by Peter Pharos

The Greek Exception

We all get some random perks from our parents, and for me it was family friends in Mykonos. I don’t mean friends with a house in Mykonos, you understand; there are suburbs in Athens where everyone seems to have one of those. I mean actual Mykonians, born, raised, and maturing there, the type of people that stay for the winter. It was probably some time in middle school that I realised the social cachet associated with it. A couple of years later I finally got to make use of it.

“What do you want to do while you’re here?”, my hosts’ sons asked on picking me up from the port. “Well, the real thing!” I answered, and they were, of course, unsurprised. You grow up in a place like this, you get that a lot.  So, they dutifully spent a couple of days showing me around the big dance clubs. We hung out with the waiters and bartenders, and sneaked into VIP sections, and listened to all the celebrity stories. Finally, a few days in, stoicism running out, they asked if I would like to see where they like to go when they go out. I enthusiastically agreed, naturally. I am not sure quite what I expected. Probably some open-air Bacchanalian supernova, but I would have settled for some speakeasy-style private affair where all the other attendees had a star on Hollywood Boulevard.

Instead, I got a hard rock bar. Some classic stuff early on. Some heavier stuff later. There were no celebrities, but many teenagers in band T-shirts. There was a lot of Pantera.

I think back to this story every now and then when I try to recommend Greek versions of Bordeaux blends to non-Greek friends, and I am immediately given short shrift. “I don’t care about that,” they reflexively say, “it’s native varieties I care about!”. The underlying thinking seems to rest on two dubious assumptions. Authenticity lies on native grapes is one, and international grape varieties will give unremarkable, or at best generic, results is another.

Everyone seems to overindulge in authenticity these days, but even by those high standards, the wine industry must rank among the heaviest users. But, as in everything else, some of that idyllic, pre-industrial past is invented – and even more of it is irrelevant. Does it matter if many people drank a lot of oxidised Roditis for a long time? Is there a point in wine whose whole function, production, and even conception, was radically different from the one we seek today?

The wilful expunction of internationalisation and modernity from the narrative obliterates the actual history. Greek vinous production as we understand it today, as a source of excellent, exciting, and often underpriced wines, owes as much to Cabernet Sauvignon as to Agiorgitiko, to Merlot as to Xinomavro. The consistent availability of quality local Bordeaux blends goes back to the mid-1980s and, interestingly, can be found all over the country. To an extent, the modern Greek wine scene, its concept of connoisseurship and investment, can be tracked to those. Is a Bordeaux blend an authentic Greek wine then or not? It very definitely would be to most Greeks over 30, but many of my non-Greek friends disagree. Like me in the Cyclades, when they say they want the authentic experience, they mean, consciously or not, that they want the tourist experience. An artificial construct that corresponds to a preconceived folklore, and allows them the illusion they are experiencing something different, with no commonality to their everyday.

Hold on, hold on, I hear the responses coming in. It is not we only expect to drink Merlot from the Right Bank. We drink French varieties from California to Australia, South Africa to Chile. If Greek Bordeaux blends were any good, we would know it. To which the answer can only be, would you? Availability follows the market, the market follows a good story, and these days the story is pastoral. Then, there is a particularity of Greek wine exports, the Greek Exception, if you will. In stark contrast to Spain, France, or Italy, Greek wine largely remains something that is consumed locally, not internationally. To the occasional exasperation of foreign buyers, there are many producers for whom the domestic market is the driver, or even the height of their ambition. Looking at Greek wine locally and abroad can occasionally feel like looking at two parallel scenes.

After this diatribe, you might be thinking, Pharos, you still haven’t told us if Greek Bordeaux blends are any good compared to those we usually drink. In lieu of a response, I have another rock bar anecdote. I live in Birmingham now. Rob Halford was born in Sutton Coldfield, and Robert Plant in West Brom. There is a Black Sabbath bridge on Broad Street and Napalm Death is considered a normal name for a band. I rarely make it to hard rock venues these days, but a musician acquaintance did drag me out to a well-known spot a couple of months back. Was this place, in this mecca to the genre, better than the one in Mykonos all those years ago? You know what, I am not so sure.

