Panayiotis Papagiannopoulos leans back from a low table, spiky with half-empty wine bottles, and gestures toward the darkness of the hillside opposite. “Where I live there is an ancient theatre, and it is created exactly opposite the oracle of Delphi, on a hill,” he says. “You can feel when you go there… even if you are a common person without any special sensitivities, you can feel that there is something very important there.” I nod emphatically. Considering myself, spiritually speaking, a very common person lacking in special sensitivities, the statement nevertheless resonates. For even after only four days in Greece I am firmly of the opinion that it is no common place.
Papagiannopoulos is one of a small number of winemakers at the forefront of what has been described in recent years as a “Greek wine renaissance” that is putting Greece back on the fine wine map after decades—perhaps centuries—of oenological obscurity. It is widely held in wine circles that to truly understand a wine it is not enough just to taste it, or to memorize technical minutiae—one must taste it where it’s made, under the same sky, with the food of the land and all its attendant airs. Not only that, one must have a sense of history, to know where it came from in order to truly comprehend where it’s at. And that is what has brought me here, to drink it in, both literally and figuratively.
I’m touring with a small group of sommeliers and journalists from Montreal, all of us invited by Theo Diamantis of the Montreal wine agency Oenopole. Diamantis’s parents had immigrated to Quebec just prior to the Greek military coup of the late 1960s, and their son spent his youth between Montreal and a small village near Delphi, where his extended family lives. Still a resident of Parc Extension, Montreal’s longtime Greek neighbourhood, Diamantis has for the past decade been carrying the torch for Greek wine in Quebec. He has also, for the past few years, with the support of a Greek wine industry body, been bringing Montreal sommeliers, chefs and wine writers to Greece to better appreciate the provenance of the wines and winemakers he represents in Quebec (neither Oenopole nor the trip’s sponsor had any editorial input into this article).
But Greece’s oenological revival cannot be reduced simply to an invention of marketing. Montreal is one of a handful of culinary capitals—alongside London, New York, Copenhagen, Paris—where one finds Greek labels alongside French, German, and Italian essentials on the lists of both established high-end restaurants and upstart wine bars. This, only a decade ago, would have been unthinkable. In part this is a reflection of the interests of a new generation of wine drinkers. Call them “hipsters” if you want (everyone else does), but they are not all young and they do not all have obnoxious, made-up-sounding job titles like “content creator.” They are drinkers who, by and large, are turning their backs on big-name appellations and pricey, high-scoring bottles. They’re seeking out lesser-known regions for their unique character, artisanal-scale production, and obscure grapes with unpronounceable names, all of which Greece has in abundance.
This may be partly the fetishization of the esoteric, the desire to simultaneously escape and exceed the perceived snobbishness of the wine world by insisting that just beyond the pale of conventional taste lies the key to authentic experience, be it “taste of place” or the spirit of an idyllic earlier time before Big Agribusiness and Charton-Hobbs-Moët-Hennessy multinational agreements. But it is also undeniably because such wines offer the possibility of new pleasures, new gustatory and even intellectual experiences that diverge from the wines they know. In this respect, Greek wine’s relative obscurity is part of its allure.
The notion of authenticity has great currency in the wine world, where even the most industrial and mass-produced bottles trade heavily on the symbolism of bucolic reverie and time-honoured tradition. Consider how many bottles at your local wine store feature vieille fermes or historic-sounding châteaux, or literally use the phrase “time-honoured tradition” on their labels. But as any savvy citizen of the twenty-first century is well aware, the allure of “authenticity” is something of a trap, or at least threatens to become one when we posit it as the cure to our ever-so-many alienated modern ills. Nevertheless, this is how Greece has often been viewed by the rest of the West, from artists to philosophers to tourists, and in spite of myself, it is also more or less what I came to Greece looking for: not just a “taste of place” but the taste of an ancient place. A relic of oenological antiquity, still glinting somehow amidst the rubble of decades of political and economic insecurity. It is a tall order to fill.
Papagiannopoulos is the winemaker at Tetramythos, a small, organic winery in Achaea, in the northwestern Peloponnese peninsula. Tall and lank, in his mid-forties, he has a slow, deliberate manner, with a tiny lag in his reactions, as if his brain takes a breath each time before he speaks. Growing up in the nearby village of Kalavryta, in a family of grape-growers and winemakers, he had two options, he says: “Become a farmer or a winemaker.” When he was eighteen, he told me, he pressed more than thirty tonnes of grapes, by foot, in a single season.
