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The wines of Greece

The wines of Greece

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The wines of Greece

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581 pages
5 hours
Lansat:
Jan 22, 2018
ISBN:
9781910902691
Format:
Carte

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Wine production in Greece dates back thousands of years. Excavations at prehistoric settlements have brought to light charred remains of Vitis Vinifera vines that provide the earliest indication of wine making in the Mediterranean, and remains of wine presses found in Crete suggest that wine was consumed on this island in the second millennium BC.

Modern Greek wine, however, started seriously to enter the international wine scene only in the last few decades of the 20th century, although it was commercially established long before. Most wine professionals around the world now recognize Greece as a source of diverse high-quality wines with distinctive and unique character, and exports have seen a remarkable increase in both volume and value with more and more wine consumers appreciating the virtues of the Greek wine. Figures released in 2016 indicate that wine exports from Greece to the United States and Canada in the last five years have increased by 39% and 55%, respectively. Greek wine is enjoying growing demand despite increasing worldwide competition. Greek wine is shipped to more than 35 countries around the globe.

The first part of Konstantinos Lazarakis’s new book provides an overview of all Greek wine regions and appellations (new and old), their topographic, geographic and climatic conditions and the various grape varieties. The wines of Greece also discusses renowned grape varieties such as Assyrtiko and Xinomavro as well as traditional wines such as Retsina which is currently undergoing a revival. Part two of the book takes the regions in turn and the book concludes with several appendices covering old and new wine classification, labelling terms and how to read a wine label, distribution of native and international grape varieties, total acreage under vine by region and a list of recommended producers. There are also maps of wine producing regions.

Greece has a rich tradition of wine-making and there is no better guide to its quality and variety than Konstantinos Lazarakis. The wines of Greece is a must-have for all lovers of Greek wine.
Lansat:
Jan 22, 2018
ISBN:
9781910902691
Format:
Carte

Despre autor

Konstantinos Lazarakis MW, a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute of Masters of Wine, became the first Greek Master of Wine in 2002. He co-founded Wine & Spirits Professional Center, an educational organization that runs Wine & Spirits Education Trust and the Court of Master Sommeliers courses throughout Greece. He consults widely for the Hellenic Exports Organization, Aegean Airlines and Costa Navarino and for wine producers, restaurants and hotels all over the world.

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The wines of Greece - Konstantinos Lazarakis

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PREFACE TO THE FIRST EDITION

It is very difficult for a book about the wines of any one country to be both good and totally impartial. To be good, it should be written by someone with a deep understanding of the subject. An outsider will have an independent point of view but, at the same time, might have problems appreciating where the country and its people come from, why and where they are heading. Wine is not a still life or a photograph – it is dynamic. The more you become involved with any subject, the more your background, personal tastes and experiences are bound to be influential, if only at a subconscious level. Therefore impartiality is out of the window, even if the writer goes to great lengths to prevent this.

But is impartiality really needed in a book like this? It is certainly required in matters of judgement, where comparing and finding the best necessitates a well-defined decision-making process and a set of exact criteria. Many wine books include all different kinds of star ratings and scores as a guide for readers. Guidance is needed for a complex topic like wine and the majority of wine-drinkers cannot spend significant amounts of time or money getting acquainted with the huge range of wines from around the world. Even so, with such guides there is an underlying risk that individual tastes can become substituted for a collective one – that of the most influential critic. Exchanging personal opinion for a ready-made assurance is an easy but dangerous way to negotiate the intricacies of wine. In addition, it is too tempting for someone to pick up a glass – especially if they are in the wrong frame of mind, having a bad day or pre-judging the wine – and say ‘this is a bad wine’. In my opinion it is not fair to judge a wine by giving it a window of opportunity of less than a minute, three sniffs and two sips.

Beyond such matters of personal taste, people brought up in traditional wine-producing regions find it extremely hard to judge wine based only on what it is in the glass. In countries like Greece, wine has a social dimension that must be taken into account. Agriculture is, most of the time and for most people, a decent kind of poverty. Behind every artisan wine is an immense amount of effort, which has been applied in the hope of creating something worthwhile. Most producers try to make the best they can, according to their preferences, culture, and education. Such attempts are not a part of a marketing strategy but a matter of survival, of struggling for a better future, either for oneself or one’s family.

