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From Greece, Food-Friendly and Affordable

By Michael Franz
Wednesday, August 11, 2004; Page F01

If you are eating Greek food, you've got a good reason to try Greek wine. If you are just trying to get into the Olympic spirit, you've got another reason. However, my experience suggests that the only reason you really need to try Greek wine is a bottle of Greek wine. Because Greek wines rock.

Given the timing of this column, I wouldn't blame you for suspecting me of Olympic opportunism. Yet the fact is that I've profiled Greek wines here four times in the recent past and for good reasons: They are among the world's most distinctive and food-friendly wines and are seriously underappreciated by most American consumers.

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If your recollection of Greek wine carries the baggage of Retsina (a traditional wine containing pine resin that has its defenders, among whom I do not number) or of something oxidized or awkwardly sweet from the bad old days, I'm pleased to report such stuff has given way to fresh, vivid wines, both white and red.

Vine training and winemaking are very ancient practices in Greece. Archaeological evidence indicates that wine was significant in Greek and Minoan culture well before the advent of the ancient Olympic games, as long as 3,000 years ago.

Winemaking in Greece has continued uninterrupted since that time, though centuries-long occupation of the country by the teetotaling Ottoman Turks curtailed it considerably and also severed its connection to Europe. Independence and establishment of a modern Greek state promised a wine renaissance, but that promise went unfulfilled due to the disruptions of two world wars and a civil war.

Vinous modernity came even later to Greece than to late bloomers such as Portugal and southern Italy, but come it did, and by the 1980s Greek wines began showing dramatic improvements. The prime catalysts were temperature-controlled fermenters and the first generation of scientifically trained viticulturalists and winemakers. But the deepest roots of the current resurgence spring from the land itself.

Vineyards are speckled across much of Greece's mountain slopes, broad plains and beautiful islands in the Aegean and Ionian seas. Vineyard soils are as varied as the country's topography, and, with more than 300 indigenous grape varieties at their disposal, Greek winegrowers have a remarkably varied palette from which to craft interesting wines. Imported grapes have also done well, including the usual suspects: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay. However, recent improvements in equipment and expertise have proved that Greece's best native grapes can make truly extraordinary wines, and among these the most clearly outstanding are Moschofilero and Assyrtiko on the white side and Agiorgitiko and Xynomavro on the red.

Judging solely by latitude, one might guess that most of Greece is too hot to make interesting wine. Yet many vineyards are cooled by elevated altitudes or by proximity to the seas, so that, judging solely by the wines, one might never guess that Greece is a hot country. Few whites or reds exhibit the high alcohol, low acidity or general heaviness of wines from hot growing regions, and the great majority are either light- or medium-bodied.

As a result, these wines tend to be refreshing rather than tiresome and are extremely versatile with food -- but not so heavy or rough as to require it. Only wines made from Xynomavro are consistently too tannic to drink on their own, but even they will behave themselves when partnered with cheese, and Greece's glorious feta cheeses perform this function deliciously.

This is one of many terrific pairings of Greek wines and foods, as you can discover from the recipes on Page 4, all of which are accompanied by wine recommendations based on trials of the dishes with wines reviewed here. Reviews appear in order of preference below, with regions of origin, approximate prices and importers indicated in parentheses:

WHITE WINES

Moschofilero: This wonderful variety is grown predominantly in the northern Peloponnese, yielding wines that are fresh and zesty but also soft in texture and easy to enjoy. The best current releases are Skouras (Arcadia) 2003 ($15, Dionysos and Constantine), which features floral aromas, fruit that is light and fresh and appealing mineral notes in the finish. Also excellent and relatively widely available is Boutari (Mantinia) 2003 ($14, Paterno), which is generous with delicious melon flavors and just the right touch of citrus fruit for cut and clarity. Kotrotsos (Mantinia) "Erasmios" 2003 ($10, Dionysos) offers a remarkable amount of fresh, fruity fun for 10 bucks.

Santorini: Santorini is among the most famous and beautiful of all the Greek isles, and it produces one of the world's most distinctive wines. Gavala Vineyards 2003 ($13, Dionysos) is packed with the exotic aromas and flavors; notes of minerals, baked fruit and wet straw are only the most prominent of many little nuances. Santo Wines "Nykteri" 2003 ($12, Dionysos) is a little less funky by comparison, but it is hardly lacking for distinctiveness. Trust me on this: These wines seem a bit odd at first but become more convincing with every sip, and prove phenomenally interesting with almost any food appropriate for white wine.

Blends: Greek winemakers -- like their Australian counterparts -- are inventive blenders. Consistently outstanding is Biblia Chora (Pangeon) 2003 ($15, Vina Mediterranean), a superb, 50-50 blend of Assyrtiko and Sauvignon Blanc. Light in body but packed with citrus flavor, with undertones of minerals, straw and smoke, it is a great sipper and a terrific partner for all sorts of foods. Costa Lazaridis (Macedonia) "Amethystos" 2003 ($15.75, Nestor) is just as delightful and equally versatile, with a core of Sauvignon Blanc augmented with a little Semillon and Assyrtiko. Strofilia (Anavissos) 2003 ($16.50, Dionysos) is soft and fruity but also intricate, with mineral undertones and excellent balance. Kir-Yianni (Florina) "Samaropetra" 2003 ($15, Vina Mediterranean) is made from unspecified percentages of Sauvignon Blanc, Gewurztraminer and Roditis, which may sound like strange bedfellows to those who know the grapes but which produce a wonderful interplay between crisp citrus notes and soft floral ones. Skouras (Peloponnese) "White" 2003 ($8, Diamond) may be a little lacking in imagination where the name is concerned, but the wine is a real winner for the money, with terrific balance between juicy, generous fruit and fine mineral edging.


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