Masters of Wine in Greece, Part 2 An overview
In a previous article, I wrote my first impressions from the Masters of Wine visit to Greece. This was the second visit within a decade, and it placed the spotlight on our country for at least the seven days of its duration. I want to think that it served as a starting point, from which Greek wine may step forward and manage to shine, for its quality and distinctiveness: indigenous varieties, diverse terroirs, and a younger generation of winemakers that are revolutionising the wine scene.
In this article that follows, I have recorded the separate opinions of some of the participants because a lot can be learned from these. I posed some questions, and these are the answers I was given.
1. Level of quality for Xinomavro and Agiorgitiko
Richard Kershaw ΜW (winemaker Richard Kershaw Wines): Let me take Agiorgitiko, firstly. I felt that this was a grape that had potential as a crowd-pleaser. Being lower in acidity it was amiable as a variety, with soft, plush textures. It also tended to blend well with international varieties, especially Syrah making supple, approachable more accessible drinking wines. However, in many cases on its own or in a blend, it seemed to have had a lot of oak thrown at it, detracting from the inherent character of the grape. Also, many wines came across as super ripe, with generous alcohol levels. Producers should perhaps look more at their winemaking technique. Still, for myself, I also had a slight penchant for the more single Agiorgitiko wines, I remember the Ktima Pavlidis Emphasis one of my favourites at the 1st tasting. On Xinomavro, I thought tannins, if tamed, could be excellent as it had such a vibrant acidity.
Lenka Sedlackova MW (Sales & Marketing Manager, Fields, Morris & Verdin): The quality of Xinomavro was very well illustrated by the Naoussa tasting but also the tasting of Rapsani. I think the wines are getting better and there are different and distinct styles available, my preference being for the more modern and softer styles which show more fruit and perfume. I think that is the style that is more likely to get new consumers interested in the variety. With Agiorgitiko, the quality message is a bit more mixed. There is a lot of oak being used still, sometimes to mask a lack of character. I have found that the best styles were either completely stripped back (no new oak and elegant alcohols) or blended with Syrah. I thought those blends were more successful than with Merlot or Cabernet as they elevated the peppery, spicy character.
Konstantin Baum MW (Wine merchant and consultant): High potential (especially for Xinomavro) but it very much depends on the winemaker. Agiorgitiko maybe has more potential for the mass market.
Liz Thach MW (Distinguished Professor of Wine, Sonoma State University): I enjoyed these wines from the quality area and producers, but found a lot of the others to be all over the map. It will be difficult for the everyday consumer to understand what precisely these wines should taste like. For example, one of the primary markers of Agiorgitiko is soft tannins, but I found the majority of the wines to have very rough tannins and too much oak. In general, I was much more impressed with the white wines.
Jane Boyce MW (JN Wine): More impressed with Xinomavro and feel it is perhaps more in keeping with the style that red wine consumers are looking for. The pronunciation will be a problem for Anglophiles, but well-managed tannins and moderate alcohol levels along with judicious use of oak are pluses.
Philip Harden MW (Henley Cellars): Agiorgitiko might need some more work on tannin management, I'm not sure we've yet seen what it might be capable of.
Igor Ryjenkov MW (Assistant Product Manager, European Wines, Vintages, LCBO): Regarding reds - a few unique and native grapes were delightful discoveries, with the limited number of wines tasted looking promising, e.g. Mouhtaro, Vlahiko and Mandilaria of Santorini - the latter is quite a fierce little number, reminds me of Ramisco of Colares with high tannins, high acid and low alcohol. There, the requirement is for it to age for eight years before release, and Mandilaria certainly could use a lot of time and tame, but an exciting grape anyway. Those are of course of a niche appeal, the seasoning to the meat and potatoes of Agiorgitiko and Xinomavro and I suppose those are the main varieties that you would like to get the feedback on. In general, I think the level for both is pretty high, but I feel thinking back that I was more excited about the evolution of Xinomavro than Agiorgitiko. I believe, there has been more progress with the former than the latter, which was in a decent place even ten or so years ago when I visited, so the room for improvement and discovery was maybe more limited for Agiorgitiko, or maybe there are more new players working with Xinomavro. Whatever it is, there were fewer discoveries for me with the same names coming up as best sources of Nemea and Agiorgitiko, e.g. Papaioannou and there were at least a couple to three new producers working with Xinomavro that can now show inspiring results. The comparison to Nebbiolo is even more apt for some of those wines, as the red fruit, cornelian cherry, and floral character were the common theme for the better recent vintages. I think both grapes have a place, like Sangiovese and Nebbiolo, for different palates and uses. Still, I was pleasantly surprised by the aromatic verticality and the finesse that Xinomavro is capable of, with more exceptional care and attention.
