What difference does a name make in the wine game? Not much if you’re an easy-to-pronounce grape like chardonnay, cab or malbec. Try making it in a fickle marketplace with thrapsathiri, moschofilero or assyrtiko.
Tongue-tying varieties may be a bit much for a skittish wine-buying public. Great grapes with challenging names, however, are just the thing for eager sommeliers and wine educators. (And, yes, we could explore the elitist, hipster, “I know something about wine that you don’t” element out there, but we’re not going to go there. I’m talking about eager, sincere wine experts who truly want to help folks discover exciting corners of wine enjoyment.)
If you hadn’t already figured it out, the above-mentioned grapes not only sound Greek, they are Greek. You’d have to set the Wayback Machine pretty far back to find a time when Greeks weren’t making wine. Over the millennia, Greeks grew grapes that thrived on its rocky hills and islands. All was swell, until international commerce got involved. Then things got sticky.
Back in the 1980s, Greek winemakers started ripping up their agiorghitikos and xinomavros and replanted with cabernet sauvignon, merlot and the like in order to capture a chunk of thriving American market. That went over as well as Starbucks putting a coffee shop inside the Parthenon. Bad for them at the time, but fortunate for us wine lovers.
When international varieties did not gain much traction, the Greeks went back to the varieties they have always known. With patience, and a little help from wine professionals with a soft spot for these amazing grapes, we are seeing more Greek wines on restaurant wine lists. And, often as not, where restaurants go, wine shops are sure to follow, at least enlightened ones with consultants who can lead customers to great wine regardless of the name of the grape.
Sales are headed the right way. “According to the US Census Bureau, Greek wine sales have increased in value by about 25 percent over the past five years,” said Sofia Perpera, director of the Greek Wine Bureau of North America. “The important thing is that Greek wine is not only selling more, but the average price per bottle is significantly higher than in other export markets. This trend is driven by sommeliers, the gate keepers, around the country that have embraced Greek wine.” The Greek Wine Bureau is a trade organization.
Greek wines (especially one of my personal white wine faves, assyrtiko) have been on my mind lately. I’ve re-opened my poolside wine stand and, as usual, have stocked it with light, crisp and whenever possible scintillating wines (not an oaky chardonnay or monster cabernet sauvignon in sight).
One of the star attractions has been the Sigalas Assyrtiko from the island of Santorini. The first job of a wine at the wine stand is to be refreshing, but the Sigalas is a bit of a conundrum. It is at once simple and refreshing, but also subtle and complex. It would be right at home in the delicate glassware at our white-table cloth restaurant as it is in the chunky, plastic wine “glasses” at the pool.
As we start populating the decks and patios of our favorite restaurants this summer, keep Greek wines in mind. And if you can’t pronounce them, you can always just point.
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Gil Kulers is a sommelier and maitre d’ for an Atlanta country club. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.