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Next Round: How Greek Wine Grew UpVinePair

On this episode of “Next Round,” host Zach Geballe discusses the past, present, and future of Greek wine with Ted Diamantis of Diamond Imports and sommelier and wine educator Steve Olson. The conversation starts off with Diamantis and Olson sharing the story of how they were introduced to wines from Greece and what made them want to change the perceptions of Greek wines overseas.

Then, the trio discusses how Greek wine has made a name for itself on a global scale over the past few decades. They explain how the country embraced its rich, indigenous varieties — with Greek wine pioneers such as Domaine Sigalas, Stelios Boutari, and Nikos Douloufaki setting the tone. In addition, the three discuss wine from lesser-known regions like Crete and Maroneia. Finally, Diamantis and Olson spill trade secrets about up-and-coming Greek varieties and regions.

Tune in to learn more and visit www.diamondwineimporters.com to discover more about Greek wines.

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Zach Geballe: From Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe. And this is a “VinePair Podcast” “Next Round” conversation. This is an opportunity for us to explore additional stories of people in the world of beverage alcohol. Today, I’ve got the privilege of being joined by two real wine experts: Ted Diamantis, who’s the founder of Diamond Imports, and sommelier and wine educator Steve Olson. Thank you, gentlemen, both for your time.

Steve Olson: Well, thank you. This is a pleasure.

Ted Diamantis: Yeah, Zach. It’s great being with you, man.

Z: Yeah, my pleasure. To be honest, one of the great trips of my life to this point was a trip to Greece a few years ago that I took with my wife. Obviously, plenty of food and drink was involved, as most of my trips do, of course. One of the things that I found really fascinating and where I wanted to start with both of you is because you have such a great perspective on what has happened and what is happening in the world of Greek wine. The thing that I found very fascinating everywhere I went at a number of different wineries throughout the country, was a real conversation about focusing production on native and indigenous varieties. That may sound to some of our listeners as, “Well, duh. I mean, isn’t that what everyone does?” I think we can start with this question for the both of you, and maybe Ted you can start. When you first got into Greek wine and into exploring it, what was being made? What were you tasting, and what was out there?

T: That’s a great question, Zach, because knowing where we started and where we are at is always a great starting point for conversation. Greece was very unknown. Let’s go back to 1990, 1991, and when I actually started the company in ’92. Production was mostly focused on bulk wine usually. Blends and mono-varietals were being created in certain appellations, but they’re creating more in a bulk wine form. There was Retsina, which for me was the R-word. Getting over that hump was a big thing. The new wave of producers that were just emerging relatively within the early ‘90s into the late ‘90s, was the start of the focus in going back to better cultivation of their indigenous varieties. However, there was a movement that some Greek cultivators, growers, and wineries thought their entry onto the world stage was best suited by doing Chardonnay, Merlot, or Cabernet and things like that. There were a lot of people ignoring the Greek varieties and trying to lean into that. Also, what happened is a lot of these younger winemakers at the time studied in France or Italy, mostly France. They got more familiar with their non-indigenous varieties and working with those, which allowed them to actually cultivate and know their own varieties and how they were mis-cultivated until that point.

Z: Steve, as someone who is working in the wine trade as a sommelier, we think about places like Greece and many other European countries as being so exciting because of the wealth of indigenous varieties and an opportunity to taste things that aren’t grown in other places. On the restaurant side, where was the American palate and interest? Were people in the ‘90s looking for any of these wines? I think part of the story here that we’ll get to is the both of you collaboratively and with other people championing these indigenous varieties. Was there an audience for that, or were you hoping to create it?