Simon Nash MW (Montgomery Nash Consultancy): I think the key is more about the winemaking than the varieties themselves. This means to build the wines in a fresher style, use oak as desired, but only high-quality oak, and in a supporting rather than dominating way.
John Downes MW: Obviously quality varied from winemaker to winemaker but, in general, it was the heavy/unnecessary use of oak masking good fruit levels on some wines that disappointed. I like the two varieties though - they could work on the international stage with smart marketing, albeit initially in the independent/hand-sell marketplace; this could, of course, allow top quality wines at a premium price.
2. Pricing for Santorini Assyrtiko. Thoughts.
Richard Kershaw MW: As I mentioned at the time, I have no problem spending good money on something that is of such high quality and adds a counterbalance and different approach and style to the expensive white burgundies that abound. It also helps get it noticed at the international table, where many consumers are to be found. It is worth remembering that in places like the US, there are some customers that don’t spend anything less than $100. I remember that when we entered the US with the Kershaw at around $50, it did well, but when we released my Deconstructed at $100-125 it opened the minds of a whole new set of wealthy customers prepared to pay top dollars. Besides, to keep the entire machine running, the price may be the only level left.
Lenka Sedlackova MW: Considering what is going on in Santorini and the explanations we've had regarding the cost of land, weather challenges and lack of skilled vineyard labour, I think the higher pricing is justified. It does not come at the right time as Assyrtiko is still a niche variety, which is building its image worldwide. It is now more likely that a new consumer's first taste of Assyrtiko will now be from mainland Greece or Crete, rather than the steely styles from Santorini.
Konstantin Baum MW: Seems to be based on the cost to purchase grapes and make wine on the island, so from that perspective the prices are fair. It is, however, not easy to sell a white wine that is not that well known at the prices most wineries charge in some export markets.
Liz Thach MW: I don't think the pricing is too high -- as long as they explain the growing conditions. Santorini needs to adopt a luxury wine strategy, which is very different from the current marketing strategy they are using. There is no way they can be sustainable if they keep doing what they are. They need an excellent communication campaign on why their wines are so expensive, and then they will succeed. They also need to develop some wines that will age for a long time. Gaia is doing this, and I think he is correct.
Jane Boyce MW: Santorini Assyrtiko, for me, is Greece's trailblazer from so many angles: the name Santorini and the island are fantastic international brands. Assyrtiko would appeal to the broad base of consumers who enjoy unoaked, dry white wines with high acidity. Also, there is such a good story behind the wines - the volcanic soil, the low yields, the struggle with the constant pressure of international tourism on land prices. The wines are not cheap, but since there is nothing to compare them with, they should go out there with the story and the premium pricing and get people tasting and understanding.
Philip Harden MW: Low yields, tight supply, high land prices and a unique and fantastic wine - prices reflect all that and are currently reasonable in the UK - however, if prices push on then consumers will switch to substitutes...I think the market pricing is close to the maximum consumers will accept...
Igor Ryjenkov MW: On the Santorini pricing - I touched on it at the debrief. I feel that the days of "democratic" pricing are probably now gone and for good, as the 20 wineries vying for the same or less fruit as a few years ago - drought, reduced yields, etc., and then making several cuvees each does not sound like a path to reaching affordability and commercial volumes. That said, it is not impossible to sell high-quality wine with an extraordinary story at the premium and luxury prices on the global market place, and Santorini whites are that but, a couple of caveats - the island will lose all or most of the current consumer, who is not prepared to pay for the same - maybe somewhat better - wine twice or three times as much as they used to before, so the wine's story needs to be told well and to the right audience as a new consumer will have to be recruited to be willing to pay the prices the wines have to be sold at. The Austrian model of targeted distribution of the estate wines from high-quality regions - Kamptal, Kremstal etc. is the one that proves that it is possible and probably the one that should be emulated. Many of us may lose out - Stephen mentioned that he is not likely to follow, and I might also be able to enjoy a very occasional glass of it at a higher-end wine bar, but so be it, many of us are not necessarily the target audience for the wines at these prices.