Photo by Dimitris Kiriakakis on Unsplash


10 + 1 Greek reds with Bordeaux varieties


Averoff Rossiu di Munte Yiniets 2017
PGI Metsovo 14%

I am often asked for quality Greek producers not imported in the UK and I usually answer there aren’t that many. Greece is relatively small, and the English wine trade extremely active. All the stranger then that legendary Greek producer Katogi Averoff hasn’t made it to these shores – perhaps the bias against Greek wines from French grapes is to blame. Yiniets is a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from allegedly the first vines of the variety to make it to Greece. A vineyard at an altitude of 1000 m near the small town of Metsovo in Epirus in northern Greece, it gives the country’s take on mountain Cabernet.

The 2017 starts with a remarkable balance between generous fruit, concentration, and freshness. The aromatic profile is synonymous with warm climate Cabernet, with ample red fruit, and a hint of smoke. The promise is delivered in full on the palate, where rich red and black fruit is accompanied by aromas of wood, earth, and a hint of cassis. The whole is held together by a firm yet elegant structure, where the concentration does not impede freshness. The tannins are still angry, but promise of elegance to come. It finishes long but, despite the youth of the tannins, there is no hint of astringency. One of the finest expressions of Cabernet Sauvignon I have tried, and one that speaks of its terroir. (Drink 2024-2032 when it will be 94-96 pts.)


Estate Kokotos 2019
PGI Attiki 14%

A blend of 85% Cabernet Sauvignon with 15% Merlot, from Attica, flirting with high altitude (450 m).

Many Bordeaux blends around the world aim for the original, but the aromatic profile of this counts properly as a doppelganger: graphite, cedar, but also a red fruit-borne freshness in a clean, but very attractive aromatic profile. Some suspicion we are not in France appears on the palate, where the fruit is measured, but fresher and livelier than you usually get at the Gironde. The winning element here is the texture, combining lightness and elegance, with a hedonic chewiness. A medium finish again balances beautifully between freshness and savouriness. A remarkable wine. (Drink 2023-2027 when it will be 94-95 pts.)


Papargyriou Le Roi des Montagnes Cabernet Sauvignon 2017
Wine of Greece 14.5%

Moving to the Peloponnese but keeping with the high altitude theme, this is an intriguing and unusual blend, Cabernet Sauvignon-led, but with Touriga Nacional and a bit of Mavrodaphne in the mix.

An immediately attractive nose, combining sweet red fruit, with vanilla notes, but balanced out beautifully by a balsamic-like sour note. The same tug-of-war transfers beautifully to the palate, where generous, juicy red fruit is tempered by freshness, a hint of acidity and just a gentle tannic touch. A nice chewiness completes the whole. A very well-made wine, and a good example of the Greek new wave. (Drink 2023-2027)


Domaine Hatzimichalis Merlot Alargino 2018
PGI Atalanti Valley 14.5%

In a time that Greek wine meant retsina and cheap, thin reds, Hatzimichalis was one of the few to focus on high quality wine and French varieties.  This Merlot from their “farthest apart” (“Alargino”) vineyard feels simultaneously classic and very modern. It starts with smooth, generous aromas of vanilla, black cherry, and a bit of clove. On the palate it appears robust, balanced, and serious, with complexity, intensity, and heft. This is only a toddler five years in – the tannins are elegant, but strict, making it almost prohibitive right now. It will grow up to be a little wonder. (Drink 2026-2036 when it will be 94-95 pts.)


Domaine Costa Lazaridi Cava Amethystos Red 2019
PGI Drama 15%

Similar to Hatzimichalis, Costas Lazaridis was a pioneer who produced high quality red wines from French varieties at a time few thought there was a market for those. Cava Amethystos is nearing its 30th release and, while always moreish, the past fifteen years it has become increasingly more intense. This is a rarity for Greece: a 100% Cabernet Franc, that has a decidedly New World aesthetic.

The 2019 opens with a rich, yet floral, bouquet of ripe red fruit, and a hint of raisins soaked in brandy. This is a wine intended for ageing, and the palate can appear harsh and overbearing on release. Right now it needs long decanting, after which it shows its true character: an elegant, supple texture, with juicy red fruit, and a hint of smoke. The high alcohol is present throughout, so this is a wine that can divide opinion. Those that like their reds larger-than-life, will find it a jolt of energy. Those that like their reds whispering, will need to look the other way. (Drink 2024-2031 when it will be 93-94 pts.)