S: Another great question and a perfect evolution of this. As Ted said, when I first started paying attention to Greek wines, it was because of the indigenous grapes. They were few and far between in production or rather in export. I first went there because I tasted some indigenous wines that blew my mind. They were all terroir-driven and old school, and I said, ”Wait, wait, wait, where are these coming from?” At that time, most of the producers were starting to lean towards international grapes, as Ted said, and maybe more importantly, the technique of the moment was for everything to be barrel-fermented. All the whites had to be in in oak, even Sauvignon Blanc, everything had to be Parkerized with really ripe fruit, and so forth. As I saw Greece when I first went there and freaked out, First of all, everyone has to understand the Greek people because that’s really what this is all about. By nature, they are anarchists, and I say that as a great compliment because I admire and love these people, but they are responsible. They have a culture going back thousands of years for not just the first wines, but the first culture of wine and food together. They don’t think about it, they just do it, and they do it so naturally. Even at that time, you’d go to the villages and drink these amazing wines that were very simple but they were great for the food, and they were all about the earth. You have these unbelievable vineyard sites with ancient soils, high altitudes, islands that are so remote from anything else. Then, all of these little indigenous grapes — several hundred of them — that are growing just in one place, in one vineyard, and many of them are being lost at that time anyway. Many have been saved, and we’ll talk about them later today. To your point, at that time I felt that there was an audience and many of my peers did, but we were working hard to create it. We were working hard in our restaurants to bring those obscure wines that did speak of soil, that did speak of history and tradition, that were naturally good with food. Then, bringing them to the United States and putting them by the glass to get people to try them. Also, matching them with the food so that people could see it and experience it. There were very few of those at that time, but there were enough of them by key players who had gone back to their roots or even in a few cases, people who had never left them, just weren’t necessarily exported or weren’t the popular guy yet because the movement towards international grapes and international techniques was strong. For me, that was really the beginning of my involvement. I tasted with Ted, actually, in the late ‘90s and tasted Grande Cuvée from George Skouras. We’re going to talk about him anyway. I tasted Megas Oenos. Megas Oenos was an international wine that was not. It was brilliant. Then, Grande Cuvée was this really high altitude. I’m talking over 3,500 feet in altitude of ancient soils of 100-year-old vines of tiny, tiny yields of Agiorghitiko, which I couldn’t even pronounce at the time. They wanted me to say St. George, but I said no, we’re going to learn how to say Agiorghitiko. Our people will, too, and they won’t forget it. I tasted that wine and my brain exploded. I said, “OK, I gotta meet the guy who made this. I have to see this vineyard. I need to go there.” Ted and I went with a very close friend of mine many people would know, Tara Thomas. She is a brilliant wine writer who had worked and studied in Greece at culinary school. She knew more about Greek wine than anybody alive at that time other than maybe Ted.

Z: We won’t answer that question, it’s OK.

S: I went with Tara and Ted, so I had the two experts on either side of me and I said, “Treat me like a baby.”

Z: Did you just have to drive the car?

S: I drove the car and drank a lot of wine when I wasn’t driving.

T: Yes, when he wasn’t driving.

S: I wanted to make sure I said that.

Z: I want to ask a question here to get one more piece of this out that I think is important to understand. Ted, you talked about how you first got involved in importing Greek wine, there were not a lot of producers who were focusing on, especially for export, indigenous varieties. Now I would say that a good portion of your portfolio, as I understand it, are indigenous varieties from all over the country. Was it a matter of convincing producers that the international varieties, Parkerized style, just wasn’t what the future was? Or did they need someone to say, “I will buy the Agiorghitiko, Assyrtiko, or the Xinomavro and sell it in the U.S.?” Was it more about convincing them that the stylistic path was a dead end or was it just about supporting what they were already making?