It can be argued that these ‘behind the scenes’ factors do not concern the average punter and that what is important is how the wine in the glass meets the expectations of the final customer. However, many wine-lovers do have a respect for the people that make a living out of wine-growing. They appreciate that there is more at stake than a small tasting note in a book or magazine: ‘The fruit is not complex, the finish is a bit dry, and it scores seventy-five points out of 100’.

Therefore, this is not a book about ratings. It is about a country’s visions and disillusions, dreams and traumas, problems and solutions, defeats and triumphs. And since day one, Greeks have always had a most wonderful way of dealing with these.

Piraeus, Saturday 11 June 2005

INTRODUCTION

Greek wine in the global wine scene is, to use a Greek word, an oxymoron. It is one of the oldest wine-producing countries in the world. It is the place where the first sought after wines were made, and made famous. The concept of grands crus and the cult wines of today stems from ancient Greece. The Greeks have one of the deepest wine cultures in the world. In more than one way, Greeks paved the way for wine to become a fascinating, aspirational product.

Greek wine has been through a sea of transformation over the last century, with the rate of change becoming breathtaking since the 1980s. Greek wine producers are actually a very interesting breed. Their approach combines elements from the New World as well as their Old World counterparts. They work with some of the oldest grape varieties on the planet, yet they expend tremendous amounts of effort realizing the potential of their vines, their vineyards and even themselves.

Developments in production went hand in hand with developments in the Greek consumer base. Greek wine drinkers who, for better or for worse, are the main customers of Greek wineries, provided the ideal template of challenges for national winemakers. Younger generations had to be convinced that wine-drinking could be cool. Older generations had to be converted to bottled (as opposed to bulk) wine. Both had to be taught that wine can be an aspirational part of everyday life. Many wine consumers, once they turned into wine lovers, realized that there is a lot more to discover in wines made in other countries, keeping Greek winemakers on their toes. This perfect example of social–agricultural co-evolution in itself makes Greek wine very interesting.

I often see old friends at wine fairs in France, the UK or the US. Even today, when I invite them over to the Greek stands to taste some wine I frequently get the one-line response, ‘I do not like retsina,’ as an answer. And it is wine professionals I am talking about here, so this just goes to show the huge amount of work the Greek wine industry needs to do in order to convince the world of Greece’s worth as a wine-producing nation. Not only do such responses show a complete lack of knowledge, since Greek wine is so much more than just retsina, it also demonstrates an unwillingness to give these wines a second chance, which is a great shame since, as you will discover in the following pages, retsina can be a world-class wine.

This book is designed to be a small step towards rectifying this situation, although huge improvements have been made over the last decade. Greek wine producers have recently dedicated vast resources to promoting their creations, both collectively and as individual brands.

The first two chapters deal with the history of Greek wine. Chapter 1 deals with past centuries. Of course this is not a history book and the historical information about Greek wines could fill several thousand pages. So here I provide a brief account of the highlights of Greek wine over the last three millennia, rather than an exhausting analysis. Chapter 2 comments on what I call the new era of Greek wine, beginning in the 1970s. There is a fundamental problem in every discussion of this sort, a difficulty that all historians have: if you stand too close to the events, in terms of both time and mindset, it can be difficult to see the true picture, so I hope I have been able to provide a balanced view.

Chapter 3 includes an overview of the climate and the topography of Greece, together with a general description of viticulture and vinification, especially the traditional methods used across the country. The regional chapters in Part 2 of the book contain a lot more information specific to smaller scale areas.

The fourth chapter is dedicated to the major grape varieties of the Greek vineyard, those that are important in terms of acreage and/or quality, and most of which can be found in more than one region. Once again, the regional chapters include many more varieties, some of which can be found in producer profiles, if a variety is only vinified by one winery. There is also a complete list of grape varieties in Appendix 2.

The rest of the book consists of the regional chapters, starting from the north-east, moving southwards and then indulging in some island-hopping. Each of them has a general introduction, with specific discussions of the smaller areas and appellations and, finally, producer profiles.

