May 18, 2006

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Got milk?

Big fat Greek wine tasting
Exploring the joys of Hellenic juice
By Tim Protzman tprotzman@sbcglobal.net

It was a stroke of marketing genius.

It jumped out from all the bills and flyers for take-out food. I had heard about all the good things this fraternal organization had done, but this was over the top. This group of civic-minded people of Greek descent sponsored scholarships, ran homes for the elderly and now this Hellenistic Society was holding a charity wine tasting called “My Big Fat Greek Wine Tasting!” This was almost as brilliant a piece of publicity as Charles Shaw’s Two Buck Chuck, the $1.99-a-bottle wine available at Trader Joe’s. The wines would include some of the best of Greece, but also some from better-known wine countries, because Greek wine is all Greek to most people.

Greek wine brings up images of Plato reclining on a couch, eating and drinking at a banquet, which the ancient Greeks called a symposium. They drank their wine diluted with water, usually two parts wine to three parts water. Only barbarians drank wine straight and those that did were courting insanity. They held harvest festivals and used sacred wine, grown from vineyards at the foot of Mt. Olympus to dampen the sacrificial fires in the temples of the gods.

Today, Greece is a member of the European Community and it uses a French-like Appellation Control system to designate its wines by growing region. The most interesting wines come from Nemea, outside of the city of Corinth, Cotes de Meliton, on a point of land that juts into the Aegean Sea and the Island of Santorini, which was the site of a massive volcano eruption and may have spawned the legend of Atlantis.

The Big Fat Greek Wine Tasting was held at an elegant country club. There were no gyros, spanakopita or moussaka, but there was a wonderful lima bean salad, a beet salad and these awesome garlic stuffed breads. There was pork, fish, lamb, stuffed potatoes and stuffed cabbages. Not everybody was Greek, although I ran into Doug, whose Greece-born father owns 17 diners throughout New England. He doesn’t mind perpetuating the stereotype, especially when it pays for the summer house on Martha’s Vineyard.

The wines were…different. Greece, like Portugal, uses its own varietals and you really have to sample, to find the styles you like.

Having done a little pre-tasting homework, I headed to the Domaine Carras table. Carras was the first Greek wine maker to grow French varietals and blend them with the local Greek grapes.

The Chateau Carras is a red blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and limnio, a hearty red local grape with just the right amount of acidity to impart flavor and character, without excess tannins. It’s dry, with a hint of structure and plum, currant and elderberry fruit. It was the 2002 and it was young. Carras wines are crafted in the French style and this one needed more time.

The Melissanthi was a light, fresh white that was ready to drink now! It was part chenin blanc, part pinot grigio: yummy vanilla and apricot with a touch of sour grass and lime. This was the perfect hot-weather white. And the slightly sweet finish gave it a gewürztraminer-esque affinity for spicy foods. I chased the pickled octopus in pepper sauce with several glasses.

When one attends a wine tasting a certain amount of spitting and dumping is expected. But this party was so happening that I felt a pang of guilt leaning over the spew bucket and disposing of the inferior wines. Had this been a French wine affair, I’d have made a big deal of looking the distributor’s rep in the face, grabbing the bucket and emptying my mouth of the offending wine. It could have been the music, it could have been the toga-clad Melina Kanakaredes look-a-likes passing the hors d’oeuvres, but this wine tasting was different. Yes, some of the wines were trying too hard, but everyone was having fun.

It was as if the wine were the backdrop to life, not the reason for being. For 6,000 years the Greek peoples have practiced the art of life and wine is but one of the many facets. Missing from this tasting were the winos, that elitist bunch whose lives revolve around wine, rather than allowing the wine to revolve around life.

My next stop was the Heliopoulos Vineyards table. They had a really tasty white from the island of Santorini. Made from Assyrtiko (85 percent), Athiri (10 percent) and Aidani (5 percent) grapes, it presented lush ripe pear flavors with a aroma of honeysuckle. Went well with the cod.

Boutari Vineyards 2003 Moscholfilero is a stunning white that tastes of apples, honey and watercress. This wine is from the Mantinia region of Peleponnese Peninsula.

Domaine Hatzimichalis is a cabernet, merlot, xinomavro and limnio blend that’s really spicy. It is great with meat and it comes from the Atalanti Region north of Athens.

Greek wine plays a subservient role to the tapestry of Greek life. But the wines are eminently drinkable, even if some seem rustic or primitive. Some other Greek wine producers to keep in mind are: Gaia, Spiropoulos and Kourtaki. They produce nice wine that’s typical of the wines found in the Greek taverna. The most popular wine in Greece is retsina, a wine infused with pine pitch flavors. It’s an unusual but not unpleasant taste. Millennia ago it got its flavor from the pine pitch used to line the great earthenware amphora jugs that Greeks used to transport wine. Today, the Savatiano grapes are crushed and small chunks of pine resin are added to the fermenting grapes. The resulting wine is a tourist standard in the taverna of Greece.

Tell Tim your wine stories. You can reach him at tprotzman@sbcglobal.net.


Comments? Thoughts? Discuss this article and more at hippoflea.com


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