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The Modern Face of Ancient Greek Wines

On a glass-to-grape wine tour through Greece, our writer soaks up the scene from Athens wine bars to Peloponnese vineyards.

Greece vineyardsThe Rio-Antirio bridge spans the horizon behind the Parparoussis winery in Patras.

Malagousia. Agiorgitiko. Moschofilero. The grapes listed on the blackboard of this Athens wine bar are largely unfamiliar to me. Bottles of Greece's best – kokkinos, rozés, lefkos (reds, rosés, whites), available by the glass – are arrayed in a dispenser on the other side of the bar, just out of reach. I can make out syrah, merlot and pinot noir written in chalk. But the local varietals that I want to try have blurred into an alphabet soup of lambdas, thetas and omegas.

Here I am in the cradle of Western civilization – and, some argue, the world's original wine culture – and the only sentence I can recall from my three-week crash course in Greek is: "The policeman's name is Niko." This is a problem, because I am very thirsty. As is the group of sommeliers, wine writers and importers that I'm travelling with. We've come to get a taste of the Greek wine scene, including one species of grape so new, but also so ancient, that nobody knows exactly what to call it. The hiccup here at By the Glass, whose marble tables have colonized a breezy 19th-century arcade near Syntagma Square, is that most of the 90 labels on the list are Greek. Despite decades of wine-drinking experience gathered at our table, none of us knows where to start.

Greece vineyardsOn the southern slopes of Mount Pangeon, the Biblia Chora Estate is reviving ancient grape varieties.

Fortunately, help is at hand in the form of owner Fotini Pantzia. With her close-cropped hair and polo shirt, she calls to mind a Hellenic pocketbook edition of Ellen DeGeneres. Peering at the wine menu through black-rimmed spectacles, she crisply proposes: "I think a sparkling wine to start, no?" Within minutes, our noses are deep in tapered flutes of Amalia Brut, a double-fermented white made according to the traditional Champenois method, but using moschofilero grapes. My companions compare notes about colour, acidity and sweetness: "honey," "rose petals" and "viennoiseries." I glance at Pantzia, standing to the side with her arms crossed and a satisfied smile on her face, lost in appreciation of our appreciation. It's my first lesson in modern Greek: Always trust Greeks bearing gifts – especially when those gifts involve food and drink.

"There's a lot more to Greek wine than retsina," George Spiliadis tells me over lightly battered calamari on the terrace of Milos Athens, while the others at our table are exclaiming over a full-bodied, woody white called the Gift of Dionysus, made with assyrtiko and athiri grapes from the Parparoussis winery. As head of the Montreal-based wine importer Cava Spiliadis, his mission is to drag Greek wine off the shelves reserved for bottles of Manischewitz and wicker-bottomed Chiantis – not unlike what his father, Costas, has done for the cuisine with the Milos empire, making "going Greek" into a four-star eating experience. The timing is excellent: Greece's recent renaissance of indigenous grapes – the nation boasts 300 distinct varietals – is surprising wine lovers with sophisticated tastes from the Aegean Islands, Macedonia and the Peloponnese. With his brown eyes and bright smile, Spiliadis could play the leading man in a Mediterranean rom-com, the perfect ambassador for tomorrow's trip to the wine regions.

Greece vineyardsAt Ktima Gerovassiliou near Epanomi, Vangelis Gerovassiliou oversees 56 hectares of vineyards, the production of award-winning vintages and a museum showcasing his vast collection of corkscrews.

After lunch, a climb to the Parthenon begins in the shade of olive trees turned electric by cicadas, and ends with a vista of the sun-baked ruins of the Agora, where a deeply tanned guide informs us that the ancients drank resinated wine from hubcap-size vessels called kylikes. Roaming the historic centre on my own, I find evidence of Athens' blossoming wine-bar scene around every corner. Stopping by a spot called Heteroclito on a narrow pedestrian street, I pause for a little plate of tomato- and cream-cheese-covered dakos and one of 150 wines from every region of Greece. A decade ago, Athens' wine lists were heavy on French and Italian grapes. Now, places like Oinoscent and Wine Point cater to an ever-growing demand for – and, judging by the relaxed smiles at the tables around me, love for – all that is distinctly Greek.

The following morning, we set off south to the Peloponnese peninsula, into a landscape of arid hillsides that plunge into valley floors where ranks of vines are separated by olive groves. Giannis Tselepos is waiting to meet us at our first stop, the site of ancient Nemea. Though dressed in sagging blue jeans and a grape-juice-stained polo shirt, the pioneering winemaker clearly has a sense of occasion. "Moschofilero is a wine of antiquity," he proclaims, sweeping his arms toward the cave where Heracles is said to have slain a particularly obstreperous lion. "I am known as the master of moschofilero!" (It's easy to get away with such dramatic flourishes when you are standing in the shadow of the sun-bleached Doric columns of the half-ruined Temple of Zeus.) "The Ottomans banned winemaking for 400 years," he continues. "After we were freed from the Turks, we had the phylloxera louse; then the Germans came and burned everything. The Civil War led to a wave of emigration. It's only since the 1980s that the industry has been revived."

Greece vineyardsSea urchins hit the deck off the southern Peloponnese.

The first wave of modern producers grew such international varietals as chardonnay and sauvignon blanc. Tselepos' hope for the Hellenic nouvelle vague lies in growing uniquely Greek grapes. As we walk through the property, he pauses outside an Orthodox shrine built to Tryphon, the patron saint of winegrowers, and drains a bottle of dry white made with his signature cépage into glasses perched atop an upturned wine barrel. Sipping the Blanc de Gris, I fall in love with its balance of smokiness and puckering lemon, and instantly hatch a plan for a Greek-themed dinner party capped by a knockout pairing of moschofilero and mackerel.

