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Wine Enthusiast Podcast: Ancient Greek Wines for the Modern Drinker

Did you know that Greek grape varieties like Limniona date back more than 3,000 years and, despite being written about by Homer and Aristotle, almost became extinct? In this episode, Susan Kostrzewa, executive editor at Wine Enthusiast, talks with Kamal Kouiri, wine director of Molyvos and Ousia restaurants in New York City, about the Greece’s oldest and most interesting ancient grapes, and the passionate growers working to save these national treasures.

Susan Kostrzewa: Hello and welcome to the Wine Enthusiast podcast: Your serving of wine trends and passionate people beyond the bottle. I’m Susan Kostrzewa, executive editor here at Wine Enthusiast, and in this episode, I talk on location in midtown Manhattan with Kamal Kouiri, wine director of Molyvos, a seafood restaurant in New York City.

Did you know that Greek wine varieties like Limniona date back over 3,000 years, and were written about by Homer and Aristotle but almost became extinct? We’ll hear more about that, talk about the country’s oldest and most interesting ancient grapes and tap some top protectors of vine history that are saving these national treasures. And, of course, we’ll give you the skinny on some recently rated and excellent examples of Greece’s heritage indigenous varieties.

So, I’m here with Kamal Kouiri, we’re at Molyvos in New York City. Kamal and I have known each other for many years. He’s really the one who introduced me to the love of Greek wine, and we’re setting…they’re setting up for their next service, so thank you for giving us the time and space to talk about something super cool.

So, Kamal is one of the foremost authorities on Greek wine in the U.S., and he has access to some of Greece’s most interesting and remote regions and is traveling there a lot. If it’s new and weird…I would say if it’s new and weird and wonderful and it’s Greek, Kamal is your guy. So, I think he’s the perfect person to talk to today.

So, Kamal, one of the things before we get into discussion of the Greek variety — ancient Greek varieties that almost became extinct, which is a really interesting story — I would love just your kind of quick elevator pitch take on why you think Greek wine is such an amazing category for wine drinkers right now.

Kamal Kouiri: Thank you Susan first for having me here today. When I talk about Greece I’ve always had goosebumps, and it’s makes me proud because the country itself did the wonderful job of reviving the great varieties indigenous grape varieties, as well as producing world-class wines.

So, coming back to the question: Greek wine overall are easy. Easy access to them via taste— taste-wise, you know. I mean, they are food friendly, they’re very unique, they are terroir-driven, they are affordable, and it can go a long way. White wines are very bright. You know, beautiful acidity, mineral driven…the red, are fresh and fruity and still with a good combination with oak.

And you can have some wine, the vendor garden you can age — like for example, you know, Xinomavros. So overall, what Greece offer on the table can compete with any wine in the world, without a doubt.

SK: I think it’s the full package, too, because you just mentioned, you know, they’re affordable wines, they’re unique wines, and I think that the market is really interested in that right now. And we’ll talk a little bit more about that, especially as we talk about some of these really interesting indigenous varieties.

So, there’s a lot to say about Greek wine: we could fill up three pod…10 podcasts with great stories about Greek wine. But today we’re going to really focus on indigenous — you know the heritage varieties of Greece and especially the ancient varieties of Greece, and some of them were almost obliterated from the planet during the ’80s and ’90s.

I’ve learned a lot about this as I’ve traveled through Greece and had discussions with winemakers about, you know, this sort of trend that came to be in the ’80s and ’90s which was a lot of planting, a lot of international varieties.

So, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Shiraz all these things, and pulling out old — you know, these old ancient vineyards with these very unique varieties. I think that Greek producers felt pressured to either rip out the old vines and plant those varieties or just let the old vines die.

And thankfully some visionary stepped in and either preserved or replanted varieties that had gone extinct. I think the first thing I would like to talk about is Assyrtiko, which is a white wine made on Sant…you know, originating from the island of Santorini, which a lot of people know, beautiful place.

It is one of Greece’s oldest varieties and it has an origin as I said on Santorini, and it’s grown in volcanic soil there. I think it actually may be one of the oldest continuously produced varieties in the country, and it dates back several millennia, which we’ll talk more about.

A lot of varieties in Greece are thousands of years old: it’s not that unique. But I feel like Assyrtiko is having its time in the limelight right now — a lot of that comes from the somms and people like you who’ve really championed it.