Since Greece now has more than 700 wineries, it would have been difficult to include every single one of them in this book. There had to be a selection and it was never easy. I wrote every single paragraph of this with a constant ‘wordcountphobia’ and I was bound to make omissions, mistakenly or not. Since one of my aims in writing this book was to demonstrate to the world what Greece has to offer, I tried to include mainly wineries that export their products or, at least, those that distribute them nationally. If your winery is not included here please get in touch!

Some producer entries end with a disclaimer, letting the reader know that I have a commercial relationship with this winery. I work in a wine merchant that exclusively distributes a number of producers around Greece. I consult for some wineries, and have a wine design company with a number of important clients, so I thought it would be helpful to include this information. I also have a wine school, with students from dozens of wineries, and I do a lot of work in promoting Greek wine on a generic level in many export markets. So, in some sense, every single Greek winery supports my family in some way. I believe that every single bottle of Greek wine, sold anywhere in Greece or abroad, is, to some extent, to my advantage.

The producer entries were written with the help of my archive notes, as well as the answers to a questionnaire I sent out, to make sure everything I wrote was bang up-to-date. The format of most of these entries is simple to follow: a brief account of the history of the winery, the people behind their wines and a short discussion of the most important wines produced. It was never my intention to provide a complete list of all wines produced.

While writing this book no specific tastings were conducted, although I taste about two thousand Greek wines per year, with copious tasting notes on the vast majority. I intentionally have not included any tasting notes, at least on specific vintages, that would render this book out of date in a matter of months. However, I loved writing about the style of many wines, their personality and the philosophy and vision of their makers. I have not supplied ratings, either for producers or for wines. It is a most vulgar thing to do to people, and to things that have a soul, if you ask me … I am sure you can read between the lines and see which wines I would buy for myself. But I also hope I can help you discover wines that I might not adore – but you will.

PART 1

THE BACKGROUND

1

THE HISTORY OF GREEK WINE

A detailed account of the history of Greek wine is beyond the scope of this book. There is an amazing wealth of material describing its appearance, role and relevance, ranging from the seventh century BC to modern times. In the last two centuries, a large number of books have been published dedicated entirely to the subject. The main reason behind the existence of so many sources is that wine has always been inextricably interwoven into the fabric of everyday Greek life. The Greeks developed an entire philosophy of life in which wine played a dominant part – it was not just a drink, but a celebration of the cultivation of the vine, an appreciation of life itself, and a catalyst in the establishment of rapport between people and countries. Wine has always been looked upon as a means to lift everyday life out of the ordinary, and has been associated with philosophy, with something divine, with perfection itself.

ANCIENT GREEK WINE

There is no clear evidence to show exactly when the cultivation of the vine began in Greece. Numerous sources indicate that wine production and consumption began in around the third millennium BC, but there are speculations that the starting point could have been a lot earlier. Crete was the cradle of the Minoan civilization, and wine was consumed on this island in the second millennium BC. The Babylonians in Mesopotamia and the Ancient Egyptians also made wine during the same period, although, for the latter, wine was mainly a luxury item.

With the Minoan civilization’s close links to Egypt, it is logical to assume that Crete could have imported the culture of wine from that country. In palaces and villas on the island, archaeologists have found what could be the remains of wine presses and jars whose larger, taller shapes suggest that they were used for the storage of wine rather than olive oil. In addition, even with its limited range, the early hieroglyphic script, Linear A, had a symbol for wine. The cultivation of the vine and wine production could have moved on to Thira (Santorini) quite quickly and from there to Mycenae on the Greek mainland. However, viticulture and wine were probably passed on through a variety of routes. Vines may also have arrived via the coast of Asia Minor.

Ample evidence exists that wine had already been established as an integral part of Mycenaean culture between about 1600 and 1150 BC. The remains of wine residue, pips and what could have been pressed grapes have been found, as well as numerous artistic impressions of grapes and wine, mainly on pots and vases. In Linear B script, the more sophisticated successor to Linear A, symbols for wine, vineyards and possibly even wine merchants have been identified. Wine merchants certainly existed in Mycenae, and Mycenaean pottery has been found in Egypt, Cyprus and Sicily. Traders also imported wine, as wine jars have been found in Mycenae from other wine-producing regions such as Canaan (across the Mediterranean, along the coast of what is now Syria, Lebanon and Israel).