Our next stop lies a long drive north of Thessaloniki, in the region of Macedonia. At the Gerovassiliou winery, nestled amid 56 hectares of vines near the seaside village of Epanomi, Greek wine's ancient roots are front and centre. In the winery's cellar, where the air is almost chewy with the aroma of young wines nobly growing old in tight ranks of oak barrels, we're sidelined by a quirky museum of winemaking. Among the artefacts is the owner's collection of 2,000 corkscrews, including Prohibition-era openers shaped like coffins and Victorian "worms" concealed in ivory-handled walking sticks. What stands out for me is the pointy-bottomed amphorae, their exteriors spackled with seashells, dating from the sixth century BC. Mesopotamia, Georgia and Armenia can lay some claim to having the Western world's earliest wineries, the estate's curly-haired factotum tell us. But it was Grecian ships, she insists, laden with these clay vessels, that really spread early wine culture throughout Europe.

Greece vineyardsStill waters run deep in the harbour of Nafplio.

"Welcome," says the debonair Vangelis Gerovassiliou, flashing a smile as he joins us at a circular table in the estate's tasting room. One of the first Greeks to study oenology at the University of Bordeaux, Gerovassiliou returned from France in 1981 with a mission to save the malagousia vine from extinction. As we swirl, swish, suck and spit, we give thanks that he did: The vivacity of the grape's citrus and pear flavours wins quick converts. Élyse Lambert, a Montrealer who earned the title of best sommelier in the Americas, is particularly impressed by a ruby-red wine called Avaton, made with limnio, a varietal mentioned in one of Aristophanes' plays. (It gets a choice spot, along with a bottle of Blanc de Gris, in my luggage.)

After four days of back-to-back winery visits, everyone is longing for a dip in the Mediterranean. Spiliadis arranges for the family yacht to be anchored off a treeless island near the port of Piraeus. We strip off pants and T-shirts and plunge into the sun-dappled sea. Spiliadis swims to shore, and after an athletic clamber over the rocks, returns with a net full of sea urchins that he efficiently sections with pincers. Our seafood picnic of über-fresh uni and marinated sardines is washed down with a lagoon's worth of a sunny, easy-drinking blend of malagousia and assyrtiko from the Gerovassiliou estate. An Old World booze cruise.

Greece vineyardsTopping up the barrels at Biblia Chora, a winery known for experimenting with varietals that have almost been lost to antiquity.

Refreshed, we're ready to report to Biblia Chora estate on the windswept slopes of Mount Pangeon. Striding past rows of vines in his experimental vineyard, winemaker Vassilis Tsaktsarlis points out neatly printed signs with the Greek and Latin names of local grapes. The last row, I notice, is the only one without a sign. This is the unknown varietal – a still nameless grape, and undoubtedly one of great antiquity.

"One day," recounts Tsaktsarlis, savouring his story, "a farmer from a nearby village asked me if I wanted to see some really interesting grapes. I brought them back to the winery and crushed them with my feet. We let the juice ferment. As soon as I tasted it, I knew we had something unique." Splaying a bunch of still-green grapes between his fingers, he points out that they are ovoid – to me they resemble mini kalamata olives – an adaptation, he explains, that limits skin contact, and thus rot, in intense heat. DNA analysis confirmed that the variety is unknown. Tsaktsarlis suspects that it is a grape once enjoyed by the ancients and lost to the modern industry.

Greece vineyardsEvripides Katsaros puts his nose into taking Greek winemaking to new heights at the Katsaros vineyards on the slopes of Mount Olympus.

After leading us down a corridor lined with pyramids of double magnums and 30-litre Melchizedeks, he pauses until we're all seated before uncorking a bottle of rosé made with the mystery grape. It's surprisingly dark – more cranberry-hued than blushing Zinfandel. Lambert, after an extended swish, says she detects hints of nutmeg, and declares it an ideal accompaniment for shrimp, salmon or charcuterie. She is even more impressed by the mature tannins of the 2010 Biblinos Oenos, the trade name they've chosen for the mystery grape in its incarnation as a red wine. "I'm getting sour cherry and pepper," she says, with an approving smile. I find it bold, complex, refreshing and unlike anything my palate has experienced – an utterly original mix of old and new. Which actually makes Biblinos Oenos typical of the new wave of Greek wines. Uncorking a bottle of malagousia, moschofilero or naoussa means not only discovering a novel taste, but also experiencing wine as it's been enjoyed for millennia.

Greece vineyards

On our last day, we experience the full embrace of Greek hospitality at the Katsaros estate. Spectacularly located beneath the perennially cloud-shrouded peak of Mount Olympus, it's reached by precipitous switchbacks that have the ailing brakes of our microbus emitting death squeals. Over wood-oven-cooked lamb and spanakopita seasoned with the mountain herbs depicted on the winery's labels, we taste a fruity red made with xinomavro. "This wine is a gamble for us," confides winemaker Evripides Katsaros, after a multi-course lunch courtesy of his mother, Stellas, an accomplished chef and cookbook author. "For a long time, we've made Burgundian-style wines. Now, with our xinomavro, we want to create a link between the past and the present through our terroir." Drinking this ancient red, and looking out over white-roofed village homes toward the Thermaic Gulf, I understand what he's getting at. Here, the history and culture of the vine – that alchemy of Mediterranean sun, numinous soil and wine-dark sea – comes through with every sip. There's no better way to end our odyssey than on the mountain of the gods, raising a toast with glasses filled with the juice of Zeus.

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ATHENS     GREECE     VINEYARDS     WINE    

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