"Wine is wonderfully wholesome for man in sickness and in health, provided it is taken at the right time and in the right quantity to suit individual needs."
--Hippocrates, 500 B.C.
With the United States committing 400 troops to help protect the Olympic Games, the first thought on most Americans' minds is terrorism and safety rather than sports. Hopefully, construction woes will be concluded and security issues will be ironed out successfully in this birthplace of social sport.
Likewise, you'd think the kinks in Greek wines would have been easily resolved after millennia of production, but prosperity and identity still elude the Aegean wine landscape.
The Olympics will present a great stage on which to show off for hungry and thirsty tourists, businessmen and front row millionaires. Spanakopita, moussaka, dolmades and lamb specialties are well known and eagerly anticipated. But what about the vinous side of things? Old grape varieties such as agiortikos, xynomavro and moschofilero compete with new plantings of chardonnay and merlot, none of which have tremendous worldwide recognition or respect.
People have tried drinking Greek on and off, but no strong, consistent market has ever emerged. Could it be that Retsina, the wine that tastes like a pine cone cocktail, has turned off generation after generation of potential customers? Stranger things have happened.
The glories of ancient Greek civilization, art, erudition and sport were supported in large measure by the export of wine and olive oil throughout the Mediterranean world. Greece was the place to acquire these specialties. The best locations around Attica, Macedonia, the Peloponnese, Santorini, Crete and Samos have been continuously planted and cultivated.
One bottle in my recent tastings caught my eye. It had the following admonition on its back label: "To enjoy its discreet aroma, it should be served at 50-54 degrees Fahrenheit." This adjectival warning is very true of almost all Greek wines. They are mostly discreet and understated--so unlike most of what we Americans have grown accustomed to drinking. They are subtle, they seldom shout--but what is there is often beguiling and worth coddling out of its shell.
This may be foolish romanticizing on my part, but I think of the Greek landscape as being worked and cultivated constantly for over 7000 years, and I wonder if the "poor" soil, the unfortunate, overworked earth, can now only deliver lighter, less concentrated, less rounded and fleshy wines? This good, "old" earth still renders beautiful things, but in a quieter, gentler way. There is plenty of joy and pleasure in these beverages, and now is a perfect time to get to know some as you root for your favorite athletes.
2002 Thalassitis Santorini, Gai'a $15.99
Outgoing, sprightly lemony twang--a mouthwatering bouquet. Crisp, perky with a sour lemon note. Amazingly dry and mouth clearing. The assyrtiko grape of this legendary wine (and island) will really cut through the grape leaves, Greek spices and garlic. Potent stuff. Like a 50-meter freestyle or a mad 100-meter dash. Grade: 87
2001 Santorini, Boutari $17.59
Fat, soft, spicy orange peel nose. Delicate and understated with a passing resemblance to gewurztraminer. Cozy, yet with the assyrtiko grape's lean edge. More body than the previous Santorini, with citrusy flavors and a very dry cut that finishes as tight as a sailor's knot. Tropical refreshment and a steel-edged finish. Like a swift epee in fencing. 86
2001 Kretikos, Boutari $12.25
From Crete and the Vilana grape. Lavender? Totally original smells (good ones), honeyed, perfumed and mysterious. Extremely dry, with a honeyed middle flavor that quickly cleans up after itself. For the adventurous and wild, and a perfect choice for Ethiopian cuisine and other strong, aggressive foods. Like being in the boxing ring. 86
2002 Chardonnay, Hatzimichaelis $13.99
Pointedly fresh and penetrating. Nice fruit-oak balance. Green apple highlights and French in style. A bit tough and short as a drink. Drying finish that is a bit of a shock. This shows real potential as the vines and the winemaking matures. For now, give it an Olympic honorable mention. 81
2002 Lass, Domaine Hatzimichalis $18