T: Well, both. In certain cases, there were ideas that were being hashed out around a table or things happening in a vineyard that I would say, “Look at it this way, I think you probably are best suited and best to do more of this and less of that.” In other cases, these people are already on a track to represent their terroir and their indigenous variety. They might have needed some advice in terms of other things — whether labeling and/or flavor profiles or what is best suited in terms of how to express that variety and terroir best that I would offer my opinion on. There were both of those things going on in terms of my producers and it was incremental how we created this portfolio. It was strategic. We started with one person, which was George Skouras, which in my humble estimation, was one of the great pioneers and still is today. He helped create the model of what Greek wines are today and also helped other winemakers in different regions. He said this to me a long time ago: “It’s not about one producer to have a great wine-producing country. You need hundreds of them.” He also says: “It’s never going to be an important region to the world if there are just one or two people. There has to be a lot of people, and that’s what we have to help each other.” That’s what George did. He directed me and said, “Go taste that guy.” He is talking about Domaine Sigalas in Santorini. Then, he told me, “You got to meet Angelos from Alpha Estate. You’ve got to talk to Stelios Boutari when it comes to Xinomavro. You have to go to Crete and talk to Nikos Douloufakis.” Those are the things that would help, and he would offer his help. Each of them would also talk and we have a great little family when it comes to our portfolio. For me, one of the most defining and very important things when finding these great wines is also finding great producers and great people like Steve alluded to a second ago. People that understand a vision, understood the challenges ahead, how we had to change the perception of Greek wines overseas — including in Europe, but in the U.S. market for sure. The perception of all these fantastic appellations, whether it was Dafnes in Crete, Santorini, Amyndeon, or even in northern Greece, nobody had an idea that even existed in the United States. Nobody had talked about varieties. We had to re-educate the population or the wine-drinking population, who were only enjoying Greek wines at the time. This continued until maybe 10 years ago. This wasn’t that far back in history that you would only find in Greek restaurants and typically the lowest common denominator wine, except for some pioneering wine programs Steve was involved with those years ago that would take a chance on Greek wines and/or have more confidence. Even upscaling to Greek restaurants and making sure that there that wine is not just a commodity, but it’s something precious and treated in the same manner and honor what you’re trying to give people.

Z: Absolutely, so I want to come back to this topic of these Greek wines at the table because I think that’s where we’ll wrap things up because as you mentioned, it is such an integral part of their expression in Greece whether you bring them to the United States or wherever. I want to talk a little bit about some of the producers that you mentioned, Ted. Let’s start with Domaine Skouras. Where is it, and what do they make? I know, but many of our listeners may be unfamiliar.

T: Sure, I’m going to give you the elevator version.

Z: Please do.

T: It is in southern Greece, about an hour and a half southwest of Athens and it is a high-mountain appellation. Steve has been there many times with me. It is very mountainous. The variety of the appellation is Agiorgitiko, which the transliteration of the variety would be St. George; you might see labeled in both ways. They have one of the oldest designated growing regions in history, cultivated specifically to make wine, by definition the first appellation. He also focuses on Moschofilero in the southern part, Peloponnese, which is the indigenous variety. It is also a pigskin grape variety that is utilized to make white wine, primarily 90 percent white wine. These are fantastic white wines with aromatics but lean, full of minerals, and with high acidity.

Z: That was the first winery in Greece that you worked with to import, right?

T: Yes.

Z: So what came next?

T: Oh, geez. What came next?

Z: No one’s going to fact-check you on this, you’re good.

T: Thank you because I don’t remember. Actually, I did work with a couple of the producers that at some point we stopped our collaboration, but my next seminal producer would have been almost at the same time as Alpha Estate.

Z: OK.

T: It was up in northern Greece in Amyndeon, which was a chance we took on each other, which was a young, great consulting winemaker that consulted a lot of great wineries at the time, and created his own project called Amyndeon. It is a very unknown cultivation region to cultivate in Greece and northern Greece.

S: Ted, you can safely say at that time when Angelo went there and brought that back, it was basically abandoned other than local wines. There was nobody working in that region the way he was, although I know we’ll talk about Kir-Yianni and their work up there also because they were doing some stuff, too, and that was almost simultaneously. I didn’t mean to jump in…

T: Oh, please do.

S: Oh, he’s a superstar. He’s considered by many to be one of the future greats and that was years ago. Now, he is that person. George and he are very, very close. George really took him under his wing. Now, when I met Angelo, he was consulting on, I’m going to say eight or 10 of the top 20 wineries in Greece that I tasted with Tara, Ted, and others that would taste the wine and say, “Wow, that’s a really good wine.” Then I’d say, “Oh, Angelo? Of course.” His name kept popping up as the consultant that was helping all these people really come into the New World where again, we were trying to advise them that the trends that they’re seeing, by the time they make those wines, they’ll already be behind us. There is a whole legion of sommeliers and writers out there trying to preach this gospel of wines made in dirt, wines made in the earth, wines made in the vineyard, and wines that are good with food. By the time those wines are released, the world will have changed. While those wines still have a place, as you know Zach, better than anybody perhaps with your work, in the late ‘90s, that was where we were going. That’s what we were trying to do and you guys have taken it to a place we never dreamed of. No, seriously. We worked hard and set a platform and you guys ran with it in a way that was…

Z: All over the damn place.