Achaea is mountainous country, with lots of high-altitude vineyards that enjoy the winds blowing off the Bay of Corinth just a few miles away. It’s considered a cool-climate region for Greece, and at almost a thousand metres above sea level, it is not uncommon to find it blanketed by snow in the winter. But on an early July evening, the temperatures are still hovering in the mid-thirties.
Papagiannopoulos, Diamantis and I have spent the day rumbling around the region’s sheer, sun-blasted vineyards in a dusty Daihatsu Terios that pitched and lurched like an antique roller-coaster. The rough, hilly landscape has a more Southern Californian than Mediterranean appearance, but in spite of the aridity, and the total lack of irrigation, the vines are lively. Very few of the Tetramythos vines resemble the neat trellised rows that typically come to mind when one thinks “wine country”—most are squat, free-standing creatures, about forty to forty-five years old, with thick, gnarled trunks that almost belie their status as vines. They more closely resemble big bonsai trees gone wild. Around the edges of the vineyards is low scrub with the occasional wild pear or pine tree. Diamantis points out one tree that sports a foot-high gash where a strip of bark has been peeled off and a crude tin reservoir secured at the bottom. This, Papagiannopoulos explains, is for his retsina.
Probably the most famous (or infamous) of Greek wines, retsina is a traditional white wine aromatized with pine resin, which was, in the days before cooperage, used to seal the clay pots in which wine was shipped and stored. It is thought that what started as a pragmatic solution developed over time into an aesthetic preference, and the style was born. By the 1960s and 1970s, retsina was enjoying some international popularity, though much of it was decidedly cheap wine, liberally dosed with pine to obscure the lack of other commendable qualities. Indeed, many retsina available abroad still tend to be more reminiscent of a morning cleaning the kitchen floor than a stroll beneath swaying Aleppo pines.
In spite of its somewhat besmirched reputation, retsina is one of the secret weapons of Greek cuisine, ideally suited to the strong flavours of garlic and lemon, briny feta, olives, fried fish and seafood (as Diamantis instructs us, in an only half-jesting I’ll-tell-you-this-once tone: “Calamari—never vinegar, always lemon. Octopus—always vinegar, never lemon.”). A pungent retsina doesn’t just stand up to such fare, it positively sings. And Papagiannopoulos’s retsina is in a class apart: made from organically grown Roditis grapes, fermented with only natural yeasts, and aged partly in clay amphora. “We’re trying to produce the only truly terroir retsina,” Papagiannpoulos says, referring to the fact that the resin comes from pines growing on the same soil as his vines, under the same sky. The wine is refreshing, delicate and aromatic, tending more toward rosemary and the faintly coniferous tones of the flesh just beneath a mango’s skin than, say, Mr. Clean.
Diamantis says he sees the wine’s “food-friendliness” as key to introducing it to the Quebec market, which he is doing for the first time this year, after over a decade of presenting drinkers with other Greek wines.
Like all Greeks, Diamantis speaks with his hands, whether discussing wine, William S. Burroughs, or Churchill’s betrayal of the Greek resistance after WWII. Though fluent in at least four languages, he punctuates most sentences with an exclamatory “Fack!” or a conspiratorial “bro…” The previous night, as we stood contemplating the mauve horizon over the hills of Attiki (we little anticipated it would be aglow with raging forest fires a few weeks later), he told me it reminded of being a teen there with his uncle.
“He was a real bon vivant—he worked hard but loved his drinking, loved his food and all that. Really Dionysian, a bit of a caricature. We would come in from working in the fields right around this time of night when the lights start coming on on the mountainside, and he’d point to a light and say ‘Oh! That guy—what is it, Tuesday? That guy, he roasts a suckling pig on Tuesday!’ So we’d hop in his pickup and tear out there and stay up all night drinking and eating, then wake up at six and do it all over again the next day.” Every summer for six years after graduating high school, Diamantis would return to work in his father’s village, in the process receiving not only a sentimental, but a gastronomical, education.
