Wine in Ancient Greece
Three bowls do I mix for the temperate: one to health, the second to love and pleasure, the third to sleep. When this bowl is drunk, wise guests go home. – Eubulus, Athenian statesman, 375 BC
The Ancient Greeks did not invent wine (the Phoenicians did that) but they were the first to build a culture around the preparation and imbibing of this charming, intoxicating beverage.
Wine originally had a sacramental purpose—it was drunk to open your mind to the gods—and only the elite had access to it. In Greece, however, where the land was ripe for cultivation and production was plentiful, wine became a beverage available to regular people.
As viticulture expanded through the empire, a growing merchant class arose to manage the wine trade and wine became a center of Greek culture. In the first century BCE, the Greeks established the first fraud prevention program and appellation system to assure buyers that their wares were authentic.
For easy transport, amphora was standard wine container. This 40-liter dual-handled clay vessel was clearly marked by each district or town that produced wine. The “branding” was so clear that shards excavated today can often be correctly identified by region and/or producer.
Greece has four main wine regions: Northern, Central, Southern, and the Aegean Islands. It also has four distinct terroirs: mountainous and semi-mountainous, continental, volcanic, and coastal. There are more than 2,000 islands and 9,300 miles of coastline in Greece as the country touches the Ionian, Aegean, and Mediterranean Seas.
Currently, one-third of the Greek population lives in the central city of Athens. The Attica wine region surrounds the city and is known for its calcareous vineyard soils and hot, dry climate. Covering approximately 1,500 square miles with semi-mountainous and continental terroir, Attica is the heart of Greece’s Retsina production. This beloved wine, infused with sap from Aleppo fir trees, is typically made with Savatino in this region (it is made with other grapes in other regions).
The ethereal blue seas surrounding Santorini draws thousands of international tourists to its island shores each year. Known for its Assyrtiko, wine production has been constant on the island for 3,000 years. The great eruption of 1620 BCE covered the island in rock and ash. Thousands of years later, Santorini vineyards still measure 200 feet deep with volcanic soil. With sea air battering the island vineyards, growers form the vines into low-slung, round “kouloura,” which resemble baskets, to protect them from the wind
The temperate Northern Region is home to Macedonia and Thrace and, in addition to thriving indigenous grapes, also has become a strong growing region for Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Syrah. Thrace is more humid and has a higher rainfall than neighboring Macedonia. Dionysus, the wine god, is said to have come from this region. The intense Xinomavro grows exceptionally well in the North.
The Southern region is home to the Peloponnese, Nemea, and Crete, which are all informed by the warm Mediterranean climate where Agiorgitiko and Moschofilero proliferate.
Varietals and Modern Wine Production
For thousands of years, Greeks and visitors enjoyed local table wines made from indigenous grapes. For decades, plentiful and cheap Retsina was the primary wine export—thought not a particularly ideal first impression of Greek wines for an international audience.
In the 1970s, a movement began to modernize wine production. With innovation and investment, Greek wines significantly increased in quality. When Greece joined the European Union in 1983, they better defined Greek wine law and established the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) and Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) for the country.
Greek wines are remarkably amenable and adapt beautifully to varied textures.
The most popular white varietals are the dry and minerally Assyrtiko (Ah-seer-tee-ko), aromatic Moschofilero (Mosh-co-fill-air-oh), rich and fruity Malagousia (mala-goo-zee-ah), Chablis-like Savatiano (Sa-vah-tee-anno), and piney Retsina (Ret-see-nuh).
Greece’s reds tend to fruity and tart with Agiorgitiko (Ah-your-yee-tee-ko) being the most versatile. Xinomavro (Keh-see-no-mav-roh), similar to Nebbiolo and with great aging potential, is the next most recognized grape. Mavrodaphne (Mav-roh-daf-nee) with its blueberry and chocolate notes was once only a sweet wine but is now also being made in a dry style, suggestive of Syrah.