It’s been four years since Wines of Greece, the association representing the country’s winemakers and vine growers, first organised a deployment in Australia, and each year has been more encouraging than the previous one. The annual roadshows have been a constant success, the masterclasses that educate wine professionals and enthusiasts have been booked out and importers have been converted. More than 50 Greek wineries are now represented in Australia and sales have increased by 20 per cent.
According to Wines of Greece president Vangelis Argiris, everything is going as planned.
“We have been following a strategic plan that we set out eight to nine years ago to promote Greek wine to the US, China, Australia, and other countries outside the European Union,” he says.
“We identified the industry needs, we analysed the targeted markets, saw what our competitors are doing and planned accordingly. The first step was to start educating these markets, through masterclasses and consumer events, and then follow up with the commercial aspect. So far the outcomes have been positive,” he says.
In order to do this, the sector had to regroup and rethink its business ethos.
“The first thing we did was to leave our differences aside and start working together as an industry,” Mr Argiris admits.
That’s exactly his area of expertise. A former poultry farmer, he has been involved in cooperatives for decades, moving on to political activism and farmer advocacy, which led him to a long career in politics. He became an MP, representing Ioannina, and even served as deputy Minister of Agriculture and deputy speaker of parliament.
After his retirement from politics in 2012, he started a new life as winemaker. But his experience came in handy, at this turning point for the wine industry.
“We decided to focus on indigenous varietals that make Greek wine unique,” he explains, describing the next step of the strategy.
“From the 1950s to the 1970s, Greek winemakers were importing varietals, but when we went to the foreign markets, we could not compete with producers from France and Italy. So we realised that there is no point in producing varietals that you can find anywhere in the world and decided to focus on our own unique ones. For instance, I come from a poor area of Greece, in Epirus, where there is not a large viticulture, apart from a certain area, Zitsa and Metsovo, where the Averoff Estate is.
“In Zitsa, there are two big wineries working with a local varietal Debina that you can’t find anywhere else in the world. In Santorini, there is Assyrtiko, in Peloponnisos you have Agiorgitiko, in Macedonia you have Xinomavro. Investing in these varietals and showcasing them allowed us to go to the market and present a certain identity. This is appealing to wine-lovers first and foremost, and then translates to the commercial aspect.”
This particular quality of Greek wine has been very well received in Australia.
“Australia is an interesting market, because they know about wine, they understand and they can compare,” Mr Argiris says.
“In other countries, our approach is more focused on Greek history, culture and the antiquity; people are interested in ancient Greece, so they are curious about wine. In Australia, our strategy is more focused on the actual product from the beginning. We come with unique, premium wines of very high quality. So when a wine importer or a consumer chooses Greek wine, this means that we’re on the right track.
Our events have been successful; people embraced our wine, they were asking for information and were interested in buying.”
Although this is still a work in progress, so far the Greek wine success story is a source of inspiration for the crisis stricken economy, which is still seeking ways to recover.
“If all the sectors had been working the way the wine sector has, we would have been out of the crisis,” Mr Argiris says.
“Winemakers have invested a lot of money without support from the state.
“We Greeks are good winemakers, we love our craft, we have invested, and there is a lot of scientific knowledge put into viticulture and winemaking. But there are a lot of us and this poses problems. When you want to address a global market you need to be able to meet demand, your production has to be large enough. We need to produce volumes with consistency and continuity if we want to be part of this global community and this global market. We need to produce locally and think globally – and most of all, to satisfy the customer and meet the standards that they have set.”
There is a downside to the successful expeditions of Greek wine, apparently.
“We are struggling to meet demand, as it is happening now, so we have been working on a strategy to enhance Greek viticulture,” Mr Argiris says.
“We succeeded in creating demand but we need to focus on the vineyards. Some vineyards are aged and so are some viticulturist; they are traditional growers with small farms. We need to intervene and do something to grow viticulture.”
He explains that viticulture is under protection within the EU and there is a quota on the size of vineyards. Now they are working to persuade the EU and the government to allow them to cultivate more and increase production, to plant new vineyards.
“If we succeed in this, we will renew viticulture and bring young people in the industry, because if we don’t do this, we’ll end up having excellent winemakers, great wineries, but not enough raw material to work on. We need to enshrine that what we see on the shelf comes from a Greek varietal, grown in Greek vineyards,” he says.
Again, this stumbles upon bureaucracy, and the systemic problems of Greece.
“In order to make Greek wine competitive we have a new obstacle, which is this new special consuming tax imposed by the government, which does not exist in other EU countries,” Mr Argiris says.
“The government admitted that it was an unfair tax and has promised to abolish it. We are waiting for it to happen.”