The god of wine

Wine was so important to Ancient Greeks that they worshipped it in the form of a god, Dionysus (known as Bacchus to the Romans), one of the twelve major Greek deities. Regarded as one of the most human of the gods, his temperament was in many ways close to that of the people. After all, he was the son of the god Zeus and a mortal, Semeli. Dionysus was involved in numerous major mythological stories, as were his disciples, his foster father Selinus and the ‘satyrs’, all demi-gods.

According to legend, Dionysus planted a vine at the graveside of his best friend Ampelos, who died young. Ampelos is Greek for grapevine. Dionysus then shared the secret of winemaking with Oeneas, King of Kalydon, who was apparently the first to press grapes and taste their juice. Dionysus met and married Ariadne on the island of Naxos, and among their children were twins named Staphylos (‘grape’) and Oenopionas (‘winemaker’).

Rituals and symposia

Wine became an important part of religious rituals. The word ‘libate’ comes from the Greek root, leibein, ‘to pour forth’. Originally a libation was a liquid offering, where wine was brought to the altar and poured with care from a full oenohoi (a special vessel for holding wine) as an offering to appease the gods. Wine was widely used in prayers and sacrifices, and was offered to men going to war, for strength.

Wine festivals were partly religious and partly cultural events. For example, in October the Oschoforia were held to celebrate the vintage; the Dionysia took place in December to celebrate growth and fertility and the Anthestiria were observed in February, when the jars containing the recent vintage were opened. As well as wine festivals there were symposia, regular social events centred on wine that were semi-formal occasions celebrating social and family successes, mainly confined to the upper classes of society. Women were not forbidden, but the vast majority of symposia were men-only events.

Presiding over the symposia was the symposiarch (master of ceremonies). He was responsible for diluting the wine in a krater (a large, ornate bowl used exclusively for this purpose), in the proper ratio – usually one part wine to two parts water. A fifty-fifty mix was considered insane, and drinking undiluted wine throughout the symposium was looked upon as barbaric. The resulting drink of wine and water was called krasi, the modern Greek word for wine. It is difficult to determine its exact strength, but estimates suggest that it was somewhere between 3.5 and 8% abv.

The symposiarch also had other duties. Together with his assisting oenohoous (the modern Greek word for ‘sommeliers’), he ensured that cups were kept full and spirits were high. He proposed toasts, introduced appropriate topics of conversation, and regulated the rate of wine consumption so as to maintain a general atmosphere of euphoria and controlled intoxication. It was his responsibility to encourage someone to drink more, or to stop drinking for a spell if people became aggressive. Heavy drunkenness was not considered socially acceptable. Clearly, equating the modern sommeliers with the ancient oenohoous is a gross oversimplification.

Ancient literature

Some of the earliest references to wine come from the poetry of Homer, in which it is presented as an essential part of life. Greeks and Trojans both drank wine, a fact that he believed made the two peoples equal in culture. Even the Cyclops drank it. The gods, apart from Dionysus, were not that interested since they had access to their own, exclusively reserved nectar.

But the first person to write in detail on the subjects of viticulture and vinification was Hesiod in the seventh century BC. He wrote that harvest on Chios in the North Aegean Sea should be made when ‘Orion and Sirius [the constellations] are in mid-sky and when the dawn sees Arcturus [the constellation]’, thus placing the vintage well into September. The grapes should not be pressed immediately but ‘left to dry in the sun for ten days, then in the shade for five, and then pressed’. In his Works and Days, there is a discussion regarding proper storage conditions for wine. Wine should retain its ‘heat’, or its good qualities, and for that the opposite, i.e. coldness, was needed. This was regarded as particularly relevant when the containers were not full. It is clear that the negative effects of oxidation, as well as the importance of temperature, were already beginning to be understood.