So, can you tell us a little bit about Assyrtiko’s history, and its unique growing character, and why you think it’s becoming so popular now.

KK: You know going back to what you said earlier it’s one the winemakers went in the ’80s and ’90s to study in Bordeaux and Dijon and we came back. They only knew to started working with those grape varieties, international grape varieties, but the back mind, they were ready to move on when they, they able to establish the trust between consumer and them.

First showing those international grapes, able to show them how they able to achieve and make great wine, and then eventually to start thinking bold: this indigenous grape variety. Assyrtiko is one of the luckiest grapes: First, because Greece went through a lot of diverse problems, you know, in history with the Ottoman Empire occupation that’s really hurt the country and the culture aspects of growing grapes to produce wine.

So, they were taxing them and eventually they couldn’t able to afford that, so they move to more a product that they can survive economically.

So Assyrtiko, originally from the Cyclades, and especially in the island of Santorini, it was protected by the Venetians. So that’s at least in the economic parts of it, it was protected by this — the route of the Venetians through Santorini was protected, so that’s one. Two, the fact that the terroir allowed for this grape, this grape variety, to survive: no phylloxera.

So, the cycle of life of this grape never was jeopardized because there’s no phylloxera around. So these grapes survived from a millennium, from thousands and thousands of years.

So, you have that then the fact that a Venetian was the best commerce that people in the world…

SK: Right.

KK: From the 14th century all the way. So, you have these people taking this grape from Santorini, taking it to Italy, and then, you know, the Vinsanto, eventually it was produced through that.

So, you have these people were in touch with grapes for thousands and thousands of years. So now coming back to this era, the grape that produced in Santorini is very, very unique. It’s grown in this Jurassic Park vineyard, during the winter, where you say “Where is the vine?,” And eventually you find them coming from walls you know, everywhere, every inch it’s this kind of vine coming down.

There’s only like hotels or wine. That’s the only thing that exists in that island. And you have this grape that gives you a lot of power. It’s a powerful grape; you can handle it same as a red. So, it’s very…you can do a lot of things with it. For me. I said it was a noble grape. You can produce beautiful dry…I know a lot of people don’t crazy about oak, but still you can make oak Assyrtikos, cause you can age Assyrtiko…

SK: Sparkling Assyrtiko… I’m seeing a lot of versatility now in that particular, you know, variety. Okay. Well, so we’ve talked a little…we’ve talked about Assyrtiko, but there’s a long list of indigenous varieties in Greece that date back thousands of years.

Some of these are familiar. You know, again, Assyrtiko, Xinomavro, Moschofilero…these are varieties that you know a lot of Americans may have at least seen have seen, and are imported in the U.S. But some of the most interesting stories of old grapes that almost didn’t make it are more unknown.

So, I just tasted a Plyto from Crete, which is a white wine, and producers like Lyrarakis have brought back into planting and fashion. Another one I just tasted is a Limnio or Limniona, which is a red wine that originated on the island of Lemnos, and was popular with Aristotle and Homer.

I mean you know these are grapes that were talked about in the antiquities: They’re recorded as being favorites and being widely consumed. These are grapes that are still being made, now, or have come back into fashion. You know, I think I’d love for you to talk a little bit more about some of the indigenous ancient grapes of the country that most interest you, ones that had a rough route, or ones that were almost made extinct, and maybe talk a little bit about some of the producers you think have been instrumental in saving these ancient grapes.

KK: Well there is a lot of indigenous grape varieties then we would talk…when we talk, what we say is 300 great varieties. There is 300 great varieties, some of them play a big role in the wine as a single mono variety. Some of them as a supporting cast, you know, as for the blend, but eventually there is some varieties as well like…for example, we go back.

You mentioned Lyrarakis for example. If you go back say 20, 25 years ago, the same grape Plyto was a blended vin de Crete.

So, we have these old grapes that are sourced from the vineyard, press with the label vendor creates, and you’re happy with that.

So, you have this Plyto, or you have the Dafni, you have Romeiko, which is one of the ancient grape; you have Thrapsathiri, you have Vilana, of course, the King —the Queen of Crete.