Simon Nash MW: Not excessive but I think it's at a ceiling where it stands. Price is less of an issue than value – i.e. the quality/cost balance. Producers must keep aiming for the best quality. Anyone making a super Assyrtiko? How to push through to the next level? Or like NZ Savvy can it only go so far in real reserve quality terms.
John Downes MW: Cards on the table - it's one of my favourite white wines. With many consumers not having heard of Santorini Assyrtiko the price tags for the entry/mid-level wines may well be hitting the ceiling, but I think that there is a market for small volume premium Santorini Assyrtiko (with a higher price tag) amongst the knowledgeable consumer.
3. Your thoughts about natural wines/new trends scene in Greece
Richard Kershaw MW: I think this is an essential category in any country now, and there were some excellent examples during our trip, especially that cracking Anatolikos Assyrtiko/Malagousia blend. However, one should err caution about placing too much emphasis on the category. As natural wine has started to be part of the fraternity, better wines are being made across the world. As panel chair for natural wines in 5 Star wines in Italy, the quality is noticeably better. However, not all of the buyers are hipsters, and even those do look for something typical from a country. In a way, natural wine offers the quirks of the country but does not necessarily give regional understanding to the country.
Lenka Sedlackova MW: I have discovered many natural wines I liked, which for me is not the norm. I was especially surprised about the quality of the reds as I tend to think whites perform better. There were brightness and vivacity to the wines and, most importantly, lower alcohol levels.
Konstantin Baum MW: The wineries we tasted were a bit of a mix of natural and organic. Some of the most exciting wines I tasted were from that category.
Liz Thach MW: This is a small market, and some producers are doing well. Several told me that these are their most popular wines and that importers want them. Therefore, they should keep providing them, but make sure to add a small amount of SO2 to protect wines in transit.
Jane Boyce MW: Not a fan of natural wines, but I indeed came across some admirable efforts and applauded the producers who are minimising the use of SO2, pesticides and fertilisers, but not at any compromise to the quality of their wines.
Philip Harden MW: Like anywhere it is an emerging trend, it has potential because consumers are increasingly putting their "ethical/sustainable" pounds to work, and as quality improves it will be a sector with a growing future...
Simon Nash MW: Not a massive fan of natural wines, in general, as they lack consistency, and are too self-referential, of course, there are exceptions, but not enough to rely upon. Good to see the willingness of Producers to push their natural grapes and confidence in doing so. Was talking with a vital buyer from Brazil yesterday and that was the first thing he said, so, interestingly, this message has got out so widely!
John Downes MW: Cards on the table - 'not a big fan of natural wines ... that said, I did enjoy a couple in Greece (Dom. Karanika Cuvee de Reserve en Magnum 2015 comes to mind). No doubt there's a market for Greek natural wines within the global natural wine fan base.
4. Blind tasting of 5 terroirs in Santorini. Comments.
Richard Kershaw MW: Good fun, although at times, confusing! The fact that there are differences within the Santorini island makes it intellectually stimulating. But on a pure marketing level, this is a support/secondary story for those interested (Somms/geeks, etc.!) and one should be careful in pushing this too hard.
Lenka Sedlackova MW: This was interesting, and the differences were there, but I think it may be too soon to look at the differences. Santorini is so small and niche as it is and I am not sure that we are there yet when it comes to different villages. It has taken France centuries, and even countries like Spain still struggle with differences of terroir within particular regions, so I think we need to be patient here.
Konstantin Baum MW: Good idea and engaging in general. Was a bit confusing, though.
Liz Thach MW: Excellent, and will be more useful once Santorini adopts a luxury wine marketing strategy and can spend more time explaining to the luxury consumer the difference between these terroirs and HOW they AGE and why they are COLLECTIBLE.