Several manuscripts from the fourth and fifth centuries BC deal with topics such as vine propagation, site selection, site and variety matching, ampelographical analysis of vine varieties, marking-out the specific origins of certain wines, and analysis of the main characteristics of the resulting wines. Viticulture and oenology were considered important scientific disciplines. Theophrastus, a fourth-century BC philosopher from Lesbos, could claim to be the father of wine writers, since he was the first to pen whole works dedicated to the vine. Two of his most important works are Concerning Odours and Enquiry into Plants, discussing terroir, the interaction between plants, the soil and the sun, as well as the relationship between roots, trunk, branches, leaves and fruit.

Early wine legislation

The notion of linking wine to its origins was well established in Ancient Greece. Homer gives examples in his poetry, such as ‘pramnios oinos’ coming only from the Aegean island of Ikaria. Although regions or cities that were well known for their wine production existed throughout Greece and Asia Minor, it seems that the extremely successful ‘first growths’ of the time were the wines from the islands of the Aegean. Chios was supposed to be the best, followed closely by Lesbos and Thassos. Since Homer’s works were written before the seventh century BC, Pramnian wine must have already been famous by that time.

Given wine’s great economic significance, legislation was developed in many states in order to prevent fraud, to protect reputations, and to maximize tax revenues. A marble slate discovered on Thassos in the North Aegean, dating from the fifth century BC, details laws governing the wine trade. According to this, amphorae carrying wine were sealed by the state’s regulators to guarantee authenticity. These containers had to be of a specific size and shape. Citizens of the island were not allowed to import foreign wine, and for that reason ships carrying wine could not approach the island’s port. These laws applied not only to the trade in wine, but also to its production and identity. For example, Thassos wines should have a distinct floral character, which was to be achieved mainly by the addition of rose petals during maturation.

There is enough evidence to support the claim that the wine laws of Thassos are the oldest in the world of wine.

Spreading the wine

Wine exports were important since wine fetched higher prices abroad. Within Greece, Athens was the richest and largest importer, and was therefore considered to be the premium market. Yet numerous finds in Egypt, around the Black Sea, in the Danube (from its delta in the Black Sea almost all the way to Austria), in Porticello (southern Italy), and in Etruria (modern Tuscany) illustrate how far the vinous exports travelled.

Vines were also exported to several regions around southern Europe, with the introduction of viticultural knowledge seen as an important part of the process of colonization. Thus vines had arrived in Sicily by the eighth century BC. Although the Etruscans also played a large role in expanding vine cultivation from their base in Tuscany, it is believed that the Greeks introduced wine production to a significant proportion of Italy. Further to the west, the Greeks founded Massalia, today’s Marseille, around 600 BC and vineyards were rapidly introduced across the Mediterranean coast. During this expansion, the Greeks came in contact with Celts, who were in turn responsible for the development of wine culture further north.

Containers, cups and kraters

Any account of the history of wine in Ancient Greece would be incomplete without a description of the vessels used to transport, store, mix, pour and drink wine. The complex, numerous uses of wine led to a high degree of sophistication in the manufacturing of these items. The first containers and cups were designed purely for functionality, but developments in pottery allowed artisans to become artists, and wine containers from top manufacturers became status symbols of wealth. The art of decorating these vessels reached a high point in Attica between the sixth and fourth centuries BC.

The first container that grapes would come into contact with was a linos, a large vat for crushing the berries and draining the must. The juice was immediately moved for fermentation to large pithoi, clay barrels about 1.5 metres (5 feet) tall. The must was transferred from the linos to the pithoi in wine ‘skins’, usually made from goat hide. Amphorae were the most common type of wine vessel used in Ancient Greece and were used to transport wine over long distances. The earliest such vessels were found in Canaan and date to the fourteenth century BC. Different appellations were allowed to use specific amphora shapes. The bottom was usually pointed so that the amphora could stand in sand but also to minimize surface contact with the gross lees.

Wine had to be diluted with water before it could be drunk, making mixing vessels necessary during symposia. The oldest known is a lebes, a luxury piece of pottery that was round with a low rim, and rested on a base. However, it was cumbersome to handle, leading to the development of the krater, around the eighth century BC. Kraters were made from either clay or metal, with the latter considered luxury items. Very few metal kraters survive today, partly because people melted them down to make new ones, but primarily because they have been plundered by looters of antiquities throughout the ages.