So, you have this variety. All were planted—all together. So now their focus on putting them as a mono variety. So, this, it takes a lot of time; it takes a lot of efforts; takes a lot of money. And this small producers are really putting their hearts into this project. So, you have Lyrarakis, that’s, you know, Dafni, and Plyto. You have Gerovassiliou, the father of Malagouzia, that brought Malagouzia when he was working in Porto Carras and brought this great variety to life, you know, from central Greece. You have the Limnio, which is the first Porto Carras also able to put back in life and commercialize it. And now you see people want to do the Limnio because they’re interested but it’s great.

So, the Limniona, also by Tsililis, from Theopetra. We have Domaine Zafeirakis, which is another Limniona producer. You have Mavroudi — which is a clone; not nothing to do with before—but Mavroudi was a blend of red. This is a Mavroudi, which is a unique grape from Thráki.

You have Vidiano…a grape that few produce…doing very well. And also, you feel that the grape is so unique. That’s my friend, Nikos Karatzas, went to Crete to produce a project which is made from Vidiano because he believes in that grape.

So, you have all these grapes and there is more grapes coming in. Mavrodaphne, I know, is an ancient grape but at least we change the style of it.

Now we go into dry Mavrodaphne, because also the winemakers get wiser a little bit, you know? I mean they understand, okay this is tradition, but listen let’s make this something different, because we know that the wine can give us some different profile.

SK: And that’s a really good point, you know, because I think when you have you have this heritage grape —I call it heritage grape—you know when you have this sort of you know, legacy grape, there’s pressure because you have people who’ve been producing that throughout, in some cases just for the family

I mean, I think some of these vineyards of these ancient varieties where we’re really just—over the centuries just became family you know or small production. But there’s, there’s…you have to decide how much you want to innovate on the approach to them, and how comfortable you are with that, because there is an association with a style in these ancient grapes…but then there’s also you know the public or the contemporary palate, and there’s pressure there. So, so, how do you feel that these producers have done? I feel there’s a great new generation of young people coming in and producing these wines, and that’s part of why we’re seeing them on the market.

KK: For sure, for sure, yeah. I see that a lot. The good things about, about now, we have a lotta, lotta…let’s give an example. Say, 10 years ago, we’re about 400 or 500 wineries. Now they’re 1,300 wineries. What tells you? That tells you now most of the wineries are under 18,000 bottles production. That’s like a little production. You know what I mean?

So, you have all this wine growers that the kids decided, “Grandpa we’re going to make wine in a few years.”

They go to college, you go to university…at Thessaloniki, at Athens…you get the degree, go abroad and study, and put their internship in different countries. Before everybody would wanna go to France. Now you see them UC Davis, you see them in Australia, you see them in Piedmont [and] you see them in Strasbourg.

So what you have here is a collection of thoughts, okay? You have one indigenous grape variety. A collection of thoughts. Everybody is making a difference. So that now we have one grape variety that gives you a different style, and that’s also opened up the gap in the palettes. And there is challenges with this grape. Because the…economically Greece is still struggling, so it’s…the they put a lot of effort in that. So, they have they put everything in. So, you know, they put everything in and they take on the challenge because to revive these great varieties takes time.

You know I have a story…I don’t want to say the winemaker, but I know this gentleman that brought this grape. You know, indigenous grape, and plant, and told the government this is a Syrah. Because if he told him that they want to bring back this great variety they will not allow him to plant it.

SK: Wow.

KK: So just to see it, you know, not to put a lot of efforts on it on his small plots, he planted this in his great variety and see how were you reacting. He was so excited. Then when does the government and say you know what. Because it’s government law in Greece to work with those, so, you know, unfortunately it’s a little tough on the winemakers.

SK: You know I would like to talk a little bit about why you think it’s so important for a country like Greece…we just talked about all the all of the roadblocks that can happen…but why do you think it’s so important for Greece to double down on these ancient varieties, these unique varieties, these historic varieties? What…what do you think? What’s the point of doing that if it’s so hard?

KK: Yeah, I mean it’s so hard and that’s what they have. That’s what they did have. You know, I mean that when God gives you something, you know, that’s what you have. That’s where you go. Don’t go somewhere else. Everything is front of you. Everything is… it’s, it’s hard work no doubt, no doubt. And that’s what I love about them is that they know it’s hard, and they know it’s gonna be tough, and you know they’re going to spend, you know, thousand [and] thousands of euros but still they want to go and do it. You know what I mean? Because they want to prove the world wrong. They have something on, on top of the shoulders, you know, because nobody gives them a chance.

