I might have fallen as hard for Plyto in a tasting room or over dinner at home, but the setting of our first encounter made it inevitable. I was on a sloop, sailing past the stone bastions of Spinalonga, the mysterious Venetian fortress off Crete’s northern coast. Friends I’d met just that afternoon had laid out meats and cheeses beside canapés that looked like miniature sculptures. The sea was shimmering, the sky a shade of El Greco blue.
Then came wine, from a grape variety I hadn’t encountered in two decades of seeking out the stuff around the world. Not only did Plyto have historic importance—found only on Crete, it was rescued from near extinction by a determined vine grower in the 1980’s—but its thirst-quenching, green-apple bite also made it the perfect beverage for a perfect moment.
But that’s Greece. You can visit more famous wineries elsewhere, and drink bottles far more renowned (and certainly more expensive) while eating elaborate meals in your fanciest clothes, yet I’ve found few places where exploring wine regions is more fun. Almost everywhere I went during my two-week journey, I found panoramic vistas, intriguing wines, and hospitality on an Olympian scale. (Driving in Macedonia, I stopped for gas, walked inside to pay, and found a family of five eating homemade lentil soup that they insisted I sample.) It isn’t all rustic tavernas and glorified pensiones, either. That sloop belonged to Elounda’s Blue Palace, a sumptuous, 251-room hotel on a hillside overlooking Spinalonga that ranks for sheer magnificence with anyplace I’ve ever stayed.
You’ve heard that wine tastes better where it’s produced, but that truism is especially valid in Greece. Greek food is famously simple: no elaborate postmodern constructions or complex sauces here. That leaves space for the wines to show themselves. And a palate needs steady exposure to get accustomed to the singular flavors of the country’s grapes. At home, compared with Pinot Noirs and Cabernets, Greek wines can seem rustic, unsubtle, even strange. But calibrate your taste to their sturdy architecture and you’ll start daydreaming about which to have with dinner.
America’s boom in fine Greek restaurants has helped lift the profile of Greek wine. “We’ve been making it for four thousand years, but still hardly anyone knows it,” lamented Yiannis Paraskevopoulos of Gaia Wines, which has wineries in the Peloponnese and on Santorini. But nobody needs to be sold on the charms of traveling in Greece. Though the financial crisis has cast a shroud over the tourism industry—and credit card machines, which create a record of a meal or hotel stay for tax purposes, seem to be “broken” at every turn—Greeks couldn’t treat a visitor badly if they tried. Here are three regions that combine delicious food and surpassing natural beauty with memorable hotels, and wines that might even make you fall in love.
Renaissance painters perceived Arcadia as a pastoral utopia. But as I gazed at jagged peaks and steep-walled valleys from the doorway of the tiny chapel in the Domaine Tselepos vineyard, or climbed a mountain road toward the Semeli winery’s eight-room inn past yellow and purple wildflowers and imposing rock escarpments, this fabled region of the Peloponnese had a distinctly primordial cast. Though much of modern civilization evolved here, it seemed only a thin veneer.
The Peloponnese, a peninsula of more than 8,000 square miles that fills the southern third of mainland Greece, has a rich history that dates to ancient times. Pan, the god of nature, is said to have sprung from the Arcadian forests. Sparta clashed with Athens on its plains, and Greek independence was fomented in its villages in the 1820’s. So it’s no accident that most of the grapes planted in the region are wholly and unabashedly Greek. “There are two approaches in Greece, international or indigenous varieties,” Paraskevopoulos said. “Here in the Peloponnese, we chose the second one. The hard one.”
In Mantineia, in the Arcadian hills near Tripoli, Moschofilero (mos-koe-fee-le-row) makes gorgeously transparent white wines. The best of them taste of the chilly summer nights that make the slow-ripening grapes among the last to be picked in all of Europe. Domaine Spiropoulos shares a plateau there with ancient ruins. An Athenian dentist started the winery on ancestral farmland in the 1980’s, working weekends to inculcate his son, Apostolos, in the culture of growing grapes and making wine.
At 39, Apostolos Spiropoulos now runs the estate. He throws dinner parties in the flower-filled courtyard, guides tours of the organically certified vineyards, and serves a bracing, unoaked version of Moschofilero that has the spine of a great Riesling. Taste it at the winery, then drink it by the bottle in the garden of the Taverna Klimataria Piteros, in Tripoli, alongside baked rooster, hand-cut pasta with a wisp of cinnamon, and bitter greens that coax sweet fruit out of the steel and flint.
In the valley below Mantineia sits Nemea, a red-grape region that extends almost to the edges of the port town of Nauplia (often spelled Nafplio or Nafplion). The dominant grape there, Agiorgitiko (ah-your-yee-ti-ko), can make a friendly but almost characterless wine that, in the wrong hands, is soft to the point of flabbiness. But the winemaker George Skouras does for that variety what The Simpsons did for cartoons, adding complexity without losing the spark that provides the fun. He started in 1986, applying lessons learned in enology school to the varieties of the region. Without realizing it, he’d joined a rising generation of winemakers around Greece who were attempting the same. “It became a movement,” he said. “Almost a revolution.”