There was a large variety of drinking cups, the most important being the skyfos, the kantharos and the extremely popular kylix. The kylix resembled today’s soup plate. There is evidence that the shallow-cup, broad-rimmed shape was favoured because it allowed a wider flow of wine into the mouth, stimulating the taste-buds along the edges of the tongue and increasing the acid feel. There is every reason to believe that Ancient Greeks were as sophisticated wine drinkers as these details suggest. It is possible that Georg Riedel, with his twentieth-century demonstration of how the shape of a glass can alter the taste of a wine, was not so much an inventor as a good classical scholar.

Flavourings and additives

Adding flavourings to wine was a crucial process in winemaking. Spices, honey, flowers, herbs or aromatic oils were used to stabilize the wine by making it less sensitive to contact with oxygen and, when oxidation did occur, these additives would cover any volatile acidity. In Concerning Odours Theophrastus goes into great detail about the preparation of blends of spices and other flavourings. For example, he cites that resin produced from pines grown on certain sites must be matched with the product of vines grown on similar types of soil.

Resin is possibly the most important of all additives, since the practice survives to this day in the form of retsina. There are accounts of Ancient Greek winemakers taking extreme care while producing the resined wine, treating it in a way that reminds one of the ageing of top quality white burgundy. The wine would be kept in large containers with the correct amount of lees – not too much, not too little – with frequent attention being paid to topping-up to ensure air was excluded, coupled with the occasional stirring of the lees, a task performed often during the first few months and less so as time went by.

THE ROMAN AND BYZANTINE EMPIRES

All levels of wine production, trade, and appreciation reached a peak simultaneously between the sixth and fourth centuries BC. After this golden age, the entire sector progressively declined. The conquest of Greece by the Romans in 146 BC marked the end of an era, and Athens ceased to be the most powerful city in the Mediterranean. Soon, trade centres shifted from Greece to Rome, mainland Italy, and southern France.

The new political regime adversely affected Greek wine, as producers now had limited access to new and emerging markets. During the second and third centuries AD, the image of Greek wine faded. Local wine industries were geared for exports and their production could not be absorbed by limited regional consumption. It was just a matter of time before standards of quality followed the same decline.

The transformation of the Roman Empire into Byzantium began in 330 AD with the foundation of Constantinople (Istanbul). This immediately became the new imperial capital, but the Byzantine Empire, the empire of a thousand years, was not simply a new name for the Roman Empire. While the western regions of the old Roman Empire disintegrated into numerous feudal kingdoms, this was a new entity in the east.

As the Byzantine Empire increased in power, Christianity became the main focus of the new emperors. A common theme and a strong bond between their citizens was needed and the spreading of the new religion, coupled with an exclusion of all others, was the perfect umbrella under which to unite the new empire. Romans were accused of idolatry and all Ancient Greek gods came under attack. Dionysus was no exception, and under the Byzantines people could be punished for so much as uttering his name during harvest or winemaking.

During the Byzantine era, which ended with the invasion of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453, viticulture was practised by private individuals and monks. At that time, the church was gathering power and wealth at an impressive rate. Vineyards were either donated or sold to monasteries, and monks were able to build extensive holdings, source excellent fruit and produce wines of high quality, as detailed in the scripts found in the Byzantine monastic libraries of Mount Athos.

However, the shift of power from Rome to Constantinople did not have the expected effect of improving Greece’s wine trade. As early as the eleventh century AD, Emperor Alexius I Comnenus granted Venice wine trading rights throughout the Byzantine Empire, and Venetian shippers were permitted to sell wine without paying duty. The great wines of the Veneto, mainly Amarone and Recioto from Valpolicella which were made from sun-dried red grapes, were possibly produced to emulate the popular styles of Chios, Samos and Crete. Crete and Cyprus still dominated wine exports, but they were already under Venetian rule.

CHANGING TIMES

During the Byzantine era, viticulture almost stood still, while in contrast, the production and consumption of wine changed significantly. The use of wooden barrels – a practice that had been popular in Western Europe for at least 400 years – was introduced in the seventh century AD. Although small quantities of spices were occasionally still added, other flavourings became less widespread and certainly less sophisticated, the only notable exception being resin. The use of sun-dried grapes for making sweet wines increased. Byzantine wine drinkers were also the first to stop diluting oenos (wine) with water, but they continued to use the word krasi for the undiluted form of wine – a habit that has survived to modern times.