SK: Actually,  Kamal and I and were talking a little bit about, you know, vinification in ancient times, whether the wines that we taste now, even if the varieties are the same, if they’re the same wines. And I actually do want to talk a little bit about Retsina in a second. But, you know, obviously there are differences in how things were made and vinified, and how they were stored, and everything else. But can we…you know, let’s go back just quickly to Retsina which most people—most, I would say, Americans—do associate Greek wine with Retsina. That used to be a problem, I think. You know there were some great Retsinas being made domestically, not a lot of great ones being exported. Now there’s some really cool stuff that’s happening with Retsina, but Savatiano, which is the grape that is made, that Retsina’s made from, very ancient grape, right?

KK: Yes. I mean, well, you know, Savatiano is the most planted white grape variety of Greece. It’s planted round Athens, you know, Attiki, in Attica. Basically, you have bunch of villages around the, around Athens. And the thing about ancient time…and you have this big, you know, town with all this civilization, they love to eat and drink and party. So, they need this grape. So, you have this…all this hills planted with a grape, Savatiano. So Savatiano is a very…for me, it is one of the misunderstood grapes. But thank God there is wineries like Domaine Papagiannakos, and Milonas and other wineries are bringing them to the next level, you know what I mean? Low yield, now, because before it was the base of Sava…the base of Retsina, because it was a reason for that. It was over-planted, over-extracted, done quickly, then was not even protected, oxidated.

So, what they did, they put the resin to hide all that’s misleading, and you have this pungent malt. Then maybe in the ’80s, ’70s the people—the Americans—when they went to Greece to vacation…they loved it because you know what, they had this beautiful atmosphere around them; happiness, fun, sunshine, good food, super cheap.

And then you have this Retsina, and they’re having fun with it. So, you have this sort of recollection about this Restina. And even now, when people come in, I give them the new Restina, and they say “This is not Retsina.” They want that diesel…

SK: Pine resin, diesel, slam you over the head…

KK: Yes, they want that. Now we have this wineries that, really, you feel Retsina is a wine, is a traditional wine of Greece, especially around Attica, which is, you know, made everywhere, but the traditional one of Greece, Retsina, mainly, there’s other ones that take Retsina to another level. So, you have this beautiful product which is the heritage of Greece. For me when you see Retsina, you know, you think about Greece again. The wine can really do very well. Sometimes, you know, like sometimes a mood to eat some sushi and then pick up a Retsina, and you open it with sushi and it works very well.

SK: It’s amazing. It’s an incredible food-pairing wine.

KK: Yeah definitely. Fried sardines.

SK: And I think the old style was hard to pair with food properly. Now you’re getting these much more delicate sort of refined styles of Retsina.

KK: You know, the Retsina was the really, the black mark on Greek wines. The Greeks worked very hard to take a tarnished image on that, and now I know of some beautiful Retsinas. They make also rosé now. So, there is a lot of…they are more playful right now with the Retsina aspect of it, but still the classic one—made from Savatiano or other grape—is delicious, you know, and you can do a lot of things with it.

SK: Okay, so we’re talking about ancient varieties, so it’s only appropriate that we taste one of the wines we’ve been chatting about, so let’s open this up. It’s a Limniona, from Meteora in Greece. It’s Tsililis Theopetra, okay this is where I need see, I need help from the pros.

KK: Yeah, a Limniona from Theopetra, from Meteora.

SK: From Meteora. So, we’re going to talk about this later. We’re throwing a lot of names and difficult pronunciations at everyone. In the episode notes there will be — we’ll have all the details, so that if any of this is hard to pronounce for you, or understand, we gotcha. OK. So. Limniona. This is one of the grapes that we talked about: one of the truly ancient grapes of Greece. It’s a red wine. You know it’s… I mean honestly this was one of my favorites of wines that I’d tasted in this last round for the blind eye that I did. You know, talk to me a little bit about what you love about this wine.