“I would open up a map with my grandfather, who was very well-versed in Greek history and geography, and he would say ‘Ah! You should go to the island of Amorgos, because they’re famous for their cheese pie,’” Diamantis recalls. “He knew totally random shit like that. Or ‘You go back to Lesbos, you’re going to go to Plomari to drink the ouzo with their sardines, you’re going to go to Kalloni to try the white anchovies, you’ll go to this village to try their preserved bonito, this village to drink their rosé wine.’ I was like seventeen years old and he was already distilling this idea of what terroir was all about. That really lit my passion.”
Years later, after working first as an English teacher, then in software marketing, then briefly as a sommelier, Diamantis got the idea of starting a wine agency to address what he saw as a dearth of artisanal Greek wine in Quebec. Montreal had an abundance of Greek restaurateurs, so he saw them as an ideal market. In the early 2000s, he told me, there were Greeks importing Greek wine to Montreal, but they had no particular knowledge of wine or winemaking. “They made their money on olive oil or cheese,” he explains. “They were more importers of ‘Greek products.’”
But starting out as an importer, his first hurdle was, ironically, the Greek diaspora itself. “I quickly learned that it was impossible to sell Greek wine to Greek restaurateurs,” Diamantis told me.“ They would say ‘No, it’s too expensive! Sixteen dollars? What is this you’re bringing to us?’ And I said to my wife ‘What the fuck? I think I really fucked up this time.’” For the work of a wine importer isn’t only the glamour of trotting the globe, tasting wines and convincing winemakers to let you represent them abroad; once that is achieved, you also need to find someone to buy the stuff. Once it’s on the boat coming over, there’s no turning back.
It wasn’t until Diamantis began to open his wines for the sommeliers of higher-end Montreal restaurants—places like Toqué, Leméac, Joe Beef, Le Club Chasse et Pêche, which would come to define Montreal’s culinary identity—that things began to fall into place. They were impressed not only by the individuality of the wines, but their versatility and food-friendliness. And, unlike Diamantis’s fellow countrymen, they found the Greek offerings affordable compared to other European wines of similar quality. Diamantis remembers his visit to Dave McMillan, co-owner of Joe Beef (regularly rated one of the best restaurants in Canada, and praised by the likes of food scene luminaries Anthony Bourdain and David Chang), as a turning point. “He was opening all the oysters at the bar,” Diamantis says. “I poured him an Assyrtiko from Santorini and he lost his shit.”
There is a rude irony to the fact that Greece is home to one of the world’s oldest winemaking cultures, yet has had such a marginal profile on the contemporary wine scene. Heck, our very language of wine science and appreciation (oenology, oenologist, oenophile) is Greek.
Estimates vary, but the Minoans were cultivating vines as early as three to five thousand years ago, and by the seventh century BCE, wine was fundamentally intertwined with all areas of Greek life: the archaeological record is replete with artwork depicting vine-growing and wine-drinking, as well as numerous styles of drinking vessels, from elegant thin-stemmed kantharos to broad, shallow, bowl-like kylix. Wine suffuses the writings of Homer, Hesiod and Plato; Galen and Hippocrates contemplated its medicinal qualities; and in the god Dionysus was the religious personification of all things wine-related. By the fourth century BCE, Greeks were identifying and classifying grape varieties, writing about vine propagation, and had introduced viticulture techniques to several areas of Mediterranean Europe, including Calabria and Massilia (present-day Marseille), important ports for the then-robust Greek wine trade.
Yet for most of the twentieth century, Greece has been viewed as, at best, a source of tolerable plonk, or by connoisseurs for producing some commendable dessert wines but little else of note. The current edition of Jancis Robinson & Hugh Johnson’s authoritative World Atlas of Wine devotes only two pages to modern Greece, fewer than those allotted to the state of California or a single sub-region of Burgundy, and well shy of the 101 pages for France as a whole.
The rude irony of Greek wine’s erasure is accounted for by a still crueller history. The past three centuries have witnessed the development and refinement of both European and New World winemaking, but for Greece this period has been a tragic succession of conquests, war, internal strife and calamity. From its apogee in antiquity, Greek winemaking persisted under the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires, but its development stalled, if not declined, during this time, and wine exports were halted altogether. Though wine continued to be made under Ottoman rule, ownership of vineyards became concentrated in the hands of monasteries, who the Ottomans permitted to make wine for liturgical purposes.