S: And we are proud of that. That’s what we wanted, and that’s what we’re proud of. As a group, as a profession, we have led people down the path of these beautifully, formerly obscure wines that are now world-class wines. And Angelo is one of those guys. His old-vine Xinomavro — as a matter of fact, I think you guys picked it as your No. 1 wine recently.

Z: It has indeed done very, very well.

S: I mean, you’re talking about 100-year-old vines with tiny yields in a very, very special ecosystem. While most people know his Alpha Estate SMX, which is his famous wine, and it’s amazing, that Xinomavro is insane and it sets a tone that nobody imagined was possible. His Hedgehog, which is one of the most affordable of the Xinomavros, has those same flavors, but in a more affordable younger-vine kind of style. I mean, that is really the wine that we were able to get people to start grabbing on to Xinomavro as a grape and going, “Oh, I love this,” This is Pinot-like, it’s less powerful, and it’s elegant. It’s great with food. Anyway, I’m sorry to interrupt you, Ted.

T: No, not at all.

S: Angelo was a pioneer in that region, but also with so many producers like George. It was handed down to him as his mentor, but like every one of Ted’s producers — I’m happy to talk about any of them. I know them all very, very well and they’re all very good friends — every one of them is the type of person who mentors others and brings people along. Part of what makes this portfolio so special to me is that every one of these guys is not just a leader in the craft. They don’t just make great wine. They’re not just one of the best wineries in their region and one of the best wineries for their grapes, but they bring the others in their region with them. When I first went to visit George, he introduced me to five other producers in the area that he thought was great. That was on my first night at a dinner where he invited them all to come and meet us. I mean, come on, who does that?

Z: It is definitely someone who wants to grow the entire region, not just themselves.

S: Exactly.

Z: I want to talk about the producer here and the place that is most obscure in some sense, and probably the least familiar as a wine-producing region, even for people who are relatively into Greek wine and that’s the focus on Douloufakis in Crete, which is a place I went and absolutely loved. I loved all of Greece, but I think if I could go back to one part of the country, it would be Crete. So what are we doing here? To me, one of the things that were really cool about Crete — and this may be a crude analogy — but in the way that Sicily is to Italy, i.e., Italian, but also its own thing, Crete had very much that same vibe to me as very cool but also its own. Obviously an ancient civilization, the Minoan culture, but it’s its own deal. What are we doing here? What is the deal with the winery and what are some of the varieties? Again, I think it is very unfamiliar to most even relatively experienced drinkers.

T: Well, you’re right. Douloufakis is another pioneer and comes from a historic family, meaning that his family had been there since about the 16th century. He is Venetian of extract, which he just discovered recently from somebody searching the roots. They came and found them from some Italian family from Venice.

Z: A former prince or something? That would be cool.