KK: First of all, it’s 100% Limniona, it’s from the Theopetra, organically-farmed grapes, low-yield. The wine, red. Vinification and age in French and American oak for twelve months, and then see another 12 months in the bottle before is released. I love the aromas of this wines, you know? Ruby red, with, you know, nice garments and then you have aromas of spice, of dark fruit, it’s cherries

SK: Yeah, I got a cherry, and sort of dried herbs, and, and a lot of anise, and, you know, just a beautiful really aromatic wine, you know. And I think one of the things I love about this wine is it really does have this great structure to it. It’s got that minerality which, again, Greek wine has in spades, but this really nice minerality, good complexity…again, the thing with this wine that I think is I could see this being incredibly…it’s a versatile wine in that I could see somebody who loves a Cabernet drinking this, somebody who loves a Pinot Noir drinking this, you know it kind of spans a lot of styles and tastes.

KK: Yes, yes well, I love them, and like you said, I love definitely the structure. And the minerality that’s really going through that fruit, you feel that, you know…almost like that terroir-driven, but you feel like almost like a red slate caricature, but the vineyards are any of the savory elements of sage, little bits of some urban notes and has a lot of dimension with which fruit characters so you get the nuance. You know, a little bit on the light spiciness like much like more pink peppercorn. But you can drink this blind, and you may think different things, like Susan mentioned, you know? But the most important thing is, is when you taste this wine, you’re gonna enjoy it. So that’s what I say, always, you know, taste something and then, then realize if you like it or not. You cannot judge it from the outside. So, this wine is a really…and also I love the aftertaste, it’s really pleasant. The tannins are supple, and I love the acidity, you know.

SK: What do you think that Aristotle and Homer and all the guys who loved Limniona would have been eating with this? Probably lamb. Probably some of the things you were just saying.

KK: Yeah, lamb, maybe, or with some grape leaves, you know? You get the vineyards, you get some wood from the vineyards, you have the lamb, you know the fine technique, old techniques to keep it moist, put some grape leaves on top of it, maybe put some wine, so to keep the juice flowing, nuts…I’m sure that’s what they had in there.

SK: Okay, so we’re you know we’ve been talking about ancient varieties, we’ve been talking about the circuitous route of ancient varieties in Greece. So, it makes me think, I’m really…I’m a lover of literature, and I’m a lover of the Greek classics. So, when I started this beat I was thrilled, because, you know, I love all the stories of Greek tragedy and classics. So, I’m going to put Kamal on the spot a little bit, and I want to know: You get to drink one wine with one ancient Greece personality. Who is it, and why?

KK: That’s a tough question for me. Maybe, maybe…I will say maybe Athena. Yeah. I don’t mind drinking a beautiful glass of wine with one of the beautiful ladies.

SK: Which glass of wine would it be? Or which variety do you associate with Athena?

KK: I will, I will associate Savatiano. So, why not? Savatiano from a nearby vineyard, with Athena. That would do it for me.

SK: That sounds great. Again, I think, just this category of wines is so intriguing. There’s so much history, there’s just so much heart. And you know the cultural aspect of what is made in Greece…there’s just a lot, a lot of stories, and a lot of great producers. So, Kamal, thank you so much, and thank you for also helping to preserve these varieties because you’re…you know, in your advocacy, you’re really helping to protect all these heritage grapes.

KK: Well, thank you for having me on really what I’m what I am really is I’m just a storyteller. There’s a lot of people behind the scene, and in Greece, I mean, when I go in, I taste their wine, I hear their stories and struggle, and, you know, triumph as well.

So that’s just what I am. Because without those people in Greece, I am nothing. You know that’s the truth. And that’s what I try to do. You know, even my next project is having a wine list with the title “1000 Wines, 1000 Stories.” So that’s the idea. And that’s what we do here. But you know, please try Greek wines, you know, just give them a chance. Open a bottle and go for it. You’re not gonna be disappointed, I promise.

SK: Amazing. Cheers.

KK: Cheers.

SK: Happy to be enjoying this with you. Thanks Kamal.

SK: Thanks for listening to this episode of The Wine Enthusiast podcast. We talked about so many exciting and different ancient varieties in the episode. But to recap three recently tasted gems that are perfect to pick up now:  try Domaine Sigalas 2017 Seven Villages Imerovigli Assyrtiko from Santorini, 93 points and $80; Tsililis Theopetra Estate 2015 Limniona from Meteora, 90 points and $38; and the Lyrarakis 2017 Psarades Vineyard Plyto from Crete, 87 points and $21.

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