Jane Boyce MW: Fascinating exercise but I feel enough was going on getting to grips with the Assyrtiko grape and the different styles produced by the various wineries.
Philip Harden MW: Interesting but I feel like I need to do it again......
Igor Ryjenkov MW: The five terroirs tasting was great - it was a bit of a challenge to capture the notes in the right places, but this minor issue aside, I found it of great value, as this is the tasting one can do only at the source, at least for now. It was a great idea, thanks for doing it.
Simon Nash MW: Interesting exercise and the differences did come through. The tasting was a bit of a parlour game, but it worked (well I identified them). The sub-regional differentiation story is worthwhile as a support story, for connoisseurs/wine followers to pursue. So it should continue to be developed, as if it gets traction, it can open out another development area to tell the Santorini story in more depth. At this stage, though it's a second-tier story to the main one about wine in Santorini. There's still good work to be done in refining and pushing the overall story further afield globally.
John Downes MW: Good fun exercise for us MW's but at this stage of Santorini Assyrtiko's foray into the international market I think it's 'a bit up its own bum' ...better to concentrate on telling the consumer where 1. Greece is 2. where Santorini is and 3. what Assyrtiko is. 'Talking villages' to Joe and Josephine Public are way off into the future. That said, it could work as an addition onto the label of one of the premium wines aimed at the knowledgeable wine consumer.
5. Which were the most exciting styles you tasted?
Richard Kershaw MW: I felt the whites tended to have the upper hand in what shone. I loved most of the Malagousia styles, and to an extent, some of the Malagousia blends. I enjoyed the Gewurztraminer from Avantis as I did their Syrah blend (despite not being a total fan of the international varieties). Assyrtiko is the wine of choice for me from Santorini. However, there were 1 or 2 excellent examples on the mainland, although the best case that comes to mind was the blend of 50:50 Assyrtiko/Semillon from Ktima Biblia Chora. Savatiano was pretty good (but not the oaked examples) but the most exciting ones were more unusual examples such as the Aoton which had extended skin maceration. I also liked the 100% Fokiano natural red from Afianes. On Crete, I liked several Vidiano wines. Outside of these, the Moschofilero from Semeli was pretty smart; Liatiko in some examples. That Vlahiko from Katogi Averoff at high altitude was also cracking!
Lenka Sedlackova MW: I loved all the Santorini Assyrtiko, world-class wines! I was nicely surprised by the wines of Thessaly, actually, in particular Rapsani. And all the Xinomavro.
Konstantin Baum MW: Xinomavro and Assyrtiko
Liz Thach MW: Vidiano, Assyrtiko from all over Greece (Santorini is a separate style of its own, which is good) and some of the Malagousia that retained its freshness and floral elements.
Jane Boyce MW: Liatiko, Moshofilero, Roditis and Vidianο.
Philip Harden MW: Liatiko, Karanika sparkling wine...
Igor Ryjenkov MW: the best of the Xinomavro looked appealing to me, a lot of whites were a pleasant discovery, Savatiano, Malvasia, Vidiano, Dafni, Romeiko to name a few, all had something different and exciting to offer. Also, it was an excellent opportunity to taste this many Santorini wines, with an overall high standard and quite a few delivering at the top quality level. The Gaia Thalassitis that we had a couple of vintages of is one to mention, but the first walk around yielded quite a few beautiful examples. The lees and their impact is something I already commented on; I hope in an effort to make age-worthy wines, the producers do not compromise too much of the upfront appeal, and often, the intended goal.
Simon Nash MW: I think the white varieties were the ones which surprised and interested me most. The reds were somewhat overshadowed (cf comments about winemaking though). The Malagousia, Savatiano, Vidiano, Moschofilero, Roditis, Romeiko, Muscat Spina, etc. were very promising.
John Downes MW: Talking generally it was the white wines that caught my attention; especially Savatiano and Vidiano. The ageing quality of Savatiano (reminiscent of Oz. Semillion taking on waxy lemon overtones and giving the impression of oak ageing) was striking. The fact that the two grape varieties are easy to pronounce is a bonus.
6. Wines of Crete. Could they make waves in international markets?
Richard Kershaw MW: Yes, I think they have a compelling story, and being such a large island can offer a variety of exciting styles of wine.