T: If we had a longer podcast, it’s a fascinating story. It is a fascinating story that these people uncovered, but his name was Dolphinos prior to the Ottoman period of the island, which started roughly around 1699 because the island was Venetian until about 1699. His family were farmers. His father, grandfather, and great grandfather were farmers that grew grapes and made a little bit of wine for themselves, but made bulk wines and sold to other larger producers. Unfortunately, even to this day, Crete still has a bulk wine mentality. It’s getting less and less every year because of the leadership of people like Nikos Douloufakis, who was the first guy in his family that got to college and went to wine school. He went to Alba to study and he came back with these Piemonte approaches to these great varieties that existed there. Some of the best varieties of Crete because they were being treated for bulk wine, lost favor by the farmers because they can’t sell them by the pound. To produce better-quality grapes wasn’t their goal, it was to reduce tonnage. Vidiano was one of these noble grapes that was off everybody’s radar for generations until Nikos, being one of the premier pioneers of bringing cultivation back, planted in higher elevations. He is really expressing the variety and now Vidiano is going to be planted all over Greece which is going to be the next Assyrtiko story. Then Liatiko, a red variety, was being farmed for distillation. It was being farmed for sun-dried sweet wines, but it lost its favor being farmed for red wines like the Venetians did for generations and sold it as one of their most prized wines to Western Europe for hundreds of years. Again, better cultivation techniques, better farming, lower yields, canopy management, all these things changed the profile of these varieties that existed all over Greece, in Crete and the appellation Dafnes, which we’re talking about specifically and that region is all rolling hills of limestone. When I went to Crete and I just saw limestone everywhere 15 years ago, I thought Crete was going to explode. Steve and I for years had the same approach. You look at the ecosystem, you look at the soil profile, and that’s where it all starts from when I saw Crete, its elevation, limestone, and dry farming. But they have all four seasons, it also gets cold there, too, because of the elevations. I knew this place was going to be a winner but they’re just farming incorrectly. They changed then because Douloufakis is one of the leaders of changing farming. My third producer if you want to know that was Sigalas in Santorini, which was the groundbreaking producer that, as Stephen knows, was misunderstood here in the beginning until we started showing old vintages of an Assyrtiko from Sigalas, and people are like, “Holy toledo.” I can’t say sh*t, or can I?

Z: Whatever you want, man. We swear plenty on this podcast. Cool.

T: Oh, cool. Then, people go, “holy sh*t.” People thought there’s something going on here.

S: The best tasters in the world were tasting these old vintages with us and comparing them to grand cru Rieslings and grand cru Chablis, which were both apt comparisons. For us geeks, those are the white wines — a couple of them specifically — that we admire so much in the way they age and change. They’re great when they’re young, but they just keep getting more and more complex, and Santorini is very much like that. I think you made a great comparison, both of you. Zach, first of all, the comparison to Sicily I love because, like Sicily, it’s a completely different microclimate as well. However, you think of Crete because it’s south and you think that it’s going to be hot but in actuality, like Sicily, a lot of high-altitude stuff with very, very balanced wines. Vidiano, to me, is one of the great formerly undiscovered grapes that particularly, when Douloufakis started making it the way they did, I proceeded to pour that by the glass in every single restaurant that I touched just to show it to people with food because it had this beautiful richness, acidity, minerality and all the things we’re loving in a great balanced white wine. Your comparison with Sicily, I think, is really, really appropriate. Now, Ted alluded to Vidiano being the next Assyrtiko, so let me just explain that. Assyrtiko is a grape that grows everywhere now, and it’s planted all over Greece. It should be because it’s amazing. No matter where you grow it, it takes on a different characteristic, like Chardonnay or Pinot Noir in many ways. Now, Assyrtiko from Santorini is a very, very special, unique wine. Assyrtiko from Santorini made by Sigalas is the ultimate. It is like the great grand crus of Raveneau. People who love wine respect him, his 130-year-old vineyards, his ancient way of making wine, his incredible technique, his incredible insight and feel for it but those wines are so expressive. Honestly, when I first tasted those wines, it was Skouras and then Sigalas for me. If those were the only two wines I could pour, that would have been enough to open that country’s doors to the rest of the world.

T: And it did.

S: Others that were there, too, that Ted has in his portfolio — I don’t know if we’re going to have time to get to everybody, but let me make sure I mention them, because these were the guys that just took it to the next level. However, all of them by going into the vineyard, making wines with low yields with ancient and modern farming techniques together because we look to the past to learn and use the science of today to blend those and in almost every case very old vines, but in every case, indigenous grapes. This is what we really pushed. Honestly, I think part of the reason that I was brought over by Ted in the first place was they needed to hear it from somebody like me how important this was. Ted had been preaching this gospel to them of indigenous grapes. At Diamond Imports, he had started something that was totally different than anybody was really thinking, and he had preached this gospel to the producers. He needed somebody like me to validate it and say, “Trust me, this is where we are going. You just have to look to the future. Don’t look today because, by the time your wines come out, it’ll be too late. You have to look to the future.”

