Greek Wine History
Modern Wines From Ancient Grapes
An article by Kathy Spiliotopoulos, co-founder of Nestor Imports, Inc.
Well more than 2,000 years ago, Hippocrates, renown Greek Physician, considered the father of medicine taught:
"Wine is wonderfully wholesome for man in sickness and in health, provided that it is taken at the right time and in the right quantity to suit individual needs."
The health and other virtues of moderate wine drinking have stood the test of time, as we hear and read nearly every week in the news. This has helped boost wine consumption in the USA, but not necessarily helped increase consumption of Greek wines. Kind of outrageous, when you think about the facts that in ancient times the Greeks were the winemakers to the world, and Greece was the birthplace of medicine!
Why not, and what is happening with Greek wines in today's world?
First, a little history:
Greeks have been making wines for at least 6,000 years. It was the wine and olive oil trade that brought wealth and power to ancient Greece and helped expand its empire. In fact Greeks planted many vineyards throughout Europe including in southern France, Italy, Spain, Portugal and other countries.
Greece is credited with inventing the first wine labels. The ancients stored wine in clay pots called amphorae. Stamps of origin and type were fired into the vessels, the original appellation control system! This guaranteed the origin (winemaker and location) of the wine, and also could include the grape variety - key elements of modern wine labels.
Perhaps you can picture the ancient Greeks cultivating their vines, harvesting the fruits of their labors, crushing the grapes, of course with their feet, and fermenting the juice in the amphorae until the wine was ready.
To the right is a photo of a 17th century BC (Minoan period) wine press in Vathipetro, Crete, which has been preserved and can be seen there today. Superimposed is a photo of half of a 15th century BC (also Minoan period) three-handled amphora in the palace style from Knossos, Crete. This and the two pictures above are from the archives of Greek Wine Cellars, D. Kourtakis SA.
Greek winemaking actually flourished through the fall of Rome under Byzantium and even continued under the rules of Constantinople, but, alas, Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Empire, and then ensued 500 years of domination by Islam, which forbade its followers to drink alcohol. Nonetheless, Islam allowed wine to be made, because it was a great source of tax revenue, just as it is today in the USA at the federal, state and local levels.
However, under Ottoman rule, travel was difficult, requiring a hard-to-get and costly permit, and thus, wine became a cottage industry. Monasteries and village farmers maintained the vineyards throughout Greece, with consumption mainly limited to the wine maker and his local neighbors. Then came the war for independence, 100 years with a new Greek state that was bankrupt; after that a couple of world wars, followed by a bitter civil war.
Poor Greece remained in the wine making dark ages while France, Italy, and other European countries were developing "wine cultures," cultivating vineyards that in some cases had been planted by ancient Greeks. As late as the 1960's and early 70's most Greek wine was not sold in bottles. Villagers and visitors filled their jugs at the local grocer, tavern or wine maker. Effectively Greece only started emerging as a modern wine nation, in the 1970's.
Greek wine today:
Today, Greek wine making is conducted by trained oenologists using modern wine making techniques. To the right is a modern bottling line at the Domaine Costa Lazaridi's winery in Drama, located in northern Greece.
That is not to say that barrel wines have disappeared these can still be found in most village homes and in local tavernas, even in Athens. Some of these homemade wines taste a bit like a mix of vinegar and sherry, others are quite quaffable.
In 1984, when Aristides and Kathy Spiliotopoulos founded Nestor Imports, Inc., few here in the USA were aware that Greece produced drinkable wines. To make matters worse, the word "cuisine" was not associated with Greek food. Greek restaurants, mostly located in ethnic enclaves, such as Astoria Queens, sometimes referred to as "Athens West" had limited lists of bargain priced wines, often with very short shelf lives. Most Greek wines were consumed in Greek-American homes and purchased from a liquor store or local Bakaliko (small grocery store) depending on state liquor laws.
Just as the French and Italians and other European's enjoyed a wine renaissance lo those many years ago during the "dark ages" of Greek winemaking, so did they enjoyed a surge of wine sales here in the USA. Wines drinking had become fashionable, Italian and French restaurants were flourishing, and expanding to cover regional cuisines, and so were their wines. The tens of millions of dollars that these and other European countries spent each year on advertising and promotion also had much to do with the large volume of sales.
Unfortunately, Greece could not offer tens of millions of dollars to promote Greek wines or foods here, so Greek wine and food importers had to fend for themselves. Thus, it was in 1992, that Kathy Spiliotopoulos joined forces with Eric Moscahlaidis, President of Krinos Foods to launch the Greek Food and Wine Institute. During the 1990's, the Institute was very active in conducting promotional and educational activities that were instrumental in awakening the American public to the joys and high quality of Greek foods, wines and spirits. It is the Institute that has long been credited with spurring popularity for Greek cuisine that resulted in the opening of dozens of fine, highly regarded Greek restaurants across the USA.
It is the emergence of Greek cuisine, served in upscale restaurants that helped change the face of the Greek wine market here in the USA. Today, more Greek wine is sold in restaurants than in liquor or grocery stores.
Greek wine quality and variety has rapidly improved, garnering awards in many international wine competitions around the world. Believe it or not, there are now nearly 1,000 different labels of Greek wine from about 90 different Greek wineries available here in the USA. Not surprising when you consider that Greece has more than 300 indigenous grape varietals, and at least as many wineries.
The native Greeks have become much more sophisticated in their wine drinking over the last decades, and their wine production reflects this. Greek wineries are producing world-class, modern wines made from ancient grapes, as well as modern blends of ancient and "traditional" grapes, and "traditional" wines such as cabernet, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and merlot.
Coverage in mainstream media also reflects the evolution of Greek wine over the past two decades. In the mid-1980's Nestor Imports worked closely with major wine media, such as Wine & Spirits magazine to garner coverage for Greek wines. Back then few were even willing to taste them. It is a testimony to the fair-mindedness of Wine & Spirits that they worked with us to make sure that their summer Mediterranean issue included Greece, not only for wines, but spirits (every Mediterranean country produces an anise-based spirit) and of course, food.
Today, Greek wines are also reviewed in Wine Spectator, Wine enthusiast, Food & Wine and many others. Nestor Imports' wines were even featured in a Business Week Magazine article, the first ever for Greek wines, along with a "Special Edition" pod cast, entitled "The Delights of Greek Wine". Kouros Patras and Kouros Nemea have been "Best Buy/Value" in the Wine Spectator and Wine & Spirits Magazine; and Kouros Nemea and Amethystos white "Best Buy" in the Wine enthusiast.
At long last, Greek wines are coming out of the dark ages and into the light. We've come a long way, but have a ways to go. We look forward to the day when we can look at published import statistics, and see "Greece" stand proudly on its own instead of being lumped into "other."
A 4th century BC stamp used to mark the unbaked clay of amphora for wine from Thasos.