Greek Wine | A Gift From The Gods

Harry Lambourne
23rd February 2024

Greece has given the world so many things. It could be claimed that one of those things is the beginnings of our modern wine culture. Greek wine and culture was influential in establishing this.

Wine was considered a gift from the God Dionysus. The gift came from Dionysus’ own body. It was a blessing which was intertwined with religious ceremonies and should be treated with the proper reverence.

Greek scholars referenced it repeatedly and espoused the benefits of wine on health and creativity. The discussions surrounding politics, philosophy, art and just about everything else involved wine.

So, in honour of this gift from the Gods, we are going to take a look at all things Greek wine. This will include the long history of Greek wine, the key grape varieties and wine regions for making Greek wine.

The History of Greek Wine

Ancient Greek Wine

It is hard to pin down the exact date when the story of Greek wine would’ve begun, partially because it was so long ago! Most people think that wine itself would have begun in the ‘Fertile Triangle’ in around 8000 BC, (MacNeil 645). This area extends from the Taurus Mountains in eastern Turkey, to the northern Zagros Mountains in Iran, all the way to the Caucasus Mountains in Georgia.

Caucasus Mountains
Caucasus Mountains, Georgia

From this area viticulture would have spread across much of Europe and North Africa. Egypt likely established successful vines before Greece, (in around 6000 BC), and were the first to introduce them to the Greek civilisation at around 2000 BC, (MacNeil 646).

Greek Wine had arrived and quickly became an integral part of society. Both as a libation that prompted discussion about the world, but also as a valuable trading resource that helped spread Greek culture across the Ancient world. Not only that, but it introduced grape based wines to a much wider audience.

Supposedly, it was often flavoured by the resin of pine needles which were used to coat the inside of big amphora jugs that would’ve stored the ancient beverages during transportation.

This influence can be seen today as ‘Retsina’, (a resinated wine), is still popular in Greece. Greek Wine is not just limited to the classical styles of wine which we know. Modern day examples are often produced from the Savatiano grape variety. Beyond the pine resin, Plato also noted wines which were flavoured with wildflowers and flower oils, (MacNeil 647).

Florality in Greek wine was thought to restore the body’s natural harmony. Although, to be fair they also thought it helped to prevent complete intoxication. So, modern Greek wine can often try to retain this florality which was so important in antiquity.

It is worth noting that ancient Greeks were well aware of the damaging effects of intoxication. They did not see Greek wine as a magical cure-all elixir. So, Greek wine at this time was diluted with water. In their words, “only Barbarians drank wine straight”, (MacNeil 647). If only they could see us now…

Dionysus | Greek Wine
Dionysus – God of Wine

A quote from the Greek poet Eubulus sums things up nicely, to paraphrase a speech he wrote from the mouth of Dionysus: ‘one bowl of wine brings health, two brings love and pleasure, three brings sleep – at which point ‘wise guests go home’. Fourth belongs to hubris, five to uproar, six to prancing about, seven to black eyes, eight brings police, nine belongs to vomiting and ten to insanity and the hurling of furniture’. It’s nice to know things haven’t changed too much over time.

This notion that three drinks is moderation and the smart thing to do has pervaded into modern society and some believe that the 750ml size of a wine bottle is based on this as it allows for two people to have around 3 drinks each, (MacNeil 648).

Modern Greek Wine

While Greek wine was crucial in the ancient world, it has been a long up-hill struggle to establish itself in the modern wine world. There was some Greek wine of note during the middle ages, when they formed part of the Byzantine empire. Here, monks were crucial in the cultivation of vines and production of Greek wine. As is so often the case, monks are at the forefront of viticulture. This can be seen in Germany, Champagne, Burgundy, Romania and many many more nations.

A German Monk enjoying German Wine
German Monk Enjoying Wine

Soon, Greece was occupied by the Ottomans and this quickly quelled any more growth in the world of Greek wine. While the production of wine by the Christian community wasn’t forbidden, there were severe restrictions and taxes made it unsustainable. The Ottomans remained for four centuries and Greek wine was purely made by Greek peasants for subsistence rather than a product which could be sold to the wider world.