Now Domaine Skouras makes some 700,000 bottles a year, while welcoming the waves of visitors who stop in at its showpiece facility, a 90-minute drive from Athens. What they find is a range of wines that use precision rather than power to seduce. “We’re a European winery, unabashedly,” Skouras said. What he meant became clear when he poured me his Grande Cuvée, made from Agiorgitiko grown in volcanic soil. I was startled to learn that this wine—so composed, so well bred—can be found stateside for less than $29 a bottle. Later, at one of the many restaurants that ring the Nauplia harbor, I drank a Skouras rosé that looked pink and fruity like bubble gum, but smelled like fresh-cut flowers.
Nauplia resembles a less tidy version of St.-Tropez, without the glitter. It has a latticework of cobblestoned streets, a few hotels with aspirations and many more pensiones with colored shutters and earnest breakfasts, and enough good eating for a week’s stay. I had my best meal there at Savouras, where customers are led to a vast wooden filing cabinet, the drawers of which are pulled open to reveal the day’s catch on ice. Prices are far from cheap—my grilled snapper weighed in at $55—but the only fresher fish you’ll find, I’m convinced, is on the boat that caught it.
Greek Macedonia isn’t a country; that’s the cumbersomely named (by UN decree) FYROM—former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia—that borders it to the north. But geopolitics aside, perhaps it ought to be: this oblong region has the diversity of nations ten times its size. Fishing villages and beaches speckle the coastline; spits of land protrude into the Aegean like spiny fingers. Hilltop villages look out over forests roamed by chocolate-colored bears. Thessaloníki, Greece’s second-largest city, climbs the hills that rise from its harbor like a denser, even stronger-flavored Genoa or Trieste, while the understated beach resorts around it cater to an international crowd. The food, architecture, and language of the region reflect centuries of influence by Turks, Serbs, and Bulgars.
“Our goal is to get the city to understand and be proud of its past,” Yiannis Boutaris, Thessaloníki’s mayor, told me when we met over coffee and whiskey at a local café. A newcomer to politics after a life in wine, Boutaris can be understood best as Greece’s Robert Mondavi. Like Mondavi, he quarreled with his family, then left its industrial winery to compete against worldwide producers on quality, not volume. That’s where the parallel ends. Ever the iconoclast, Boutaris ceded control of his wine business to his son in order to serve as the only big-city mayor I know of who has a tattoo of a lizard crawling up his hand.
Thessaloníki’s forgotten past includes its connection to wine, which has been made nearby for centuries. Strolling its streets, reveling in the splendor of Greek and Roman ruins, Ottoman temples, and remnants of a once thriving Jewish presence, I encountered a jam of outdoor cafés, one pushed against the next, overflowing with men (and occasionally women) talking, playing cards or backgammon, and drinking coffee or ouzo, but rarely wine. As the hub of a wheel that leads to viticultural areas to the west, northwest, northeast, and south, the city is the ideal base for a tasting tour. Yet you’ll find more accomplished Greek wine on tables in midtown Manhattan.
Outside Thessaloníki, that heritage becomes evident. An hour to the west is Naoussa, where Boutaris started his Kir-Yianni winery. Here the clay soils and mountain breezes, along with water so pure that nobody bothers to buy it bottled, create ideal growing conditions for Xinomavro (zeeno-mav-ro), Greece’s most intriguing red grape. It’s an antisocial variety that greets you with a rush of fruit, then turns its back and bares its fangs. Still, as made by Kir-Yianni or the tiny Karydas Estate, a winery in a house near where Aristotle purportedly once tutored Alexander, Xinomavro shows a crystalline depth that recalls Italy’s Nebbiolo.
From there, I drove farther west and several hundred feet up to Amyndeo, the coolest wine region in Greece. In his zealously tended vineyards, Alpha Estate’s Angelos Iatridis grows a painter’s palette of varieties, from the indigenous Malagousia and Mavrodafne to Syrah, Pinot Noir, even Barbera. It’s an intriguing blend of the local and the international, and so was the dinner we shared at Kontosoros, in the neighboring town of Xino Nero. Many Greek meals are basic affairs, which made Kontosoros a particular find. Meatballs with saffron; pork tenderloin beside frumenty pasta of wheat and yogurt; and a salad of wax beans, capers, pistachios, and scallions were composed with the artfulness—and imagination—that elsewhere might earn chef Nikolaos Kontosoros a cooking show. It was the best meal I had in Greece.
The counterpoint to that ambitious food, and to the Alpine feel of Amyndeo and surrounding towns such as the delightful fairyland village of Nymfeo, was the fried mullet, grilled octopus, and other marine delights I devoured during my alfresco lunch at Agnandi. It overlooks the Aegean in Epanomi, south of Thessaloníki, in a setting of palm trees and striped awnings and rhythmic tides that could seem Caribbean. But the snap of fresh vegetables and the tang of feta is unmistakably Greek, and when it’s clear, you can see Mount Olympus.
