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Red wines the world over have become fresher and more energetic in the past decade, offering delightful and lively alternatives to the once dominant fruit bombs that could sink a palate in one salvo.

It's all Greek - wines of surprisingly tannic reds, with energy and balance

Aug 30, 2019 5:50 AM

RED WINES the world over have become fresher and more energetic in the past decade, offering delightful and lively alternatives to the once dominant fruit bombs that could sink a palate in one salvo.

This has been very much to the good, though perhaps one unintended consequence of this stylistic shift has been the diminishing presence of tannins in red wines.

Tannins are felt as a drying, slightly astringent quality in wine, just as in tea that has been oversteeped. They come largely from the skins of grapes, but also from seeds, stems and from wood, if a wine has been aged in new barrels.

In more rustic wines, tannins can dominate, and feel as if they are gripping the insides of the cheeks and tongue as you take a sip. In others, they can be barely noticeable, yet providing the wine with a gossamer internal structure.

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Even before the stylistic shift, many red wines were becoming noticeably less tannic, part of a greater evolution over the past 30 years toward wines that required fewer years of ageing before they were ready to drink.

Historically, the audience for fine, age-worthy reds was small and largely wealthy - people who had the means to buy wine for the long term and possessed suitable cellar space for storage.

But as the demand for these wines grew, the market became more democratic. Consumers no longer had the money, the time or the space to store wines. For this reason, among others, many producers of wines that historically required long ageing began to alter their production methods to make their wines more accessible at an earlier age. Often, this meant that young wines would be less tannic.

This has been for better and for worse. On the plus side, wines that once were tannic enough to turn an oasis into a desert are now made with greater intention to detail. They are more inviting, with more finesse, and can be consumed with great pleasure at an earlier age.

In many reds, the structure now comes from acidity, which refreshes and mostly does not require the same sort of ageing to soften and integrate.

On the minus side, there are more soft, amorphous, low-acid wines, with all the structure of a blob of jelly.

I offer this prelude to emphasise one of the more pleasantly surprising findings in a wine panel tasting of 20 Greek reds from recent vintages, mostly 2015 till 2017, with one 2014 and one 2018. For the tasting, Florence Fabricant and I were joined by two guests, Yumilka Ortiz, a sommelier at Marea on Central Park South, and Phil Johnson, a partner and sommelier at Gloria in Hell's Kitchen.

It is fair to say that most Americans, if they are familiar with any Greek wines at all, know the whites (particularly assyrtiko from the island of Santorini) far better than the reds. Possibly this is because many Greek restaurants in the United States are seafood specialists.

But Greek reds - made from unfamiliar grapes like xinomavro and agiorgitiko, mavrotragano, limnia and mandilaria - can be thoroughly delicious. Most fit squarely among the world's mainstream reds, with local signatures that might take the form of earthiness here, an exotic floral or fruit aroma there, and in quite a few those, firm tannins.

Not only were the wines tannic, but many had a lively acidity as well, which, as Phil said, gave them freshness and lift.

Our favourites combined many of these characteristics. They were juicy, fresh and structured, with earthy floral, herbal and fruit flavours. The best kept these elements in balance, resulting in wines with tension and energy.

Problems arose when this delicate balance faltered, allowing one element to dominate. We also found a number of wines that were either too ripe and fruity, or simply tasted generic, as if they could have come from anywhere. We rejected these bottles.

The No 1 bottle in our tasting was a 2016 Alpha Estate xinomavro from the Hedgehog Vineyard in Amyndeon, in the northern Greek region of Macedonia. We found the wine to be spicy, savoury, floral and complex, with all the elements in balance. At US$23, this wine was our best value in a tasting of overall excellent values.

The original idea had been to taste only wines made with xinomavro, but we were unable to find enough bottles. Still, this wine and others illustrate the potential for this grape, which can often seem like a combination of the Italian grapes nebbiolo and aglianico, with aromas and flavours of menthol, liquorice and flowers.

No 2 was a balanced, energetic 2017 from Domaine Sigalas in Santorini, made of two grapes: mavrotragano, an almost extinct Santorini variety that has been revived in recent years, and mandilaria, which originally came from Crete.

Rounding out the top three was the lively, textured, savoury and spicy 2016 from Domaine Glinavos in the Ioannina region of Epirus, in north-western Greece. It was followed by a 2015 mavrotragano from Domaine Argyros in Santorini, an earthy, herbal wine with flavours of liquorice and dark fruits.

No 5 was the 2015 xinomavro from Dalamara in the Naoussa region in northern Greece, tannic and floral with spicy liquorice flavors. Next came a 2014 mavrotragano from Hatzidakis in Santorini, firmly tannic and savory yet harmonious; a balanced, spicy 2018 Troupis from Nemea in the Peloponnese, made of the agiorgtiko grape; and an herbal, earthy, floral 2016 from Domaine Zafeirakis in Tyrnavos, in the Thessaly region of central Greece, made of the limniona grape, another nearly extinct variety that has recently been revived.

Also worth noting were two more xinomavros - the pretty, herbal 2015 Ramnista from Kir-Yianni in Macedonia, and the lush, licorice-scented 2015 Uranos from Thymiopoulos Vineyards in Naoussa. NYTIMES