Z: Speaking of that exact topic of looking to the future to wrap things up here, just a couple of quick things that I wanted to get both of your perspectives on. We’ve talked a lot about some varieties that dedicated drinkers might be familiar with. We talked about Xinomavro, we talked about Agiorgitiko, we talked about Assyrtiko, and we even talked about Vidiano on Crete. What are two or three others that are still off the radar? It can be in these places or other parts of Greece that you have your eye on in the way that I’m sure you’ve had your eye on some of these other varieties that are now making their way into the market. Are there places or varieties that you’re just waiting on?

T: Oh, yeah, I have some.

Z: Please.

S: We are going to run out of time, so I’m going to let Ted go, but the one I’ll throw out that we haven’t touched on that’s really, really important to me is Malagousia. Malagousia is the other great white grape that’s making world-class wines. That’s one to really go out and find if you haven’t tried some of these. I’d also throw in Kotsifali and Vilana. Again, two Crete varieties that are just really important. These are really important grapes, in my opinion.

Z: Anywhere in particular for Malagousia, Steve?

S: Well, basically just north of Thessaloniki is where it has been brought back. People are experimenting with it all over the country now, and they’re doing cool blends. Angelo makes one with Sauvignon Blanc and Malagousia, which is really cool. People are playing with it because it’s very aromatic. It’s incredibly aromatic and has incredible texture. I’m not going to compare it to Condrieu, but similar to that of Viognier and same with the ageability and complexity as well.

Z: Ted, it’s not sharing any trade secrets?

T: No, it is, but I agree. I love Malagousia and Alpha Estate’s version is actually one of the best versions. I think cultivation and vinification techniques are going to be changing with Kotsifali. I think that is also a variety to look at. It’s creating Pinot-like wines. There is a region up in northern Greece that has a variety I love called Mavroudi. The appellation is Maroneia. It’s an ancient Greek variety. I’ve been tasting that region for about a decade. Very few producers. There is a project that’s being worked on that I’m very curious about, so let’s keep it at that. I think that’s enough trade secrets there. There’s a couple of other things I am looking at.

Z: We have to have something to talk about next time.

S: I have to write up a lexicon and send it out to everybody.

Z: Well, that actually leads me to my last question for the both of you. Okay, someone is listening to this and they’re intrigued. They’re excited, but they’re maybe not quite ready to get on a plane to Greece, although it’s always a great way to learn. As far as finding these wines, what can people do?

S: Well, wherever Ted’s wines are will be these producers and others that are equally as talented. I would definitely look for Diamond Imports. I’m going to give Ted his plug here, because he can’t do that.

T: Diamond Wines.

S: I would also there’s a great website called All about Greek Wine. Our friend Sofia Perpera, we worked with for years who is really a big part of bringing Greek wine to the fore. She’s done amazing work, and there’s a great website where you can learn more about it. If you go to the website of Diamond Wine Importers, it’ll teach you all of this. It’s really educational, but it’ll also then I think it tells you where to get them. Right, Ted?

T: Yeah, we do.

S: I’m not a marketing guy.

T: Go to our website, www.diamondwineimporters.com. We are in 46 states, and we are in distribution nationally. Online, you can do a search for our producers. Can we mention stores?

Z: Sure, absolutely.

T: Whole Foods in most regions carries one to three of our labels somewhere — all these producers that we spoke about today. Regionally, again, the easiest way is just to jump on that old Google machine and you’ll find them. That’s the one good thing that happened during Covid is retail started paying attention a little bit more. We were Greek wines in this category. We’re primarily on-premise in restaurants for your listeners. Off-premise started paying more attention to it because all the great fans were drinking all the Greek wines and restaurants couldn’t get them anymore. They went looking for them in retail and obviously, the retail world discovered us a little bit better. Now, we have a little bit more presence out there for your folks who want to grab and have a bottle at home.

Z: Excellent. Steve and Ted, thank you so much for your time. It was really fascinating to learn about both the history of what you’ve done there and what’s going on now and in the future in Greece. Thank you so much.

T: Thank you.

S: Thank you, it was a lot of fun.

Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, then please give us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.

Now for the credits, VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and in Seattle, Wash., by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all this possible and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.

Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.

The article Next Round: How Greek Wine Grew Up appeared first on VinePair.

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