Phylloxera followed the Ottomans and further prevented the establishment of a modern Green wine industry, as did two world wars! It was until the 1980s, (around four thousand years since Greek wine began), that Greek wine began to charge towards fine wine. The introduction of Greece in the EU meant that funding allowed for winemakers to move away from inexpensive table wines produced at coops, to more refined and carefully cultivated selections. This was aided through lowering yields, improving vineyard techniques, adding modern winery equipment and new small oak barrels.

Currently, there are over six hundred wineries in Greece and these are spread across not just mainland Greece, but the islands as well, (MacNeil 649).

The Greek Wine World

The Greek landscape means that means of mechanical harvest are untenable. 70% of the land is classed as mountains and 20% are islands, (MacNeil 650). While the most severe heights are generally reserved for goats and sheep, you can still find vineyards on many of the plateaus and more moderate mountainous areas. The high-altitude allows for a great deal of sunlight, but also helps to cool the vineyard area in the otherwise scorching Mediterranean heat.

It may be hot, but the climate in Greece is favourable for the production of wine. Rain is generally confined to winter when the vines are dormant and there are huge amounts of sunlight hours, with even more coming through reflection from the sea. Yet, as we’ve touched upon, too much heat is often the key issue. This leads to grapes ripening quickly and often results in simple wines, without complexity.

So, the cooling breezes of the sea and altitude can help to combat this. They mitigate the heat and allow the grapes time to fully ripen and develop expressive, nuanced flavours. 

Greek wine particularly excels is the number of unique indigenous and ancient grape varieties. Over four-thousand islands, there are at least seventy-seven grape varieties, (MacNeil 650).

There were likely even more, but over time these became extinct due to a lack of resources and the challenges we’ve mentioned previously. While you can find a number of grape varieties that will not be found anywhere else, the usual suspects also crop up. International varieties such as Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon have both found success in recent times. Our top picks for Greek wine, certainly go to the Greek grapes.

Key Greek Grape Varieties

Assyrtiko is a key grape variety of Santorini and you’ll see it trained in this ‘Koulara Method’. The ‘Koulara’ method involves training bushes to the ground in a bird-nest like configuration to protect them from the severe winds. You’ll find it made into deeply acidic and fresh white wines which display powerful citrus notes, as well as touches of beeswax and flint.

Koulara Vines | Greek Wine
Koulara Vines of Santorini (Image Courtesy of Wines of Greece)

Indeed, this is not dissimilar to Chablis. The Burgundian comparison goes further as you’ll also see these grapes made into oaked wines which add body and complexity. You should also keep an eye out for Vinsanto dessert wines.

In terms of red Greek wines, there are two which stand above the others. First up, we’re going to take a look at Agiorgitiko, (pronounced ah-your-yeek-tee-ko). This is Greece’s most planted red grape variety and offers a broad range of styles. It also produces a rather delicious rosé.

However, if you’re talking about dry red wines, then the best come from Nemea and are body tannic creations that balance fruity notes with spicy qualities. Common tasting notes include dried cherry, raspberry, blackberry, plum, black pepper and nutmeg.

The second most important red grape variety for Greek wine is Xinomavro. This is a really interesting grape variety and possesses a number of similarities with Nebbiolo which is the sole grape in the Barolo wines of Piedmont. This is one for all Barolo lovers.

The comparisons chiefly come from the balance between fruity and earthy qualities. Beyond that, it is a deeply acidic grape variety which is balanced out by body and tannins. At their finest, these Greek wines are an absolute delight. Look for notes of cherry, strawberry, raspberry, plum, star anise, tobacco and leather.

Key Greek Wine Regions

There are five key wine-growing areas across Greece. These are all instrumental in the production of Greek wine. They are Northern Greece, Mainland Greece, the Peloponnese and Ionian Islands, the Aegean Islands and Crete.