Lenka Sedlackova MW: Yes, most certainly. They have an advantage in that they have so many different and exciting grape varieties and good volumes available and, most importantly, great value for money — a high entry point for new consumers into Greek wine.
Konstantin Baum MW: Good price and good quality so there is potential. I did not find the wines super exciting overall, but they are right.
Liz Thach MW: Yes -- loved these wines, the passion of the producers, the beauty of the land, and the integrated wine tourism/marketing campaign. Crete could be the next famous wine region......but be aware that many Americans may not know it is part of Greece and may assume it is a separate country.
Jane Boyce MW: yes, I think they are a dynamic, cohesive bunch with a lot to offer. So many people visit Crete on holiday - more could be done to make the connection with the wines in export markets. A few strong brands and two easily recognisable grape varieties like Vidiano and Liatiko would be an excellent first rung of the ladder.
Philip Harden MW: Potentially - though I'm not quite sure what their flagship wine/variety would be.
Igor Ryjenkov MW: most of the Cretan wineries do not yet really have commercial volumes to make an impact. The competence and quality are there - I found better appeal in the wines made from local grapes and the Rhτne varieties than Bordeaux ones, and I enjoyed the local whites as much, if not more than the reds. Still, the challenge would be trying to make waves on the International market with the quantities available.
Simon Nash MW: Possibly. As an Island, it has the advantage of a clear delineation and historic story. Need an intense 'Wines of Crete' story and then layer that with a simple outline of critical regions, Heraklion, West, etc., to establish the geography. And lastly a clear focus on key varieties - Vidiano the critical variety.
7. Any other comment you would like to make
Richard Kershaw MW: I think the take away for me is that Greece has an extensive history yet is also trying to reinvent itself. It has a whole heap of exciting grape varieties (of which some hard to pronounce could be challenging for the international market) as well as compelling styles.
Areas such as Santorini can produce a fabulous marketing angle: Wines that are not only world-class but can also demand higher prices as well as having a core focus in one signature variety. (Importantly, while they also have the outstanding location, most wine drinkers will be drinking the wines away from the site). Regions on the mainland have some excellent varieties to work with but focusing on two reds, and perhaps two whites help craft a more focused storyline. The other varieties add a useful angle, but must not hog the limelight. With the growth of more lightly wooded or non-wooded, concrete styles of wine Greece has opportunities. Personally, given the number of grapes, international varieties are useful for the entry-level, but no more.
Jane Boyce MW: Fascinating opportunities for Greece, but they need to take things slowly and not over-complicate the story of Greek wine. In the UK and Ireland, knowledge of Greek wine is at a shallow level - this is a strength as well as a weakness. In establishing a place in export markets, Greek wine needs to go beyond the Greek restaurant sector in the on-trade with the training of sommeliers as well as consumers and this should happen alongside the establishment of some well-funded brands with good quality/price relationship. Labelling and names need to be consistent and concise and in the Latin rather than the Greek alphabet.
Igor Ryjenkov MW:
- use of lees - there seems to be quite widespread use of it and particularly on Santorini with varying results. It is understood that the variety is somewhat prone to oxidation, according to one producer. Still, the extensive use of it imparts not just freshness but a lasting and masking mark that shows even with extensive ageing. The "fine" part of the lees equation and the length of contact needs to be closely monitored, but I am sure it is just growing pains, the wine built for ageing is a relatively new phenomenon, as was mentioned at the Friday Master Class.
- the embrace of natural, low sulphites, low input winemaking - it was interesting to see how present that theme was and the outcomes were varied - to my palate and mind those who managed to minimize their inputs without compromising the varietal or regional expression probably would do best, as they do not lock themselves in the "natural" consumer niche, where the wine showing excessive carbonic note, or oxidative, or unusual textures belong.
I should clarify the last point in terms of the horizon - I am talking longer-term there, I still might buy a bottle of good Santorini at 20+CAD price, something from Santo or Boutari, but this is today, and in the long run I do not see even these prices sustainable, and that is where the further drop off will happen - some is already happening, as many suppliers indicated.