The reason commonly given for this indulgence is that the Muslim Ottomans saw in Greek Orthodox Christianity a fellow monotheistic religion and thus respected its traditions. “The real reason was the political and economic one,” Diamantis explained at a quiet taverna one evening. “They wanted the Greek Church to keep the masses down and controlled.” As the son of an old-school Greek communist, who came of age in the immediate aftermath of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, Diamantis has a rather historical materialist perspective in spite of being a businessman. Switching into French, he continued, “Think about the Catholic Church in Quebec: it was exactly the same thing… ‘Be afraid of God, make kids, and you will inherit the earth. Don’t think about economic or cultural revolution.’ The Ottomans did the exact same thing with the Greek Church. They told the church, ‘We’ll leave you alone if you don’t stir up shit.’” The Church was thus key to preserving much of Greece’s land under vine, but it was little concerned with the refinement of wine’s potential pleasures, prioritizing as it did the sacred over the sapid.
Hot on the heels of its own protracted war for independence from Ottoman rule—during which the retreating forces laid waste to many vineyards—the still embryonic Greek state was subsequently embroiled in the Balkan wars, World War I, the catastrophic Greco-Turkish War, then occupied by the Nazis during World War II, and post-war was engulfed by years of bloody civil war, several coups, and a military dictatorship. Alongside the dire human and social carnage, the violence and instability did Greek winemaking no favours.
Though a few large wine houses (Boutari, Tsantali, Achaia Clauss) had existed since the late 1800s, during the twentieth century Greek wine largely languished as either a cheap bulk product or as a homemade, household staple. Most rural families had their own small vines from which they made wine or distilled spirit for family use, but it could be said that though almost everyone made wine, there were very few “winemakers,” and even bottled wine was a rarity well into the 1960s.
The word “Xinomavro” translates roughly as “acid black.” It is a notoriously difficult and finicky grape that is synonymous with the Naoussa region, to the north in the heart of Greek Macedonia (or as the Greeks very pointedly call it, “Macedonia”). “The traditionally made wines,” writes Konstantinos Lazarakis in his authoritative tome The Wines of Greece, “are often pale and advanced in colour, lacking sweet, fresh, primary fruit on the nose and moving towards an eccentric spectrum of tomato, garbage, and dried plums.” Such eccentricity notwithstanding, it is in fact the only grape you are allowed, by law, to make wine with in Naoussa. If you want to put Naoussa on the label, that is.
A key early step toward the resuscitation of Greek wine came in the 1970s with the formalization of the Greek appellation system, modeled on France’s appellations d’origine controlée, which provide certification and protected status for regional agricultural products. At the time, there was a global trend toward planting so-called “international” grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, familiar-sounding grapes that would gain the attention of international consumers. Greece was no exception, but an important aspect of the country’s new legislation was to reserve the upper-tier “Appellation of Origin of High Quality” designation only for wines made from native Greek varieties. In other words, to bear the title of the land, the wine had to be made from the grapes indigenous to the region. It is a rationale both pragmatic—the idea that grapes that have been grown in the same place for hundreds of years are probably done so for a reason (they thrive in the soil and are well-adapted to the local climate), and idealistic—that this represents a form of tradition worth preserving. With this framework in place, a new wave of Greek oenologists, many of whom studied in France, began to craft a vision for the future of Greek wine.
“It was the classic fork in the road,” Diamantis explains. “There was one camp that said we should continue planting Sauvignon and Chardonnay—they wanted to use the international grapes as grapes that would ‘improve’ the quality of Greek wine, meaning you’d take Merlot and add it to Xinomavro, take Chardonnay and add it to Assyrtiko, take Syrah and add it to Agiorgitiko.” One of the first winemakers in Diamantis’s portfolio, Yiannis Tselepos, was of an altogether different mind. “Tselepos was very, very adamant that the way forward was to work with Greek varietals,” he says. “To take the expertise they had [and] to put the effort back into the local varieties.” Thus a handful of Greek winemakers asked themselves a pivotal question: what kind of wine do we want to be making?