Northern Greece

Beginning with Northern Greece, the primary region is Macedonia. Naoussa, within this, is the most well-known sub-region. It is chiefly known for the white grape Malagousia which combines bitter herbal notes with a strong citrus character. Then, Xinomavro thrives as a red wine, particularly in Naoussa.

Mainland Greece

Mainland Greece can be split into two distinct areas. These are the northern portion which combines the mountainous area around Thessalia and the flatter area which is centred around the sub-region of Attiki. Here, simple wines from Savatiano, (and the Retsina beverage), are the focus of production.

Peloponnese and Ionian Islands
Nemea | Greek Wine
Nemea, Peloponnese Islands

Now, we move onto the Peloponnese and Ionian Islands which also comprises the Peloponnese Peninsula. These vineyards tend to be concentrated in the more mountainous areas. Both on slopes and plateaus. One key sub-region to look out for, (especially for you history buffs), is the area of Nemea. These are primarily made from Agiorgitiko and were thought to have been the palace wines of Agamemnon.

Aegean Islands

Moving towards the Aegean Islands, we have another unique microclimate. The small wine-making areas are exceptionally windy with dry soils and minimal waters. The conditions for viticulture are highly specialised which has led to a few grapes excelling, while many others won’t take to this harsh environment. This is one of the few places that an international variety thrives first and foremost. Look out for wines from Muscat Blanc a Petits Grains. They are wonderfully aromatic and floral which can be made into a fresh, citric dry white wine. However, they are also known for lightly fortified wines.

Santorini is the most famous sub-region within the Aegean Islands. Santorini is a world-wide tourist hotspot that is renowned for blue seas, white villas, stunning beaches, luxury resorts and thought to be considered a remnant of the lost city of Atlantis. It is also one of the top areas for Greek wine and one of the areas with the longest consistent history of wine production. Santorini was largely uninterrupted by the struggles that much of Greece faced.

Santorini
Santorini, Aegean Islands

It is a volcanic island which has been the site of serious disasters, but the volcanic soil also instils a palpable minerality in the wines. It is also home to some of the oldest vines in Greece. The dry white wines of Assyrtiko are crucial to viticulture here, yet the region is known above all else for Vinsanto, (this is similar to the Tuscan sweet wine Vin Santo). The grapes are left to dry in the sun for a few weeks, which helps to concentrate the sugars.

Crete

Last on our list of key Greek wine regions is Crete. The largest Greek island has a rich history in terms of wine production. We recommend you seek out the rich and full-bodied red wines of Kotsifali and the structured, yet exceptionally light red wines from the Mandilaria grape variety. While these are both available as a single varietal wine, they come together in the exceptional blended wines of Archarnes.


This has been our look into all things Greek wine. Sometimes, we can focus on France, Spain, Italy, even Portugal, Germany and Austria when we discuss old-world wine. Yet, nowhere is truly an old-world wine nation more than Greece. The wines of Greece are having a true resurgence and we recommend you seek some out!


If you want to treat yourself, or someone else in your life, don’t forget to check out our Monthly Wine Subscription and Gift Wine Subscription products. Each month you’ll receive hand-picked wines from small, independent family winemakers who focus on organicbiodynamic and sustainable viticulture. Learn more here:


If you’d simply just like to learn more about wine, (and not just the unexpected winemaking countries) from the comfort of your own home, be sure to check out our online blog and sign up to our mailing list. We’re always looking to teach people about different regions, grape varieties and producers. Beyond that, you can expect to find a whole host of playlists, cocktail cards and recipe cards packed full of wine pairing ideas. There might even be some special offers along the way so make sure that you don’t miss out!

Sign Up To Our Mailing List

Never miss out on great content or special offers again!

Join our mailing list to get exclusive access to our weekly wine offers

20 mixed cases of wine a week on sale at cellar door prices