ONCE SYNONYMOUS WITH idyllic island vacations and now with irresponsible debt, Greece has acquired a third identity: a great white-wine producing country. From the crisp Assyrtikos of the island of Santorini to the aromatic Moschofileros and Malagouzias of the Peloponnese, dry Greek white wines are lively, dynamic and very well-priced—albeit saddled with some rather challenging names.
As more and better Hellenic wines have arrived in American shops and restaurants in recent years, wine drinkers are learning to value their charms and even how to pronounce their names. James Tidwell, beverage manager of the Four Seasons Resort and Club in Dallas, Texas, said most of his customers recognize and confidently state the names Assyrtiko and Santorini on his wine list, and he knows this is true at other Dallas restaurants as well.
Though wine production in Greece dates back thousands of years (wine was widely cultivated in the country during the Bronze Age), Greek wine is also something new, having only recently edged into modern times, thanks to a new generation of ambitious, quality-minded producers.
Athens-based Sofia Perpera, of the Greek Wine Bureau of North America, has worked to promote the country’s product in the U.S. for almost 12 years. In that short period, she has watched Hellenic winemakers struggle from obscurity to their current sought-after status among wine professionals.
In fact, she noted that the state of Greek wine is “one of the few bright spots” in the nation’s economy today
In the beginning of Ms. Perpera’s tenure, Greek winemakers focused on the grapes everyone else in the world seemed to be growing—Cabernet, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. They sold their wines mostly in Greek restaurants in Greek communities, such as New York City’s Astoria. But it soon became clear that not many drinkers were looking for a Hellenic Cabernet, and a much wider potential market was being ignored.
Meanwhile, a growing number of Greek producers were embracing native grape varieties such as Assyrtiko, Moschofilero, Malagouzia (also known as Malagousia) and Roditis. A similar movement away from international grape varieties toward native grapes was taking place in countries such as Italy, Spain and Portugal.
Mr. Tidwell thinks Portuguese and Greek wines have a lot in common. “They both have a good quality-to-price ratio and interesting grapes that don’t get much exposure,” he said. Mr. Tidwell didn’t mention that Greek producers have gained something Portuguese winemakers can only dream of possessing: the hearts and minds of American sommeliers
At Manhattan restaurant Boulud Sud, wine director Michael Madrigale features several Hellenic whites by the glass because he believes they fit the Mediterranean menu better and are more interesting than some other, more-popular wines. For Pinot Grigio fans, for example, he recommends the 2014 Santo Santorini Assyrtiko; for Sancerre lovers, Alpha Estate’s Axia Malagouzia. Mr. Madrigale also features about 10 to 12 Greek whites by the bottle at Boulud Sud—all reasonably priced, from $50 to $60 each, which, he said, makes it easy for people to experiment with unknown wine.
Some wine professionals have become so impassioned about the country’s wines they are opening restaurants with entirely Greek lists. Evan Turner has been a sommelier in Houston and New York and is scheduled to open a restaurant, Helen Greek Food and Wine, in Houston in July. He plans an all-Greek wine list that includes about 100 options, a number he plans to double in time. The whites are popular in Houston, noted Mr. Turner, in part because Houston wine drinkers are adventurous but also because Houston can be “blindingly hot” and Greek whites are uniformly refreshing and bright.
Brent Kroll, wine director of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, in Washington, D.C., is also taken with Greek wines. He manages the lists of 13 restaurants, including Iron Gate, which focuses mainly on Hellenic and southern-Italian wines, including a full page devoted to Santorini, primarily to the Assyrtiko grape.
Mr. Kroll prides himself on his ability to find a Greek equivalent to just about any wine in the world. “I can turn a drinker of oaked California Chardonnay into an Assyrtiko drinker,” he said, noting that the oaked version of the grape can recall a New World Chardonnay, while an unoaked version is more minerally and lean, like Chablis. For his wait staff, he’s made online flashcards available that offer information and quizzes about Greek wine regions and grapes.
Other professionals, such as Dionysi Grevenitis, have started companies specializing in the country’s wines. Mr. Grevenitis was a sales representative for Frederick Wildman and Sons, the New York-based importer and distributor, before starting his eponymous wine-brokerage company, in 2014. Mr. Grevenitis found that the limited interest in Greek wines just a few years earlier had blossomed into “actual buzz.”
Today Mr. Grevenitis sees a limitless audience for Grecian wines. “There are no wine allegiances anymore,” he maintained, a belief many sommeliers seem to hold as well. Today’s far-reaching drinkers are as interested in a white from Crete made from the Thrapsathiri grape as they might be a grand cru Burgundy, Mr. Grevenitis said.
Costas Mouzouras, wine director of New York’s Gotham Wines & Liquors, recently had to ration a bottling made from the Thrapsathiri grape. After the 2013 Lyrarakis Thrapsathiri ($16) received favorable reviews, buyers turned out in droves. Mr. Mouzouras had to parcel out the wine—two bottles to a customer. Gotham’s wine director for over 25 years, Mr. Mouzouras remembers when this was inconceivable. He currently stocks about 60 Hellenic wines “not because I’m Greek,” he said, but because the wines are that good.
I bought eight bottles from Mr. Mouzouras and several from Astor Wines & Spirits, in New York. The latter stocks a large Greek selection, especially whites, as buyer Lorena Ascencios is a fan. Ms. Ascencios appreciates their salinity and citric nature, and finds them “light on their feet” and versatile with food.
“Light on their feet” was a fair description of the wines in my tasting—from the lively, crisp and often tangy Assyrtikos of Santorini (most notably the bone-dry 2013 Gaia Estate Thalassitis, $22, and the bracingly tangy 2013 Estate Argyros Atlantis White, $15) to wildly floral Malagouzias from the Peloponnese. The 2013 Alpha Estate Axia Turtles Vineyard ($19) was particularly terrific—a lovely expression of the Malagouzia grape, with a lively citric spicy note. (The grape was almost extinct until an enterprising Peloponnese grower revived it three decades ago.)
The 2013 Gaia Estate Notios White, a blend of Moschofilero and Roditis grapes from the Peloponnese ($14), was lean, lemony and uncomplicated—a great aperitif. The 2013 Nasiakos Moschofilero ($13), from the Mantinia appellation in the Peloponnese, was spicy and floral with a decidedly mineral thread.
A few of the wines were less than enchanting, a few downright odd. For example, I’m not sure I’ll seek out more wines from the Vilana grape. Those I tried were both oxidative and exceedingly light. But with such reasonable prices, the cost of disappointment was small. And what could be better than enjoying a lively and delicious white wine and contributing to the Greek economy too?