Biblia Chora Ovilos Red 2019
PGI Pangeon 15%

Biblia Chora was co-founded by an alumnus of Costa Lazaridi, and the two wineries sit on opposite sides of the Pangeon mountain in the north east of Macedonia. Ovilos is intended as their premium line, and the red is a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon.

The 2019 is, as often with this label, dark, serious, and almost menacing on the nose, with aromas of burnt wood, chocolate, tobacco, and just a hint of stewed plum. Similarly serious on the palate, where it shows robust but elegant. A soft texture hides a quiet force, all in an opulent, moreish framework of black fruit and smoked wood. Greece often hovers between the New and the Old World, and the red Ovilos exemplifies that duality perhaps better than any other Greek wine. (Drink 2023-2034 when it will be 93-94 pts.)


Oenotria Land Cabernet Sauvignon - Agiorgitiko 2018
PGI Attiki 14.5%

An Attica offshoot of Costa Lazaridi, Oenotria Land produces wines distinctly different from the Macedonian mothership. This is primarily Cabernet Sauvignon with just a touch (around 10%) of Agiorgitiko.

Very juicy and fresh on the nose, with sundried tomato and thyme. The same properties of juiciness and freshness carry over to the palate, but the flavour profile is nearer to red fruit, strawberries and cherries, with a pleasant acidity and very robust tannins, suggesting a long way ahead. Interesting and different, a wine that shows new tricks in an established terroir.  (Drink 2025-2030 when it will be 93-94 pts.)


Dyo Ipsi Trilogia 2017
PGI Ilia 15%

Tsaktsarlis and Gerovassiliou, the founders of Biblia Chora, have been on an expansion spree. They have a very successful project in Santorini, Mikra Thira, but also advanced on the Peloponnese, where Dyo Ipsi (“Two Heights”) is based. Trilogia is the winery’s haut de gamme, and is a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon.

The 2017 makes an impressive start, suggesting a deep and intellectual wine. The aromatic profile is dark and complex: rich black fruit under a blanket of smoked wood. The palate exhibits a tension between juiciness and harshness, the same opulent black fruit wrestling with vigorous tannins. Finishes long, with an alcohol burn. Six years in this is still very young – it will be a fascinating one to watch. (Drink 2025-2032 when it will be 93-95 pts.)


Katogi Averoff 2020
Red Dry Table Wine 14%

Back when laying down wine for ageing counted practically as an extreme sport in Greece, seeing a cellar fully stocked with Katogi Averoff was the mark of true connoisseurship.

This is 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, and 30% Agiorgitiko, but I do wonder how many tasters would not call this as mid-range Left Bank Bordeaux blind. Blackberry, cassis, and a hint of cherry are prevalent on the nose, while the palate has healthy acidity and robust tannins. This label is often too rough and angular to touch young, but 2020 seems more generous and full-tasting, and already ready(ish) to approach. In 6-8 years it will be a thing of wonder. This goes for around €8 in Greece, making it a remarkable value-for-money purchase, in a country no stranger to those. (Drink 2025-2032 when it will be 92-94 pts.)


Muses Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2019
PGI Thiva 14%

One of the attractions of Cabernet Sauvignon for producers, especially those looking to the local market, must be how often it delivers user-friendly wines in a warm climate. Muses’ take is characteristic. The nose is pleasant, sweet, and approachable with blackcurrant jam, clove, and a hint of all spice. Very smooth texture with sweet, generous black fruit and gentle, unobtrusive tannins. A wine that values pleasure over complexity, immediately attractive, if not necessarily profound. (Drink 2023-2026)


Nerantzi Rissos 2013
PGI Serres 16%

Let’s wrap up with a pleasant oddity, a Cabernet Sauvignon-led blend, supplemented by the extra-rare Koiniariko (local to Serres in the northeast of Macedonia), and made with overripe grapes.

This has a rich, corporal, and substantial bouquet, which, tasted blind, would suggest a high quality Primitivo: there is the same concentration of red and black fruit jam, with hints of clove and all spice in the background. The body is very interesting. There is definite sweetness (this is effectively an off-dry wine), but it is balanced excellently by a fresh, tannic character, so it never becomes cloying. Finishes long, with a hint of spice. This is a style that is often unfairly snubbed by the cognoscenti – if, however, it works for you, then this is as excellent an example as you can get. (Drink 2023-2028)

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