Simon Nash MW: Overall, there's lots of interest and massive differentiation. Quality and technical levels seem good generally, though there's a lack of top, super wines to draw attention. The diversity/complexity is an advantage and drawback at the same time. This means the challenge is one of achieving cut-through, via clear messaging. Santorini/Assyrtiko shows how this can pay off, but that's similar to the Marlborough/Sauvignon Blanc breakthrough, so it's not directly applicable on a broader basis. The challenge for Wines of Greece is to develop a clear, overarching strategy and story with multiple levels underneath such interested parties can proceed as far as their interest takes them.
John Downes MW: There's enough quality, interest - and stories - in the wines of the many regions of Greece to support an effective marketing campaign. I suggest that the marketing campaign starts with the premise that the consumer knows NOTHING about Greek Wine.
Some Greek labels are designed on the assumption that the consumer knows about Greek Wine - they don't! If a group of MW's were confused, the consumer has no chance. Simplicity is the key.
I would also like to throw some conclusions by Steve Charters MW (wineculture.net) as recorded in his report based on varieties and regions:
''On Savatiano The work being done on Savatiano is interesting. It will never be a great grape variety, but it is potentially useful, and some exciting examples were tasted. It can also age neatly in the mid-term, rather like Hunter Valley Semillon, but without the high acid and with a bit more alcohol.
On Malagousia capable of making beautiful, easy-drinking, wines.
On Assyrtiko offers good acidity – but rarely gains the focus it achieves on Santorini. It can be useful blending material, however, to add a bit of structure to other grapes.
On Xinomavro A number of us were precise that Xinomavro is the important red grape of the mainland and should be promoted a lot more. I was slightly more hesitant; many producers seem to me to be exploring how to handle the acid and tannin, and I think more work needs to be done on this. But the best was very attractive, indeed.
On Agiorgitiko Agiorgitiko, on the other hand, is very much a work in progress, and a few of us felt that it often has to support too much oak for its style – the real fruit of the grape is lost. They may also be over-extracted, with tannin out of balance with the medium-body of the wine. The best examples were lovely, with precise damson and griotte fruit.
Discoveries One of the most exciting discoveries was unknown or unexpected grapes making interesting and often gorgeous wines. A Gewurztraminer from Evia of all places. Preknadi (the ‘freckled grape’ – a great marketing line there) with weighty stone fruit character. Mouhtaro from Thebes, and the lovely cherry and plum aromas of the red grape Vlahiko, with overt acid and lightweight.
On Crete This was another unexpected discovery. I think many of us had been looking forward to Crete, but with limited expectations for the wines. But across the board, the wines were generally cleanly made, with quite precise fruit characters. They may not have been profound but were often enjoyable. But the other very impressive aspect of the island was the way that the wine industry organised itself. This was the most surprising of the three parts of the trip.
Here it was the red wines which were the most striking, and particularly those made from Liatiko, which many of us fell in love with. For me, it was a bit reminiscent of Cinsault (which is not a criticism, having already had this year outstanding examples of wines made from that grape in both Lebanon and South Africa). Mid-weight, medium tannins but a touch drying on the finish. Sometimes a touch (welcome) acidity and tasty red fruit characters. Kotsifali, on the other hand – the other leading indigenous variety, doesn’t seem to have the same breeding. Southern French red varieties did work well here, though, Grenache especially. The main white – many were suggesting to us that the leading variety of the island – is Vidiano. Some soft stone fruit characterised the best, and a bit of body, but the wines often lacked focus or direction. Assyrtiko was quite widespread; as on the mainland, it had good acid but lacked the pure and complex varietal fruit from Santorini. For what it’s worth my view is that the best future for a distinctive white on the island could be a blend – ‘Cretan Classic White’, with Vidiano dominant but a good tranche of Assyrtiko for structure. And a word for the unique aromas of the variety Dafni.
Commenting on territorial branding, what was apparent as soon as we arrived was that the producers on Crete have collectively got their act together: they seem cohesive, with a clear purpose, a willingness to work with each other and a well-delineated image and identity. We were told a few times that it was in 2006 that they decided they had to work together if they were to drag Cretan wine into the modern world, and collectively construct a plan to do this. There is a wine route and developing wine tourism. They need to establish some identifiable icon wine styles, but they seem aware of this and are willing to explore possibilities. Interestingly they seemed to accept that the success of each depends on the success of all with the implication that they should sink their differences in pursuit of common goals. Good luck to them – they deserve it.