Guided by commitment to terroir—that controversial calque denoting the expression of soil, vine, climate and human handiwork all working in concert—and a faith in the viticultural patrimony of Greece, they decided that the identity of Greek wine could only be expressed through Greek grapes, even if names like Agiorgitiko, Mavrotragano and Moschofilero did not trip so gracefully from non-Hellenic lips. And so, just as the rest of the wine world was coming under the thrall of what is now viewed as a homogenizing “international style” of wines that all tasted pretty much the same, whether from California, Calabria or the Côte d’Or, Greek winemakers were taking a crucial step back (or forward, or to the side, depending how you look at it), attempting to better understand the unique and idiosyncratic qualities of their own grapes and the lands from which they sprung.
In Naoussa, I met Apostolos Thymiopoulos, the burly, boyish and frenetic young winemaker behind Thymiopoulos winery. Many of the winemakers I had met in Greece worked with a wide assortment of grapes, some native, some international. But for Thymiopoulos, it was all about Xinomavro. Konstantinos Lazarakis had written that in spite of its challenges, “Xinomavro is one of the noblest varieties of Southern Europe,” and tasting Thymiopoulos’s wines, such nobility was in full evidence, from the wild strawberries and ferrous rasp of his younger wines, to the deep fruit and earthiness of his older vintages. Most affecting for me was a bottle of eight-year-old Xinomavro rosé that we drank alongside plates of slippery charred sweet peppers and whole roast kid stuffed with rice and its own offal, prepared for lunch by Thymiopoulos’s elderly mother. The wine was orange-bronze in the glass, catching the afternoon light like a tiny sun, and it smelled like bruised fruit steeped in honey, shot through with thyme and a tea-like bitter astringency. Flying in the face of any perceptions that rosé is a fun and flirty summer sipper, it was complex, utterly beguiling, and unlike any wine I had tasted.
Thymiopoulos said he achieves all of this by taking a hands-off approach in the vines. He farms organically, uses no pesticides or herbicides, and doesn’t even prune the vines. “There aren’t any weeds here; every plant that grows in our vineyards is a friend, not an enemy,” Apostoulos laughed. The key is just to pay careful attention and listen to what the fruit wants to express, he explained, rather than starting with a fixed end product in mind, trying to bend nature to your will. “If this part of the vineyard is less ripe, that must mean something,” he says. “To me the worst thing for natural wine is to choose the grapes; it’s like choosing your kids.”
It is something of a truism that Greece is a land of ruins, both in terms of its historical landscape and our political imaginary of it. From the Acropolis looming over the centre of Athens, to the hellenophile’s lament that the land of Aeschylus and Aristotle has declined to such a state of “burglarious and larcenous” corruption, to the 2007 financial crisis and the ruinous repayment schemes imposed by the European Troika. So what does it mean to have a “Greek wine renaissance” against the backdrop of brutal austerity? This was a question that seemed almost offensively presumptuous to pose as an outsider, and I had no illusions that one week of gallivanting around wine country eating fried fish would unravel decades of convoluted economic machinations, but likewise it seemed just as irresponsible to ignore.
Indeed, standing on the terrace of a sleek, modern “bioclimatically designed” winery, the air heavy with sage, rosemary and figs, the economic crisis feels very far away. Not that there haven’t been occasional indications of a less-than-rosy reality: garbage strikes while we were in Attiki, winemakers’ complaints about exorbitant excise taxes and the effects of capital controls, the occasional ATM with nothing to dispense, and a passing mention of violence, ostensibly fuelled by wage competition, between Albanian and Pakistani migrant labourers who are hired seasonally for harvest, mostly at the larger wineries. Albanians make up more than 50 percent of the migrant population in Greece and, although there is little research on migrant labour in the Greek wine industry, some reports bear out claims that Pakistani and other Southeast Asian nationalities are paid less than the better-established Albanian workers.
“In Greece there are jobs if you want to work,” stated our driver one evening, after recounting having to support his parents through three years of joblessness. “But we don’t want to work sixty hours a week, to not make a living wage.” In 2016, the OECD reported Greece’s adult employment rate as hovering around 50 percent, the lowest of all the OECD nations. “Eight thousand, twelve thousand a year?” he said. “Who can live?”
