From Greek vines come sleek wines
When purchasing wine, most people look for a lifeline to grab hold of. It might be a familiar grape, a valued place name, or an importer...
Special to the Seattle Times
When purchasing wine, most people look for a lifeline to grab hold of. It might be a familiar grape, a valued place name, or an importer or producer in whom you have confidence.
These have always been, and still remain, my touchstones. At this stage of the game, having written about wine for the past 20 years, it's rare for me to be stymied on all three fronts. But at a recent tasting of a Greek wine portfolio — all Sotiris Bafitis Selections — I felt like a greenhorn again.
Bafitis is based in Washington, D.C., but is new to me. He is represented locally by Steven Brown, a recent transplant to this area. In a past life, Brown was a professional chef, and he brings a chef's knowledge and appreciation for flavor to his wine career.
Flavor was pretty much all we had to go on because the grapes (roditis, sideritis, mandilaria, etc.) all sounded like tropical diseases. The place and producer names were no help either, as I have never been to Greece. When you tell me that a wine comes from Epanomi, just 25 kilometers southwest of Thessaloniki, you may as well be Marco Polo explaining the location of Venice to Gengis Khan.
And my expectations were somewhat muted; the few Greek wines I have tasted over the years were mostly thick, flabby and rustic, not counting the retsina, which is a beast unto itself.
Nonetheless, I have resolved to focus my attention more regionally on wine this year, and here was my first chance. With Brown's thoughtful guidance, I explored more than a dozen Greek wines, roughly two thirds of them white, all of them soundly made and many quite distinctive.
The Greeks have been in the game for a long, long time. They brought grape-growing and winemaking to Sicily and southern Italy ahead of the Romans. And yet, surprisingly, Greece is one of the last countries in the Mediterranean to have embraced modern winemaking technology. These unfamiliar grapes, among more than 300 ancient varieties recently identified in Greece, have (as yet) no direct, proven connection to those grown in Italy, Spain or France.
Pick of the Week
Kir-Yianni 2004 Paranga Red ($15): The reference grape for this bright, fruity Greek red is barbera. Kir-Yianni's blend is predominantly xinomavro, the rest agiorghitiko (don't worry, there won't be a quiz), made in an all-stainless style. Ripe, sweet scents of fresh-picked cherries and spicy raspberries greet your sniffer, and the wine follows with forward, balanced, strikingly clean and polished fruit flavors. Tired of $15 pinot noirs that taste like Kool-Aid (or worse yet, a walk down the tomato aisle at your favorite nursery)? Grab this jewel, roast a turkey, and be glad that you can get all this flavor at just 12.5 percent alcohol. (Unique)
As Brown and I embarked on our flavor fest, I mentioned my less-than-stellar experiences in the past. He acknowledged the problem, which he attributed to a lack of knowledgeable importers (most Greek wines have been brought into the States by guys in New Jersey more interested in cheese and olives, was the gist of it).
Sotiris Bafitis is the Kermit Lynch, if you will, of Greece. (Lynch is a famed wine merchant in California.) Born in the U.S., Bafitis spent much of his childhood in Greece, then moved back to finish his education at the University of Maryland. His interest in the wines of his native land grew slowly. Over the course of many years and frequent vacations, he began bringing more and more wines back with him. The burden of Greece's miserable reputation didn't faze him. He selected his wines from the best producers, shipped and stored them properly, and personally introduced them to chefs and sommeliers on the lookout for something new.
Today, the Sotiris Bafitis portfolio is a showcase for a renascent Greek wine industry; for ancient grapes crafted into sleek, stylish, ultra-modern wines. By ultra-modern I mean wines for this new century, that speak to our changing tastes.
Apart from the curiosity factor, there is a good practical reason for focusing on native Greek vines. They are naturally high in acid and suited to the country's hot climate, while most international grape varieties simply wilt. The best vineyards are planted at higher elevations, the rows often north-facing, to mitigate the hot, dry summers.
White wines are crisp, immaculate, with firm acids, moderate levels of alcohol and little or no oak. Their flavors often include citrus, green berry and melon, notes of straw and grain and a striking minerality.
Red wines are medium-bodied, spicy, sometimes showing streaks of olive, dried herb and licorice.
The best way to approach these unfamiliar grapes and wines is through comparisons to styles that are better known. This is certainly not to detract from the originality and specialness of the Greek offerings, but it can help the palate tune in to the new flavors.
Think of Lafazanis 2005 Roditis ($10) as a more interesting sibling to Italian pinot grigio. An elegant, floral wine, it blends scents of grain and citrus with cut flowers. There is a distinctive, penetrating finish, and an overwhelming impression of summer — more than welcome at this time of year.
The 2005 Petra from Kir-Yianni ($13) takes the same grape and ramps it up in intensity, with more concentration, slightly higher alcohol (13 percent) than the Lafazanis, and hints of flint and limestone.
The 2004 Canava Argyros ($24) is made from the assyrtiko grape. It's a single estate, with 80-year-old vines, and the wine has the waxy texture of semillon. Flavors suggest melon and light herb, along with a supple richness that jumps gracefully through many delicate flavor changes.
If you love the floral/citrus flavors of viognier, you will enjoy the 2005 Gerovassiliou Malagousia ($21). OK, you'll have to practice a bit before you order a bottle of this tongue-twister (the grape is pronounced mah-lah-goo-ZYA — you're on your own with the producer) but Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither was the Greek wine renaissance. Moderate alcohol (12.5 percent), lovely floral scents, delicate flavors of citrus tinged with jasmine and mint make for a thrilling experience.
I tasted fewer red wines and found them a bit more challenging, but one, also from Kir-Yianni, is my Pick of the Week. For more information on these and other Sotiris Bafitis selections, visit www.sotirisbafitisselections.com. The local distributor is Unique Wine (425-255-8646).
Finding the Wines
Unless noted, all Wine Adviser recommendations are currently available, though vintages may sometimes differ. All wine shops and most groceries have a wine specialist on staff. Show them this column, and if they do not have the wine in stock, they can order it for you from the local distributor.
Paul Gregutt's column appears weekly in the Wine section. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Wine Adviser
My column is all about sharing the joy of exploring all the world of wine. I want to guide people to make inspired choices, and encourage them to try as many different styles of wine as they can. I will always seek out the best wines at the best prices. Wine Adviser runs on Sunday in Pacific Northwest Magazine.
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.