On Santorini Many of us probably anticipated that this would be the real highlight of the trip, and it didn’t disappoint. It showed the consistency (and more) of Crete combined with the fact that for some time now the producers have known what their icon is and have been honing how to produce Assyrtiko. We had a particularly focused discussion on the wines here (and also on market structure and image) so here are some key points of our debate:
It was clear to us that there are internal issues, particularly in the value chain – focusing on grape pricing and supply. The price of a kilo has risen from 1€ to 5€ over about eight years. This is necessary for one sense to keep growers in production (and to avoid them selling their land for development), but it’s pushing the price of wine up dramatically. In some ways, the grower-producer relationship here reflects the same connection at times in the past in Champagne.
Producers also want to cash in on the increasing reputation of the wines. This, with the previous point, is pushing some wine prices way above 30€ a bottle, and on to 50, 60, even 80+ euros. Can the wine style sustain this? Do the wines offer the complexity to make it worth paying so much? Here we disagreed. Some, including me, felt that 20-30€ for good Santorini Assyrtiko was good value; higher than that and the cost was becoming a bit more questionable. (And it should be added that oaking the wine is not a good reason for adding to the price – especially if the oak is heavy-handed). Others were clear that the wines are worth everything asked for them – and some would be good value at 100€. Maybe – but that is the view of the wine expert. I wonder if the typical consumer of these wines (who is already probably highly involved with wine) would agree, especially if you can get (say) good premier or grand cru Chablis for less.
A lot of the wines we tasted were older styles. A few of us loved these, but some said that, while the wines didn’t oxidise, they were not interesting enough to age for longer than maybe 7-8 years; the ideal age seems to be about 2-4 years when the wines have settled a bit but retain their youthful vivacity and austere bite.
Meanwhile, there may be problems in the vineyards. We saw one long-term and experienced grower, Nikolas Pelekanos, (with a fascinating demonstration of pruning) who lamented that only about ten growers on the island still knew how to prune correctly. As grape prices go up, production is going down, and with more producers looking to buy land and grapes, there will be further pressure on supply. This is complicated by the fact that growers are unwilling to commit to long term contracts with producers, making production planning hazardous. One speaker suggested to us (with a carefully constructed and presented argument) that Santorini wines are likely to die out in about 20 years.
What can Greek wine do to prosper? They have one world-renowned style, some good possibilities bubbling under and an enthusiastic and dynamic assortment of producers. How can they capitalise on this?
There was a debate about using international varieties to capture the attention of foreign markets and then win them over to trying wines made from indigenous varieties. Give people something they can understand first. I’m not so sure. However, the point was made that in many parts of the country, Syrah particularly does seem to be a ‘soothing’ variety, especially in Crete.
In marketing, they have to sell the experience and sell a (collective) story. The Cretans are doing well at this as do producers of Santorini. The whole nation needs to learn from them. Tourism, one of us said, is an ‘amazing gift’ – as is Greek cuisine. Why not make an effort to get a couple of excellent wines into every ‘Greek’ restaurant in key target markets? Taina Vilkuna said, to much applause, that this is ‘the new old world’.
Labelling needs rapid attention. Ok, the names can be confusing, but it is worse when they are all spelt differently.
They still have a way to go to overcome the international association with Retsina.
Many of us approved of the way that producers wanted to push boundaries: new techniques, older grapes, creative blends.
Conclusion I found it very important that my colleagues appreciated that Greek wine shows good possibilities and has several producers who are enthusiastic and promising. It was interesting that unknown indigenous varieties caught their attention like Preknadi, Mouhtaro and Vlahiko because this means that paying more attention to indigenous varieties is an opportunity not to be missed. They particularly highlighted the fact that Cretan producers are working collectively towards a common goal, and more of that is undoubtedly needed. They also pointed out that a collective story, combined with tourism and Greek cuisine is quite an advantage. As for the particular comments on specific varieties and how the style of the wines could be improved, these I will bring to the attention of producers so that by the next Master of Wine visit the wines are more authentic, focused and transparent expressions of variety and terroir.''