Nearby, down a rock-strewn dirt road that looks like the direct route to Nowhere, are the ivy-covered stucco walls of Domaine Gerovassiliou, the region’s most attractive winery. The gardens are awash in color, the museum features an epic corkscrew collection, and the wines are nothing if not polished. On the veranda, sipping a glass of white Malagousia that tasted of lemons and rosewater, I found it easy to forget that bottled wine in Greece (as opposed to wine poured for customers into flasks or jugs) is just a few decades old. Yet viticulture in Macedonia is also an ancient endeavor, and the same characteristics in the land and climate that enticed the original Greeks to cultivate grapes beside the olive trees are at work today. “We’re starting to rebuild a tradition,” Boutaris told me. “We’re finding the special places that give special characteristics to the wines.” Little by little, the world is noticing.
If you visit only one destination in Greece, make it Crete. Sure, the trashy beach resorts and general decrepitude in and around Iráklion, the island’s biggest city, have a decidedly Third World air. Driving is perilous, meals can be overpriced, weather frustratingly erratic. Even its barren mountains can seem inhospitable and menacing.
But persevere. Crete is a special place, where the distilled essence of Greece is augmented by African, Turkish, and other influences. For wine drinkers, the island is like Darwin’s Galápagos. The catalogue of grape varieties found mostly, or only, on Crete is more varied than that of anywhere I’ve been. If you have even a vague interest in wine, a few days on the island are sure to bring out your inner geek. If you’re into it to begin with, well, it’s like finding buried treasure.
That’s how I felt when I tracked down Lyrarakis, the producer of that marvelous Plyto. I found the winery in the rural hills south of Iráklion, after my GPS had led me through a tangle of rutted roads. The winemaker met me bearing an armful of bottles, then went back for more, for Lyrarakis produces 17 different wines, none priced above $38. Soon I was immersed in a crash course in ampelography, the study and classification of grapevines. I tasted Vilana and Dafni, Vidiano and Kotsifali, Mandilari and Thrapsathiri—not one of which, as far as I’m aware, has ever been commercially planted in the United States. Some, such as the massively structured Mandilari and the Plyto, were good enough that I schemed to ship a case home.
Nearby, past the famous Knossos ruins (which, sadly, have been “restored” to the extent that you can’t tell whether a fresco is a 3,500-year-old original or a recent fabrication), is Boutari Wineries. The company owned by Yiannis Boutaris’s family makes 2 million bottles a year of Moschofilero alone, yet its glass-walled Cretan facility (one of several in Greece) feels surprisingly intimate. The featured players on the day I visited were an evanescent white blend called Fantaxometocho, colloquially referred to as “ghost wine,” and an impish middle-aged woman, Maria Konstantaki, who arrived from the kitchen bearing warm zucchini pie, bread with tomato and feta, and yogurt with sweet grapes. “Cuisine of the grandmother,” she called it, then gave me a hug to show she meant it.
After two nights at the Blue Palace, I moved to Earino, a three-cottage hilltop inn renowned for its farm-fresh food. A chapel the size of a magazine kiosk sits on the property, and one morning of my visit coincided with the only religious service held there each year, on the anniversary of the death of the proprietor’s mother. When I heard bells, I stepped outside my room to see villagers seated in metal chairs positioned around the courtyard. They were dressed in hand-sewn clothes of bright blue and white, the same hues as the sky above and the cottages around us. It might have been a hundred years ago, or a thousand.
A day later, in Canea, or Chania—a small coastal city of warrens and passages, blind alleys, souvenir shops, and restaurants serving provocatively traditional dishes such as spiced rabbit with escargot—I walked along a seawall to a lighthouse that had been built by the Egyptians. I checked in to Casa Delfino, a 17th-century Venetian mansion with a spa, an authentic Turkish hammam, 500-year-old stones, and a roof terrace. Then I drove into the hills to see the Manousakis Winery.
The scene was almost comically rustic. Picture an unsteady table in a backyard, flies buzzing, roosters crowing, apricots and lemons swaying drowsily from trees. Except that pouring me a glass of their Nostos wine was Alexandra Manousakis, a pretty 28-year-old from Washington, D.C., whose father, Ted, owns the Bread and Chocolate chain there. Nostos, it turns out, means nostalgia, which is what Ted, who left Crete for America at 11, felt keenly whenever he returned to visit. So he started a winery, and Alex, an NYU grad who had previously worked for a New York marketing firm, agreed to tend it.
Instead of local varieties, Ted planted the grapes of the Rhône. “My father wasn’t living here, so he had no loyalties to Greek grapes,” Alex told me. Nostos’s blend of Syrah, Mourvèdre, and Grenache, typically found in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, rumbled with dark earthiness, and the varietal Syrah showed all the requisite blue and black fruit.
Each time I took a sip, a rooster crowed. A few years before, newly relocated from Manhattan, Alex might have been startled. Now she just smiled and lifted an eyebrow, as if such a thing happened all the time on this magical island. Maybe it does. I wouldn’t be surprised.