The Fortunate Ending of a Rather Big Misunderstanding 


Despite a history of thousands of years, modern Greek winemakers did not know how to make it in highly competitive foreign markets. Until now.


Greeks have an entirely different perception of time. Subconsciously, almost instinctively, we believe that everything began down here, on this nubbin of land on the southeastern underbelly of the European continent, which we now know as Greece.

Considering matters more impartially, we may “add some water to our wine,” as the Greek saying entreating moderation goes, before begrudgingly arriving at the more rational admission that everything actually began in the greater Mediterranean region, and okay, possibly one or two things in China too!

Despite its navel-gazing Hellenocentric basis, there is in fact much truth in this seemingly oversimplified view of history. Take wine for example, a drink worshipped through the eons, steeped in mystical and religious symbolism, a liquid companion to man in sorrow and joy, a beverage that did indeed begin its legendary journey on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, or, let’s be honest, some kilometers further inland, in the sub-Caucasian region of present-day Armenia.

So, while our ancient forefathers may not have discovered wine in the strictest sense of the term, but rather welcomed it into their lives from Phoenicia around 4,500 BC, Greeks have ever since both cultivated and worshipped it with remarkable consistency, even through the toughest and darkest hours of their long history.

Today no oenophile can look upon the 4th millennium BC wine press at Vathypetro in Crete and then – without so much as a thought – place Greece among New World producers such as Australia and Chile. Yet this outrageous belief, revealing gross ignorance of history, has become so prevalent that it is considered not only correct but also widely accepted by everyone but the Greeks themselves.

So why this distortion, you may ask. The truth, as in most things, can be found in a plethora of different – and possibly equally important – reasons.

The country’s geographical isolation from the rest of Europe, its centuries-long occupation by the Ottomans and its exclusion, because of this occupation, from the influences of the Enlightenment and the Renaissance are certainly factors, later compounded by the reluctance – and to some extent, inability – of Greeks to invest in a better and more aggressive marketing of their history and products.

“Today no oenophile can look upon the 4th millennium BC wine press at Vathypetro in Crete and then – without so much as a thought – place Greece among New World producers such as Australia and Chile.”

Greeks justifiably believe themselves to be among the world’s oldest, traditional wine-producers, even though the rest of the world considers them newcomers in the field. This conundrum is best addressed by a person I consider the absolute expert in all things wine-related, British Master of Wine Jancis Robinson, who described Greece as the “New Old World.” And that is exactly what it is: a country that while producing wine since earliest recorded times, never knew how to promote and sell the product (along with so many others) on highly competitive foreign markets, resulting in its absence from them and, as a consequence, its exclusion from the world of wine.

This may appear puzzling and you may be asking: “But Greeks always exported their wines all over the world, didn’t they?” Well, did they? Let me answer with more questions: Could it be that this “exportation” was actually little more than the “transportation” of wine by Greeks to other Greeks? Could the fact that we restricted the supply of our product to the narrow bounds of the Greek diaspora be another reason for the misunderstanding about our status as a wine-producing country? Whatever it was, it certainly was not exporting in the real sense of the word, since this would entail exposing the product to non-Greeks too.

Nevertheless, efforts have recently been made to make up for all this lost time by a handful of very small wineries that in just a few decades have achieved the seemingly impossible: namely, placing Greece firmly on the international wine map and meeting the high standards of global markets.

This smattering of winemakers, with their comparatively very small wineries, have invested in the areas that are vitally important to such an endeavor. They put their efforts and money into technology and know-how, both at the level of grape cultivation and winemaking, and applied modern marketing techniques to build on the simple idea that what was needed was a concerted effort to promote the special characteristics and particular qualities of Greek wine.

Greek grape varieties – Assyrtiko, Moschofilero, Agiorgitiko and Xinomavro – trip from the lips, albeit somewhat comically, of every alternative and avant-garde sommelier.

They did not resort to the easy solution – which would have been a terrible mistake – of producing cheap imitations of other countries’ wines. They did not yield to the shortsighted mimicry of “monkey see, monkey do.” Instead, they capitalized on the distinctiveness and diversity of Greek varieties, taking advantage of the stagnation that had already appeared in the international market as a result of the constant repetition of the same international varieties and flavors.

Greek winemakers today have adopted an admirable outward-looking approach based on a simple motto that any buyer in the world can understand: Greek wine is different, it’s good and it’s consistent. 

Today, Greek grape varieties that had until recently been relegated to the realm of the exotic grace even the most discerning wine lists in the world and those four words – Assyrtiko, Moschofilero, Agiorgitiko and Xinomavro – trip from the lips, albeit somewhat comically, of every alternative and avant-garde sommelier.

Though accounting for just 1 percent of global production, Greek wine has become a force to be reckoned with. Greek producers are also well aware that while the road to acclaim on international markets may be long and bumpy, it is the only route to follow, one that inevitably – because of their relatively small size – leads directly to the most demanding niche markets, where it’s either boom or bust.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Yiannis Paraskevopoulos, PhD in Oenology from the University of Bordeaux II, is the co-founder of GAIA Wines.

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