Guide to Greek Wine

I am a wine drinker. I drink ouzo too but generally I do that before dinner or else in Lesvos where it is more of a tradition then wine due to a blight that wiped out the grapes several hundred years ago. But my favorite activity is eating in a taverna with my friends and drinking wine. My favorite tavernas have their own wine, straight out of the barrels, which are usually stacked against the wall. We order it by the kilo and we can go through several kilos in an evening. Glasses are continually being refilled by each other without anything being said. It's like a reflex or second nature to fill your neighbors glass when you see it is empty. And when the carafe is empty someone at the table just lifts it in the air and catches the eye of a waiter, the busboy or even the owner of the restaurant and in thirty seconds it is full again.
Painting by Moriatis
Retsina is my preferred wine and most of the time that is what is available in those barrels. But many tavernas also have an excellent red, or a white which is not resinated. Most restaurants are proud of their wine though not all the restaurants make their own. Some buy it from distillers by the barrel or by large jug, and in some touristy restaurants homemade wine, or hima, as it is called, is not even available and you have to take your chances with the wine list.

There have been many explanations as to why retsina tastes the way it does. The explanation is because they put pine resin in it to make it taste like that and the reason is because they like the taste. Some people have come up with theories on how this all began. When we were kids we heard (from other kids of course) that during world war two the Greeks put the resin into the wine so the Germans would think it was turpentine and not drink it. That was a romantic theory but not a good one. But according to Vassilis Kourtakis, who makes the most popular of the bottled retsina, the ancient Greeks knew that the air was the enemy of wine and used pine resin to seal the tops of the amphora and even added it to the wine itself.

Retsina was the wine of Athens. As far back as the late 1800's Athens had over 6000 tavernas, all filled with wine barrels. The grapes were pressed in the countryside and then brought into the city by horse-drawn carts, before the fermentation had taken place and then taken to the restaurants where the proprietor poured in the resin and decided when the wine was ready. It was not until the 1960's that bottled retsina became available in the countryside and common in the city as many of the old tavernas disappeared and land for cultivating wine near Athens became scarce.

Nowadays retsina from the barrel is hit or miss. But if you go to a taverna and it is full of happy Greek people drinking from glasses that are being refilled over and over again from a carafe then chances are the retsina is pretty good. When it's not, mix it with soda water like I do. This also will enable you to drink all night long. One of the things I have noticed is that I can drink a lot of retsina and still not be hung over the next day. My kidneys may hurt like hell but otherwise I feel great, considering.


I have a new hero. Nico Manessis has written an amazing book on Greek wines called THE ILLUSTRATED GREEK WINES BOOK which can be found in Athens at a small shop of Cretan goods on the corner of Nikis and Kydatheneon streets in the Plaka. The book is a labor of love and anyone with an interest in Greek wines should buy it and treasure it because not only will it be invaluable when confronted with a wine list in one of the more touristy restaurants, but you will end up spending a great amount of time reading the histories, descriptions and explanations of the world of Greek wine, a world that is just starting to be discovered.

The following are the bottled Retsinas which Mr. Manessis favors:

Boutaris: Light and fruity and lightly resonated.
C.A.I.R.: Low acidity and soft. Refreshing with a light touch and sweetness that sticks to the gums.
Cambas: Medium pungency and a good Savatiano finish.
Gaia: The most refined bottled retsina on the market. Traditionalists find it heretic but those new to retsina like it just fine.
Kourtakis: The market leader, medium to strong pungency and is sold world-wide.
Malamamatinas: Pungent and popular labels from northern Greece sometimes mixed with soda water to individual taste.
Thebes Co-op: Excellent, dependable and refreshing
Tsantalis: Medium pungent and popular with Germans
Tyrnavos Co-op: Faint muscat aroma, one of the finest retsinas on the market. They make two: Retsinaki and Ampelophyllo.

These are my faves (next to hima from the barrel of course)

Vrettos: This is my favorite and can be found only at Vrettos Distillery on Kydatheneon street in the Plaka.
Karela: This wine comes from Patras and is sold in the USA in 4-liter bottles wrapped in a basket. I don't know if you can find it where you live or in Greece.


 Favorite Wines of Nico Manessis 

These are the wines Nico Manessis has rated four-star and above. You won't find them everywhere and when you do they won't be cheap. If you are interested in tasting the large variety of wines in Greece I urge you to purchase this book which reviews hundreds of wines in all different varieties. If you wish to purchase this book before you go to Greece try e-mailing Olive Press Publications at

Antonopoulos Chardonnay: Green gold in color. Lime and sweet oak on the nose. Lemon fruity richness-a palate full of roasted hazelnuts. Elegant. World class.

Antonopoulos 1997 Cabernet-Nea Dris: Playful nose features eucalyptus and red berries. Balanced, multi-layered, ripe tannins. Dazzling concentration, freshness and depth. Best from 2002.

Arghyros 1998 Santorini Vareli: Nose reminiscent of Chardonnay and lemon. Spice and white pepper on the palate. Yeasty. Toasty. Atypical. A cosmopolitan Santorini. World Class.

Dalmaras 1992 Naoussa: Deep color. A complete nose alternating mulberry and leather. Compact, velvety smooth tannins have a gamy richness. A great bottle, best from 2000.

1997 Gaia Estate: Delivering both power and velvety texture, this serious, fine, unfiltered wine has raised the stakes in the Nemea Appellation. Best after 2004. The 1998 vintage-tasted in cask- is even more concentrated.

Lazaridis Amethystos Cava: Almost black. Pure fruit evokes the essence of Cabernet Sauvignon. Skillful use of oak. Exquisite, long, smoky end-taste. Unfiltered. Much finesse.

Tselepos 1998 Mantinia: Seductive, exotic, floral nose. Violets bursting with grapes and fruit on the palate. Extended bone-dry Muscat aftertaste and searing acidity that goes on and on. A bold Mantinia from this ultra-ripe vintage.

Matt's Favorite Wine

The island of Lesvos was renown in antiquity for it's wine. It is claimed the island had the finest soil and climate for growing grapes and the wine from Lesvos was the most treasured in the wine cellars of the Byzantine Emperor. Unfortunately a blight killed all the grapes on the island and wine-making on Lesvos died out, one reason why ouzo is now the drink of choice there. But  in the remote agricultural village of Xidera something very special has happened. Dimitri Lampou has been paying farmers in the area to grow grapes again using a disease resistant strain. He has built a state-of-the-art winery in this village and has begun production of what I think is one of the best red wines I have ever tasted. Of course I don't have the expertise of Mr Manessis, but I know what I like and I think if you try this wine you won't be disappointed. The wine is called Methemnaos and was available in Lesvos and by the time you read this may be available elsewhere in Greece too.