s haven. Great wines can be enjoyed at affordable prices, provided that consumers are open-minded and willing to try wines off the beaten path. The wide availability of technology and know-how may have pushed average quality higher than ever before, but, at the same time, they have increased uniformity across the spectrum of styles. Key wine personalities are commenting on the growing internationalisation of wines and the degree of homogeneity. The shelves of retail shops and wine lists may offer a wide selection of provenance, but when wines are judged by what is in the glass, sameness prevails. The most illustrative point is the predominance of a small number of varietals. International, mainly French varieties and varietally labelled wines completely changed the face of wine-selling in the ‘80’s and ’90s, but a great deal of stagnation has become evident since then. Journalists and top sommeliers were swift to spot this development and came forward asking for fresh proposals, new varieties or new wine-producing regions. It remains to be seen if the average wine consumer ― the person that actually supports the whole production of wine ― will be seduced by new grapes and go beyond the Chardonnays and the Cabernets of the world. This is why key off-trade buyers are comparatively reluctant to accept obscure suggestions. However, a fact less understood is the shoehorning of the personality of minor varieties or unknown regions in the styles championed by famous grapes. Nebbiolo arguably became better known when some modern Nebbiolos turned into Cabernet Sauvignon look-alikes. The point is not buying a different grape variety, but being able to taste the difference in the glass.
Greece has a fantastic arsenal of indigenous varieties with which to compete in the current marketplace. Most of them are full of distinctive, unconventional character. Oenological practices tend to highlight rather than mute these qualities and they do so for very precise reasons. As far as wine consumption is concerned, Greece is a very mature market. Wine was not imposed on Greeks as a marketing initiative. Greeks are very set in their ways. They consume wine on certain occasions and enjoy specific styles: flavourful, though refreshing, and light. Greek wine producers, largely reliant on their national market, have to make wines that fit this image. This individuality might have seemed out of place in the global context of past decades. Nevertheless, it is becoming more apparent that the international scene might be willing to take a closer look at Greek wine and the concepts behind it.
A very telling point is alcohol level. Alcohol is a soft element of a wine’s structure and an elevated level, 13.5% abv and above, creates a round feeling on the palate. High alcohol wines, 14% and above, are instantly easier to appreciate, but seem heavier after a glass or two. Alcohol levels are rising by the vintage in most regions around the world, even in traditional areas like Bordeaux, where 14% is nowadays common. The tendency seems global (and it is market-driven and has nothing to do with global warming), but it has often been criticised by some leading wine experts. A wine must not dull the senses but invite the drinker to enjoy a second glass. Some low alcohol-content wines, reaching 10% or lower, have been “custom-made” as a response, but they usually offer less enjoyment than a fruit juice. Food-friendliness, a moderate level of alcohol and sheer drinkability are becoming of paramount importance and this is exactly what Greeks have been expecting from a decent glass of wine for centuries.
Another interesting example of the way the Greek wine-producing culture has become more relevant on an international level is the current “hunt for terroir”. The future commercial potential of varietal wines is limited and many wine-producing countries are placing their bets on proving they can make “terroir” wines – wines coming from somewhere and could not be from anywhere.. A grape variety can be planted all over the world, but a wine conveying a “sense of place” is, by definition, immobile and unique. Although the very notion of terroir is much disputed by many authorities around the world, there are two major prerequisites in producing true terroir wines instead of marketing-driven notions. The first is time. Terroir is a very complex equation, involving numerous parameters that demand time to comprehend, if possible. Given the viticulturalist’s once-a-year chance to work with a vineyard, a single terroir then requires commitment over generations and centuries. The second prerequisite is small-scale production patterns. Since soil and meso-climate are important constituents of what is understood as terroir, then large operations are bound to focus on what is common, rather than on what can make a restricted plot special. Greeks fulfil both requirements. Greek wine production has always been on a human, artisanal scale, by people “conversing with their land”. Furthermore, they have been cultivating their vineyards long enough to fully grasp the potential of their terroirs. Terroir wines, the Holy Grail of many, are what come naturally to Greece.
The profile of Greek wine suggests that it is highly unlikely it will make it big in the global wine market, but it can be an important tool for wine professionals. There is little chance that Greek wine brands will dominate sales in main export markets, selling millions of cases a year, even though they are some of the best value-for-money buys in the world market today. This is why, along with great quality and affordability, Greek wine is an inspirational, truly different proposal, based on actual, unique attributes. It is a superb tool for people, be they wine professionals or not, who feel offended by blandness and who understand the need for diversity. Greek wine was made to meet that need for a long, long time…
Over the next twenty years, standing out in the world of wine will be far more important than being just good or very good. This necessity will permeate the whole global wine industry, from the vine grower to the oenologist, to the wine trader and down to the final consumer. The New Wines from Greece provide an exciting and exceptional option for those willing to explore beyond the commonplace. I suggest you do not miss out this opportunity.
The text has been created within the framework of «New Wines of Greece» EDOAO - OPE Promotion Campaign financed with ad from European Union and Greece Also published in Wine Plus magazine - isuue N. 45 - summer 2013