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Beyond assyrtiko, Greek whites reach for distinction
AMONG all the little-known grape varieties found in the ancient land of Greece, assyrtiko is the one that seems to have broken through. Yet its surfacing has been tentative.
A vanguard of curious and adventurous drinkers recognises that assyrtiko from the island of Santorini displays many of the characteristics that are associated with great dry white wine. It has been by far the most popular among Greek whites, a category that has grown recently in the United States.
"There has been a significant increase in the sales of Greek wine in the US, and especially whites," said Sofia Perpera, director of Greek Wine Bureau-North America, a trade group. "The hottest category, by far, is assyrtiko."
Yet most people, including many who consider themselves wine lovers, still regard assyrtiko as something exotic, perhaps even alien.
So what might they make of other Greek whites with names that are vastly more obscure, like moschofilero, roditis and savatiano, to say nothing of athiri, robola and malagousia? Or is that malagouzia?
Spelling itself is a problem. The names of these Greek grapes must be transliterated into English from the Greek alphabet, which sometimes results in multiple renderings.
So moschofilero is sometimes spelled without the "h", and malagousia with a "z" instead of an "s". And forget about the red grape agiorgitiko, sometimes written aghiorghitiko or even as its English translation, St George.
Having witnessed the rise in the quality of assyrtiko in the past decade or so, I was curious about these other Greek whites. Have they made a similar leap in quality? In an effort to answer this question, the wine panel tasted 20 Greek whites from recent vintages. We specifically excluded assyrtikos because we wanted to focus on these other emerging varieties.
For the tasting, Florence Fabricant and I were joined by two guests: Matthew Conway, general manager and beverage director of Marc Forgione in Tribeca, and Joe Robitaille, head sommelier at Bar Boulud and Boulud Sud near Lincoln Center.
One thing was clear: these wines, no matter how obscure they remain, are far more available than they used to be. Years ago, gathering a variety of Greek whites required visiting speciality shops in Greek neighbourhoods, like Astoria in Queens. Now, they are carried in fine wine shops all over. Our tasting coordinator, Bernard Kirsch, was easily able to accumulate 20 bottles without the once-marathon legwork.
This was all the more remarkable because, aside from eliminating assyrtiko from the list, we also did not want to include in our tasting international grapes like sauvignon blanc and chardonnay, which at one time seemed to be making inroads into Greece's vineyards.
Nonetheless, winemakers do not require international grapes to make generic, internationally styled wines. They simply need the modern equipment and techniques of mass-produced white wine - temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks, yeasts that encourage certain aromas and flavours, and so on.
Regardless of which grapes are used, I suspect, the result can be the sort of fruity, generically aromatic white wines that might come from anywhere in the Mediterranean, or the world. Wines like these are sound, refreshing and flawless, unless you consider boring and nondescript to be flaws. They could easily stand in for the pinot grigio at the corner bar.
Quite a few of the wines we tasted fell into that category.
"With so many having that zippy, stainless-steel feel, I thought I was at an albariño tasting," said Matthew, referring to the Spanish wine from Galicia, which, despite its potential, often descends into formulaic production.
A few followed another recipe, of barrel-fermenting and ageing to achieve textured, chardonnay-like qualities. They were pleasant enough, but, again, generic.
Joe noted that when he visited Greece a decade ago, he noticed that bright, crisp steel-fermented whites were often made for export, while the Greeks kept barrel-fermented whites for themselves.
We were far more excited by wines that seemed distinctive and original, regardless of the method of production. These wines were fresh and refreshing and would be wonderful on a summer's evening with Mediterranean or Middle Eastern food. Our favourites were often profoundly herbal and floral.
In a way, I thought, they were a little reminiscent aromatically of a mild version of retsina, the historic Greek white that is flavoured with pine sap. I say this with some trepidation as retsina is generally as reviled as it is misunderstood, but I mean it as a compliment. Don't worry; none of these actually tasted like retsina.
Our favorite was the 2017 Hoof & Lur from Troupis made from moschofilero grapes grown in Mantinia. Moschofilero, like roditis, is a pink-hued white grape, and it can sometimes make wines like this one that might appear to be rosés. Regardless of the tinge, this was a lively, balanced, deliciously herbal wine with citrus flavours.
An unusual wine, our second pick, is made from the ancient muscat of Alexandria grape, which is found all over the Mediterranean. Often, it's used to make sweet wines, although I've had excellent dry examples from Sicily, where it's called zibibbo. This bottle, the 2017 Terra Ambera from Manolis Garalis on Lemnos, a volcanic island in the Aegean, was dry, perfumed and floral.
Our third wine was the 2016 Theon Dora from Giannis Stilianou in Crete, crisp, fresh and minty. It was a particular study in obscurity, as it was made from three grapes that were unknown to me: vidiano, thrapsathiri and vilana, all indigenous to Crete.
The 2017 Notios from Gai'a in Nemea, an area better known for producing red wines, was our fourth choice. This bottle, made of moschofilero and roditis, leaned toward a more familiar Mediterranean style, but it was very well-done.
It was plain from our tasting that these grapes have the potential to make wonderfully distinctive wines. They are already excellent values. None of the wines in our top 10 cost more than US$24, and six of them were US$20 and under.
It was also obvious that almost half the wines in our tasting - the ones we rejected - suffered from formulaic winemaking. None were undrinkable, but in wine shops already crammed with generic whites, it's doubtful that the unfamiliar names have much shot of breaking through.
The niche success of assyrtiko offers a formula of a different kind: Figure out what is not already saturating the market and go for it. NYTIMES