Greece: Wine fit for the Gods

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This blog entry has a special place in my heart, because I am writing it in one of the most beautiful places in the world…Greece. It’s my annual pilgrimage to visit family & friends and I am delighted to fit in some time to learn more about its wine industry.

Good wine is not the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks about Greece. Sunshine, scattered islands of the Aegean dotted with white washed houses and cobblestone streets, olive groves in the Peloponnese, fresh fish ordered directly from the sea, summer romance, unspoiled beaches and miles and miles of breathtaking coastline. Yes, all these things conjure up images of Greece but wine? Not so much. Having a deep interest in both, I feel it’s my duty to tell you quite the opposite is true.

After all, Dionysus, the ancient God of wine is said to have been born on the beautiful but peculiar island of Ikaria, where the locals drink plenty of it and live long healthy lives well into their 100’s. So they must be on to something when it comes to wine. And let’s not forget that it was actually the Greeks who first taught their Italian neighbors about winemaking in ancient times.

Visiting good friends in the picturesque city of Patras, known for its large student population and a Carnival that could rival Brazil’s, we spent a lazy Sunday visiting the world renowned winery of Achaia Clauss. The founder, a Bavarian named Gustav Clauss, established the first wine estate in Greece here in 1861, and to this day it stands as a testament to his dedication and love for the land and its people, high above the city with a breathtaking view and a castle like fortress that is not to be missed when travelling through the mainland of Greece. It is in fact one of the only place in the world that produces the sweet red wine called Mavrodaphne, made from the indigenous grape of the same name that put Achaia Clauss on the map.

We did a few tastings, but their signature wines are the Mavrodaphne and the sweet Muscat of Patras. Neither is to be missed but the Mavrodaphne is something so distinct, and is actually used in communion wine in the Orthodox Church.

This dessert wine is purple-violet in color and medium to full bodied with very strong notes of baked fruit, raisin, prune and even some toasted caramel. The sweetness is balanced with hints of toast and smoke. Going through the cellar tour, you can smell the sweet, almost candy flavored aromas from the very old yet gigantic oak barrels that store this sweet wine over the years as it ages. The workmanship in some of those barrels is nothing short of a piece of art. Thanks to our wonderful tour guide Antonia, I learned that the barrels were actually Russian, which I had never seen or heard of before. This truly was a great learning experience and you could tell that Antonia felt a strong bond with the place. She’s probably given these tours a thousand times in her years at the winery, but her passion and dedication to this special place were obvious. She offered us, total strangers at the time, complete “filotimo”, which is a Greek word that cannot really be translated into English. In simple terms, she made us feel at home right away, as if we were old friends, something that embodied not just the spirit of the winery but the magic of the Greek culture, and wine is definitely a significant part of that.

Mavrodaphne is not shy in the alcohol content so do yourself a favor and take your time enjoying it after dinner. Let it linger on the tongue and savor the long finish. This would pear nicely with traditional Greek desserts like walnut cake, one of my favorites. If you are a fan of port wine, then open your heart a little more and explore Mavrodaphne and try something new. Or save it for a night when you have friends over, don’t have to get up early, and practice your best “filotimo” to make them feel at home.

You can buy Achaia Clauss’s Mavrodaphne at various sites online for less than $15 or pick up a bottle right across the river at Leiser’s Wines & Liquors ($10) in Flushing, NY (718 359-3106).


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