Greek Wine Goes Upscale

Wines from Greece achieve sommelier stardom by embracing the country’s heritage and indigenous varietals.

Thanks to improved winemaking techniques and a new focus on the country’s indigenous grapes, the wines of Greece—particularly Assyrtiko (pictured)—have won fame with sommeliers.
Thanks to improved winemaking techniques and a new focus on the country’s indigenous grapes, the wines of Greece—particularly Assyrtiko (pictured)—have won fame with sommeliers.

A decade ago, Greek wine received little attention. “At the time, most Greek wines in this country were still being consumed by Greek-Americans,” says Chris Badini, East Coast sales manager for Athenee Importers & Distributors, which imports around 100 wines from roughly 15 Greek wineries. “Today, almost every wine professional has worked with Greek wines.” The largely high-end resurgence has two causes: the emergence of Santorini as a world-class wine region and a new emphasis on Greece’s indigenous varietals.

“Sommeliers have latched onto Santorini for its unique soil and varietals and for the way it works with food,” Badini says. Marko Babsek, brand manager and Greek wine specialist at The Winebow Group, notes the trendiness of the volcanic island’s acidic, mineral-driven Assyrtiko grape. “The somm community has validated that grape as being in the top echelon,” he says. Winebow distributes Athenee’s brands in around 14 markets.

Santorini wine thrives at upscale venues like Le Bernardin. The three-Michelin-star New York City restaurant offers the 2013 Estate Argyros Santorini Assyrtiko ($14 a glass; $60 a 750-ml. bottle). The island’s wine is the backbone of the Greek wine industry. “We sell probably five bottles of Santorini for every bottle from any other region,” Athenee’s Badini says.

Greek wines have benefited from increasing acceptance of the country’s more than 300 indigenous grapes. “Sommeliers and other buyers are showing their preference for indigenous grapes,” says Sofia Perpera, director of the trade association New Wines of Greece. “In today’s wine world, uniqueness matters most.”

The restaurant Molyvos in New York City offers an all-Greek wine list with more than 400 wines—the largest Greek wine selection in the U.S. market. Offerings range from $34 a 750-ml. bottle for the 2014 Lyrarakis Vilana from Crete to $476 a 1.5-liter bottle for the 2006 Alpha Estate Alpha One Tannat from Florina in Greece’s Macedonia region. Wine director Kamal Kouiri sees the evolution away from international varietals as a natural transition. “Greek winemakers planted Cabernet, Chardonnay and Merlot in the ’80s because they went to Bordeaux schools,” he says. “Those wines opened the gates to indigenous varietals.” Perpera adds, “The ’80s and ’90s saw serious investment in winemaking infrastructure. Now Greece is going through a second revolution with the vineyards, new cultivation methods and new clones.” Greece’s native grapes increasingly dominate sales. “We’ve trimmed down international grape presence in the portfolio and increased the presence of indigenous grapes,” Winebow’s Babsek says.

Native grapes lead sales at Molyvos. For whites, Santorini’s Assyrtiko stands out, followed by Malagousia and Moschofilero. For reds, Xinomavro and Agiorgitiko dominate. Kouiri also cites the white Vidiano, Savatiano and Robola of Kefalonia grapes and the red Limniona and Kotsifali grapes as future bright spots. “Greece has diverse terroir—from the islands of Santorini, Kefalonia and Crete to Amyndeon and Naousa on the mainland,” he says. “It’s a combination of elevation, proximity to the sea, different grape varietals and climate.”

The on-premise has largely driven the increasing success of the category. “You get great value for Greek wine,” Kouiri says, citing $60 as the sweet spot at Molyvos. Winebow’s Babsek notes that the wines do well in Mediterranean restaurants of all types. Athenee’s Badini explains that New York City, Chicago and Boston are top markets, but Greek wines do well everywhere. “Wherever there’s a food scene, there’s a wine scene, and Greek wines can thrive,” he says.

The off-premise has been slower to change. While the value of Greek wine exports to the United States has increased by 25 percent in the last five years, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Impact Databank reports that overall volumes have been flat at around 200,000 cases for years. “There’s a piece missing before Greek wines become more mainstream: consumer awareness,” Athenee’s Badini says. “The everyday consumer doesn’t know Greek wines exist and are world-class.”

Awareness is slowly increasing through trade and consumer events at food festivals and other educational programs. Winebow’s Babsek notes that the industry has already come a long way. “Most stores now want to have Greek wines, whether it’s one or two or five,” he says. “A decade ago, this demand was impossible to imagine.”