On the most mundane level, though, one thing it “means” to have a Greek wine renaissance in the midst of austerity is you export a lot of wine. “When I first started,” Diamantis told me, “they were desperately looking for people to develop the export market.” In 2009, faced with rapidly withering local markets, the Greek Wine Federation adopted a strategic plan to support educational and promotional efforts abroad. Greece currently only exports about 12 percent of its total wine production, by the count of one national wine association, but much of what is consumed locally is cheap table wine, sold in bulk to taverns. By contrast, for many of the winemakers I met, the export number was closer to 50 percent, and some producers were selling the majority of their wine outside of Greece. Papagiannopoulos sells much of his wine abroad, with an astonishing 80 percent of his entry-level Tetramythos Roditis being consumed in Quebec alone, and a line of unfiltered Natur cuvées, including an orange wine (another ancient-is-the-new-new wine style) that are exclusively exported to a select few international cities. Thymiopoulos told me he exports 90 percent of his production, mostly to Japan, Europe, the UK, and North America, and that Canadian sales are roughly equal to those of the much larger American market.
In some ways this should come as no surprise, given how effective Diamantis and Oenopole have been at promoting the products in Quebec. Although his initial success was convincing taste-making restaurants to carry the wines, in the intervening years he was able to get many of the wines onto the shelves of Quebec’s provincial liquor stores. With the SAQ (the province’s liquor board) one of the largest wine buyers in the world, this is no small accomplishment. It’s not without irony that the revival of the Greek wine identity seems to depend so crucially on the tastes of the Barbarians beyond the gates.
The Barbarians, in this case, are North American and European sommeliers and wine aficionados, a crowd that in recent years has become increasingly interested in more obscure regions, and what has loosely been referred to as “natural wine.” The term itself has been a source of endless controversy within the wine world (Diamantis prefers the less modish but equally loaded term “real wine”). But at base, it denotes a reaction against a style of anonymously burly, big-ticket wines, consciously designed to appeal to a (perhaps fictitious) “international palate,” and a renewed devotion to wine as an artisanal product that expresses a taste of place, made as sustainably and with as little intervention in the vineyard or in the winemaking as possible. Accompanying this is a strong narrative of returning to a style of winemaking prior to the “industrialization” of viniculture, and in this respect Greece is ideally situated to capture this part of the oenological imagination, particularly with the combination of underdog status with its rich history as the cradle of European winemaking.
There is perhaps no part of Greece more associated with the country’s ancient vinicultural patrimony than the island of Santorini. Renowned for centuries for its Vinsanto, a powerfully complex and long-aging sweet wine, in recent years the island has become better known for its mineral, saline and bracingly acidic whites made from the Assyrtiko grape. Search the net and you’ll find no shortage of articles proclaiming the coming of “the Age of Assyrtiko.”
It is also one of the areas that has best been able to weather the economic storm, owing largely to a robust tourist economy. Some worry that Santorini’s popularity as a tourist destination may, however, threaten the future of its wine: though tourism attracts wealthy wine drinkers, rising property values tend to discourage investment in laborious viticulture (particularly the uniquely laborious viticulture of Santorini), and to increase the temptation for small growers to sell their land to developers. Indeed, whenever I mentioned I would be visiting the island, the response was without exception some variation on, “Oh Santorini is so touristy mais quand même c’est fuckin’ beau.” One of the Cyclades in the southern Aegean, Santorini is precisely what comes to mind when one thinks “Greek Islands”: stunning sunsets, dramatic cliffs plunging into the brilliant aquamarine sea, volcanic black sand beaches, and serenely geometric blue-domed churches and whitewashed houses cascading down hillsides beneath equally brilliant blue skies.
And yet, as I discovered, Santorini’s beauty is one not of lushness, but of starkness. Formed by a cataclysmic volcanic eruption almost four thousand years ago, the island is magnificently raw, almost otherworldly. Never has a landscape so impressed upon me the astonishing resilience of nature—and confirmed the adage that “thirsty vines make great wine.” Far from rolling hills and verdant rows of vines, the vineyards of Santorini more closely resemble a gravel pit. Visited in the lowering dusk, the vineyards of Estate Argyros appear as a blasted lunar landscape littered with chunks of black basalt and white pumice, along the ochre and umber stones that speak to the varieties of volcanic soil. Haphazardly dotting the terrain are a number of low, knobbly bushes, a foot or two in height, that upon closer inspection reveal a single gnarled vine, wrapped round itself and woven into the shape of a wreath. Picture a basket of vine about the size of a motorcycle wheel, or a large pot of spaghetti.