One bestseller of the time was Monemvassios oenos, Malvasia wine, named after the port of Monemvasia in the southeastern Peloponnese. The style originated here, but later became a generic name used for wines produced in Santorini, Crete and, of course, Monemvasia. Monemvassios oenos was exported to France, Germany and England right up until the eighteenth century. The increasing popularity of this product required ever larger ships to load more wine barrels. Monemvasia, being a small port, could not accommodate these ships and so Crete and Cyprus again won the lion’s share of the trade. This led to a decline of the southern Peloponnese as a producer and exporter of high-quality wines.

After Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, wine exports were halted, but surprisingly, viticulture was not restricted. The Turks were quick to spot the dynamic relationship that the Greeks had with both vine and wine and decided to exploit it to the full. A strict taxation system was introduced that governed all facets of wine, from production through to trade. A final blow was dealt to Greek viticulture when the retreating Turks destroyed most cultivated land in the aftermath of the 1821 revolution.

FROM INDEPENDENCE TO PHYLLOXERA

The first few decades after the foundation of the modern Greek nation in 1830 saw much unrest and extreme poverty. It soon became clear that cultivating the land could help both upgrade living standards and improve the financial situation. Abandoned vineyards began to be replanted, but as good planting stock was difficult to come by, this took place in a very haphazard manner. An exception to this was the propagation of vines for the production of Corinthiaki, a variety used for the production of raisins, called Stafida in Greek. In the decades that followed and up to the end of the century, plantings of Corinthiaki almost quadrupled, while the acreage of wine grapes only doubled.

The devastation of French vineyards by phylloxera in the late nineteenth century came as a blessing for Greek Corinthiaki growers. Exports of dried Corinthiaki grapes (raisins) to France both for consumption and the production of wine increased exponentially. However, France managed to recover from phylloxera in the early twentieth century and, within a few years, French wine production resumed, duty became obligatory on imported raisins, and a ban was imposed on wine made from dried grapes, imported or otherwise. To make matters worse, competition increased dramatically with the introduction of other varieties suitable for raisin production from Australia and California. In a short period of time, the most valuable export product of Greek agriculture had become redundant, and prices plummeted. This raisin crisis drove much of the agrarian population to abandon the countryside and seek a better life either in urban centres or in other countries.

As early as the mid-1700s, attempts had been made to establish wine companies in Greece. In 1858 two wine companies were established in Patra and Cephalonia, but they did not last. By the end of the nineteenth century there were only ten companies making products derived from grapes, mainly distillates. Although some of these companies did manage to win a few medals in international wine competitions, the rest of Greek wine was made using primitive methods and sold in bulk. Stability was poorly understood, and oxidation was prevalent. The only way to make this wine at all palatable was to add pine resin, giving rise to retsina. The quality of the retsinas served in wine tavernas, called kapilia in the big cities, was so low that it drove many people to drink beer instead.

THE TWENTIETH CENTURY

The twentieth century was probably the most eventful in Greece’s long and colourful history. After almost 400 years of an unchanging, miserable way of life for most, things began to change – but not without a price being paid. As well as the Balkan Wars of 1912–13, Greece was heavily involved in both world wars, and its own devastating civil war in the 1940s. There were also many minor clashes with Turkey and with some of the northern Balkan countries. It is often said that the first ever Greeks not called upon to bear arms to defend the nation were those born after 1975. The economy of the country was in a poor condition after these various conflicts, but the Greeks, with an optimism that must be infused in their DNA, saw every problem as a potential opportunity. While the public sector was in many cases more concerned with its own survival than running the country, private companies flourished for most of the second half of the twentieth century. Greece’s difficult economic history meant that its people became adept at problem-solving and adaptation – their experience gave them the skills to become some of the most seasoned business people in Europe.

