Like an Olympic hurdler, Greek wine faces obstacles, at least where North American consumers are concerned. The country's calling-card style, retsina, is a public-relations challenge. Golden-yellow in colour, the wine derives its quirky flavour from pine resin, a throwback to ancient times (this is Greece, after all), when amphora jugs were commonly sealed with the tree secretion. Today the resin gets added by design. Some people like it, but I fear most would be reminded of floor polish. Retsina has given the whole industry an ill-deserved, stay-away reputation.
Greek wine also tends to be high in acidity, which can be jarring to new wine consumers accustomed to smooth, vaguely sweet reds destined for consumption in the absence of food.
But I think the biggest obstacles may be language and poor familiarity. Most Greek wines are based on ancient and obscure grapes, with names that pose greater discomfort to English speakers than, say, merlot or chardonnay. Like xinomavro and agiorgitiko, to name just two of the most widely planted red varieties. It takes a confident person, or classics scholar, to drum up the confidence to ask for "a bottle of the xinomavro" while on a first date.
I'm especially fond of xinomavro, whose pronunciation – ksee-NOH-mah-vroh – may be less intimidating than the translation: "sour black" or "acid black." Common to the northern region of Naoussa, it's astringent with tannins, firm in acidity and enticingly floral, not unlike nebbiolo, the Italian variety responsible for the majestic reds of Barolo. It can age well, too, with good versions often hitting their stride five to eight years after the harvest date on the label.
A fine example was just released through Ontario Vintages stores as part of a spotlight on Greece. Mercifully, the producer's name – Kir-Yianni – is easy to pronounce and remember. The second word sounds just like Yanni, the New Age Greek pianist-composer whose tinkly music some people find as nauseating as retsina. Rest assured, there's no pine resin in this Kir-Yianni.
Kir-Yianni Ramnista 2008 (Greece)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $19.95
Medium full-bodied and Barolo-like, this xinomavro-based red serves up flavours of dried cherry, tar and flowers against a backdrop of pipe tobacco and herbs. The dry, tea-like tannins are nicely counterbalanced by mouth-watering acidity. Pair it now with braised red meats, though it could improve with up to five years in the cellar. (The 2007 vintage sells for $20.90 in Que.)
Papaioannou Single Vineyard Agiorgitiko 2007 (Greece)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $19.95
Deceptively light in colour, this agiorgitiko (ah-yore-YEE-tee-koh) is medium-bodied, with nuances of cherries and wood, juicy acidity and a salty tingle on the finish. It would match well with duck confit or lamb kebabs.
Tsantali Rapsani Reserve 2007 (Greece)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $15.95
A blend of xinomavro with lesser-known and softer-textured krassato and stavroto, grown on the foothills of Mount Olympus, it's full-bodied, with plum-cherry flavour and good acid backbone. Think of it as a cross between Italian sangiovese and barbera. Fine for charcuterie or cheese-and-tomato-based vegetarian dishes, such as eggplant parmesan. ($17.85 in Que.)
Les Hauts de Smith 2008 (France)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $36.95
Les Hauts is the baby-brother red to the main wine of Smith Haut Lafitte, consistently one of Bordeaux's best-value luxury wines. The texture is seamless, carrying good depth of flavour hinting at cassis and smoked herbs along with a trace of mineral. A little tug of fine tannins on the finish suggests it could improve with up to five years in the cellar, though it would pair well now with rare roast beef. (The 2006 vintage sells for $38.25 in Que.)
Gran Lurton Corte Friulano 2010 (Argentina)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $19.95
One could call this a consummate international wine. The soil is Argentine, the grape of Italian origin and the producer French. Bordeaux-based François Lurton adds small quantities of softer chardonnay and pinot gris (as well as a smidgeon of the local, very fruity torrontes) to the crisp friulano. It's medium-bodied and silky, showing a grapey, aromatic note reminiscent of gewürztraminer. Richly flavoured but not heavy, it culminates with fresh acidity. Perfect for rich fish or chicken dishes. ($27.28 in N.S.; the 2011 vintage sells for $23.25 in Que.)
Trefethen Double T Chardonnay (California)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $21.95
Full-bodied and round, this white hints at pineapple, mandarin orange and cold butter complemented by subtle toasty oak and fresh acidity. Think grilled salmon, broiled lobster or chicken in cream sauce. (Its fine big brother, Trefethen Chardonnay, sells for $34.99 in B.C.)
See Ya Later Ranch Pinot Gris 2009 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $18.95 in Ont.
Pinot gris's greyish hue comes through in the faintly coppery colour here. One could, in fact, call this a white for red-wine lovers. It's medium-full-bodied, toeing the line between rich Alsatian pinot gris and crisp Italian pinot grigio. Expect notes of pear, melon and spice. Good for grilled salmon or roast chicken. ($19.99 in B.C.)
Vina Cobos Felino Merlot 2010 (Argentina)
SCORE: 86 PRICE: $19.95
Here's a red that merits mention for a couple of reasons. It's a merlot amid an Argentine sea of malbecs and cabernet sauvignons. Vina Cobos is also a three-way partnership that includes Paul Hobbs, an esteemed American consultant, importer and winemaker whose CV includes Napa Valley's iconic Opus One. I sense this has been crafted for California-tuned American palates. It hits the merlot-must-be-smooth mark, and many people will like it, but I'm less enamoured than other critics. It's smooth, yes, but short on complexity – like that last guy who tried to pick you up at the wine bar.