Subtle, light fruit with tiny hints of apricot and peach. Tastes a bit like an old-fashioned Bordeaux Blanc; clean, crisp, correct with a slightly starchy mouth feel and apple-like flavors. Great with fondue and grows on you with each sip. A water polo kind of white. 85
2002 Moschofilero, Boutari $17.25
Totally enticing, exotic fragrance of star fruit or lemon cream. Delightful and airy. Feels like the discovery of a new riesling cousin! Wonderfully balanced--a sipper's dream. A pleasant sweetness with a clean finish. I could sip it all day watching the 10,000-meter run or those goofy "walkers" who tread all over town. 88
2002 14-18H, Gai'a $12.99
Elusive aromas of berries. Lovely, light flavors of strawberry. Extremely fresh and crisp with pure aftertaste. The "14-18H" refers to the hours of grape skin contact, which produces the brilliant rose color. Delicious. A big splash for watching divers atop the 10-meter board. (Critic's note--Please lose those nasty rubber corks!) 87
2001 Naoussa, Boutari $13.25
Soft, leathery, sweet fruit nicely rounded by oak. Almost a nebbiolo-like nose (it's Xinomavro). Flavors are a bit high strung and lean, though balanced and pleasant. Fairly simple drink for a long afternoon of soccer. 84
2000 Red Stag, Domaine Spiropolous $10.99
From Peloponnese using the agiorgitico grape. Dried berries, dried flowers and novel scents. Gentle, spicy and unique flavors are very dry, almost dusty and a bit lean (but not mean). Very tasty, yet stark as a stony, bleached landscape. Fascinating. A Judo kind of wine. 87
Muscat Nectar, Cooperative of Samos $13.99
This specialty wine is a golden beauty for decadent, leisurely sipping with nuts or dried fruit. Pour it over a vanilla ice cream or enrich the sugar rush of a slice of baklava. I love it solo, slightly chilled. It will make the sailing event smooth and wave-free.
Another specialty that comes in and out of our market is Mavrodaphne of Patras (about $11). A succulent, reddish-dark fortified wine with similarities to Australian tawny ports or cream sherries. It's all toffee, coffee and prune; a rich mouthful of warmth. Justly famous, though a bit out of season. If you work out, Olympic style, for a couple of hours, it will be a pleasant reward mixed with sparkling water.
You may have to make a few phone calls in order to locate all of these. But as my uncle Marcello used to say, "If not now--when?"
P.S: Greece won 13 medals in the 2000 Olympic Games.
Other Countries' Wines Worth Cheering About
2003 Sancerre, Pascal Jolivet $20
Mmmm. Pure lemon-lime refreshment on this ultra fresh, aromatic sauvignon blanc. Like diving into the ocean. Flavors are icy clean, smooth, ripe and lingering. Nicely done in a minerally, energizing manner. Textbook. Has infinite grace for the parallel bars. 90
France won 38 medals in 2000.
2001 Merlot, "Genesis" , Hogue Cellars $18
Well extracted, juicy flavors in excellent balance. Acidity is a touch low, but this is a briary and slightly rustic style that sticks to your gums. A rich, sensual red to ponder over. Is chess an Olympic sport? 87
2003 Pinot Grigio, Pepi $11
Sourced from Oregon fruit, it's grassy, "green" and inviting with soft orange scents. Fruity, tangy, eminently citrusy and sippable. A high and long jump tipple. 85
The United States won 97 medals.
2001 Barbera d'Alba, Grasso $19.50
Nothing else like Piedmontese Barbera. A nose of succulent, fruit flowing intensity. Delicious, substantial and earthy with great depth and good drinkability. Grill yourself some lamb and indulge alongside the ancient sports of discus and hammer throw. 89
Italy won 34 medals.
No Corkscrew Necessary
Last month, French citizens were able to smell the aromas of fine Burgundy wine over the Internet, thanks to a new technology developed by the Bureau Interprofessionel des Vins de Bourgogne. The technology emits scents through a handheld diffuser connected to the computer. Nellie Picard, a member of the Bureau, says, "The smell comes out and gives one the impression they are right in the middle of a glass of white Burgundy or red wine."
Bouquet is one thing, but what comes next? Mouse licking? How else to judge tannins, sweetness, or the magic of balance in a wine? Could this technology help an amateur wine lover to make buying decisions? Could it put wine writers, who may not be very gifted to begin with, out of work? Watch this space.