Rise and fall

The second decade of the twentieth century saw a significant enlargement of the Greek state. After the addition of the Ionian islands in 1864 and Thessaly in 1881, the size of the country remained stable for close to thirty years. Then, in 1913 and 1914, Epirus, Macedonia and the Aegean islands, including Crete, officially became part of the Greek state. Six years later, Thrace and the small islands of Imvros and Tenedos were acquired, although the two isles and the eastern part of Thrace had to be returned to Turkey just two years later.

These continuous land additions make following the significance of viticulture and the rate of new plantings quite difficult. By 1916, the area under vine had reached around 200,000 hectares, but thereafter expansion came to a halt. The main reason was the problems caused by phylloxera. The first known incidence of phylloxera in Greece occurred in 1898 in the northern region of Pilea near Thessaloniki. The spread of the disease in Macedonia was rapid and devastating. Although vineyard planting reached an all-time high in 1916 with 200,000 hectares under vine, vineyards began to shrink significantly after 1920 as a direct result of the spread of phylloxera. The introduction of American rootstocks provided a much-needed solution and plantings started to increase once more, especially in central Greece and the Peloponnese. Nevertheless, the vineyard area never reached the level of 1915–16 again.

Another important development in the first two decades of the twentieth century was the introduction of the new Sultana (Thompson Seedless) variety, for raisin production. New vineyards developed in the first few decades after the phylloxera invasion despite a lack of export demand. Landowners started cultivating more and more vines mainly because there was little else to plant on the infertile land. They also thought that the glory days of Greek wine exports were not over. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

Strength in numbers

The deus ex machina solution came in the form of cooperatives. In the early 1920s, soon after the overproduction problems became apparent, the Greek government decided to found a number of agricultural co-ops. The main aim was to support the agricultural sector, rather than adding value or creating a competitive advantage for it. Thus buying the grapes of growers (all the grapes of all the growers, regardless of quality) was more important than producing, let alone selling, the wine. This is not to imply that there were no cooperatives doing a good job, one example being the Agricultural Union of Samos, a co-op that crafts some of the best sweet wines to be found around the globe.

However, the worst consequence of the cooperative movement was to break any link between grape quality, hard work in the vineyard, and income. The only thing that really mattered was quantity. Any grower trying to achieve higher quality by careful vineyard management and lower yields was committing financial suicide. If Greek viticulture had been developed in a more competitive environment, the quality of today’s wines could have been a lot higher than it already is. The vine acreage size would be another matter.

Post Second World War

Much of what escaped devastation during the Second World War and the years of Nazi occupation was ruined during the Civil War – possibly the cruellest form of war a nation can go through. After almost ten years of financial chaos, political turmoil, and substantial loss of human life, the Greek nation entered the 1950s with a kind of reserved optimism. Large parts of the population started moving into urban centres which had become the ‘lands of opportunity’. It was a time when clever, experienced and capable people could quickly become prosperous or move up the social ladder.

The rapidly improving standard of living had a major impact on wine production. For the first time, local markets could support and encourage bottled wines. Still, ‘village’ wine represented a large part of the national wine consumption. In fact, many traditional drinkers were initially extremely sceptical about bottled wine – they believed that only a homemade product could be pure and all bottled krasi was either artificial or ‘full of chemicals’. Nevertheless, a growing part of the urban population had limited access to village produce and the only solution was some form of packaged wine. A better economic climate allowed some Greeks to study and travel abroad, exposing them to foreign cultures and tastes, and turning them into more sophisticated and demanding consumers.

The wine market in Greece during the 1960s was closer to that of Eastern European wine-producing countries than of other Mediterranean or Western European nations. Wine sales were dominated by bulk wine produced either by local, small volume and, most of the time, low-quality vignerons, or supplied by the large private companies or co-ops. The bottled market was fairly limited and dominated by a small number of high-volume players, providing cheap, branded wines, mainly sold in bulky (one litre or larger) formats or in 500 millilitre bottles sealed with a crown cap – the standard 750 millilitre bottle is a relatively new commodity in Greek wine production.

The same period witnessed the rise of retsina. Wine with added resin has been made and exported from Greece for more than twenty-four centuries. Retsina has been consumed in the kapilia of Athens since the late nineteenth century, but it became the national drink during the tourist boom of the 1960s. At that time, Athens was

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