These are the traditional koulouri-trained vines unique to Santorini. They must be carefully so arranged, by hand, to protect their fruit from the scorching sun and the briny Aegean winds (the island is one of those special corners of the world where the wind has its own name, the Meltemi), and to retain precious moisture. For Santorini is an island without rivers and next to zero rainfall during the crucial summer months. In the absence of any irrigation, the plants are thought to draw much of their moisture from the morning mists that blanket the island, safeguarding the fleeting dew in the weft of their leaves and vines. As our guide puts it, clenching his fist over a diminutive, knotted kouloura vine nest, “Assyrtiko is a fighter!” It certainly puts the assortment of plants withering away at home in my Montreal apartment into shameful perspective.
Santorini is one of a few isolated areas of the continent to escape a pandemic blight—the aphid-like phylloxera—that ravaged grapevines around the turn of the century, destroying as much as three quarters of Europe’s vineyards. Protected by its forbidding volcanic soil, some of the island’s vines, we are told, are as much as two hundred to three hundred years old. Considering that in many parts of the world, “old vines” may refer to anything over forty-odd years, the fact that these twisted trunks have been eking out an existence on this burning, wind-swept rock and still producing wine over several centuries seems a Herculean feat. In principle, the allure of wine from older wines is that their lower yields result in greater depth and concentration of flavour. But on an emotional level, these vines offer something more. They seem to promise a link to the past, and a symbol of resilience: a material throughline and living record of the intertwined destinies of Greece and grapes.
Sitting at a cliffside taverna as a ludicrously purple sun sinks into the Aegean, swirling a half-century-old vinsanto in my glass—a single bottle drawn from a barrel in Argyros’s cellar in honour of Diamantis’s fifty-fourth birthday—it is easy to fall into sentimental reverie, to murmur something vague about “ivy-crowned Dionysus” and consider my spiritual communion with ancient Greece a fait accompli. But even as the wines of Santorini invoke a spirit of oenological antiquity, and partly depend on this for their international appeal, to cast the Greek wine world of today as a hearkening back to some prelapsarian past is somewhat misleading. For at a time when many wine-lovers and winemakers are plumbing an ever-deepening well of traditional styles and techniques, I have come to realize that many of the charms of the Greek wines we know and love are in fact of more recent vintage.
“Growing up with my uncle and my grandfather making wine, I still remember that taste,” explains Diamantis. “All the wine was oxidized, always,” he says, referring to the quality of a wine that has been exposed to air for too long. “But that’s because that’s what they thought the wine had to be. It was the culture then, but tastes evolve.”
Indeed, Vinsanto aside, the racy, crystalline whites for which Santorini is known today are wholly dependent on the arrival of relatively modern winemaking technologies and techniques: temperature-controlled fermentation, earlier harvest times to avoid over-maturity, stainless steel vessels that are easy to clean and maintain, better cellar hygiene. Such wines may well be said to represent the future of Santorini more than its past, but such finer points of craft are typically consigned to the shadows of our projected nostalgia. It is a cautionary lesson, lest we succumb to that compulsion to seek out ever older vines, more extreme landscapes, wilder fermentations, even harder to pronounce grapes; drinking and sniffing and swirling our way in pursuit of that ever-receding horizon of the authentic, the allure of the novelty of the old.
“I remember having this wine on this island that was brown—it had sugar, oxidation, volatile acidity, it had everything!” Diamantis continues, rattling off a list of technical terms that translate more or less into a description of semi-sweet grape-based nail polish remover. “This guy was in his seventies, in his cellar he had one barrel, a cement trough,” Diamantis remembers. “He said ‘I pick after the Virgin Mary celebration.’” In other words, well into August, when the grapes are basically becoming raisins.
Diamantis brought a plastic water bottle of the stuff (the de facto container for such country wine) back to Achaea, to Tetramaythos, and poured it blind for Panayiotis Papagiannopoulos. Papagiannopoulos looked at the colour and paused, quickly tasted, then responded, unperturbed: “Now you know what ancient Greek wine tasted like.”