Premium Greek wines entice Australian palates

Greek wine which is making its presence known in Australia and Press Club manager, Ange Giannakodakis is full of praise for its quality and taste.

Sitting on Melbourne’s docks, waiting to clear customs, is a precious container of wines from some of Greece’s most notable winemakers – Merkouri, Antonopoulos, Gentilini, Skouras.

“They are beautiful drinkable wines that are quite refined. I’d love to see one or two Greek wines on everyone’s wine list, not just at the Press Club” Angie Giannakodakis – Press Club manager and sommelier

Like many of the top-end Greek wines being slowly introduced into Australia, they are destined for George Calombaris’ Press Club and Hellenic Republic restaurants, but some will find their way to fine wine stores and restaurants around town.

You know Greek wine has come a long way when Greek labels sit among the international selections at top Melbourne restaurants such as Vue De Monde and Gordon Ramsay’s new venture, Maze, priced from $40 to $180.

“They are beautiful drinkable wines that are quite refined. I’d love to see one or two Greek wines on everyone’s wine list, not just at the Press Club,” says Angie Giannakodakis, Press Club manager and sommelier.

For the past three years, she has been an ambassador for Greek wine, introducing diners to unfamiliar Greek varieties such as agiorgitiko, asyrtiko, moschofilero and xinomavro.

“We still have to sell it, but I am not getting any more retsina comments,” she says.

“There have been a lot of good stories about Greek wine, so people are starting to understand it.” Even so, Hellenic Republic, which carried mostly Greek wine, had to add a few Australian wines. “If we were a French restaurant or Italian restaurant it wouldn’t be an issue,” laments Giannakodakis.

The case for Greek wine will be boosted next month when two of Greece’s leading winemakers come to spruik their wines and promote the Greek vineyard.

The whirlwind tour by Yiannis Paraskevopoulos from the Gaia estate in Nemea and Stelios Boutaris from Kir-Yianni in Naousa, includes a talk and tasting for the Antipodes Flavours of Greece festival, consumer tasting at St Kilda’s Prince Wine store, an industry seminar at William Angliss Institute, lunches with wine and food writers and dinners in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane hosted by Australian Gourmet Wine magazine.

“The seminar is for sommeliers, restaurateurs and trade people who want an in-depth understanding of the wines and the Greek grape varieties,” says organiser John Lamb from East Melbourne’s Europa Cellars, one of the first to bring top-end new generation Greek wines to Australia.

“Our objective is to make these wines mainstream in the community, not ghettoised.” Lamb began importing Greek wine in mid-2006 after tasting Gaia wines at a trade show in Sydney. “They were something above the ordinary and in the extraordinary category,” Lamb recalls.

Coincidentally the Press Club was in the throes of being established and contacted Gaia, so the connection was made. “That was good because it meant that there was a restaurant that wanted to use good wines, that didn’t want to use cheap taverna wines. “Obviously now the better Greek restaurants want to buy them, but we have had a lot of success, and increasingly so, in more mainstream restaurants with international wine lists.”

Lamb has since expanded his Greek wine portfolio and concentrates on producers using indigenous grape varieties, particularly xinomavro – main red grape of the north and agiorgitiko, the main red grape of the Peloponnese.

“There are a lot of people in Greece producing syrah and chardonnay but mostly it’s about indigenous varieties. “If you are importing wine it has got to have a point of difference and validity. We tend to work with privately owned, family-run producers rather than big industrial giants.”

“There’s a market for Greek wine, there’s no doubt. I think the quality to price ratio is good, especially when you compare them to similar quality wines from France, Italy and Spain. What we found was when you show people the wines the professionals look at them and judge them on merit.”

Lamb says quality Greek wines retail between $20-40, with more exceptional wines fetching like the Gaia estate fetching up to $70.

Until recently, Australians have been exposed to a largely poor product, so it will take time to build confidence in Greek wine. “Part of the problem was in only the lower end wines coming out, but the top end didn’t really exist until the beginning of the 90s,” explains Lamb.

“That’s when the revelation occurred and new generation started to make better wine because they had been to wine school in Bordeaux, but that’s taken quite some time to seep through.”

The other major problem was the condition of the wine, much of which was imported with other products in non-refrigerated containers, which often meant it was cooked by the time it arrived.

Quality Greek wine has become an increasing focus for Flox Wines and Spirits, which began importing ouzo in 1969 and in the 70s and 80s brought retsina to Australia. Their wine predominantly comes from the Tsantali stable, one of Greece’s largest wineries.

“We want to promote the top end wines that we know are palatable to the Australian public and wines that are a bit different,” says Flox marketing manager Lukas Papargiris.

“Originally it was quite hard to get Greek wine into restaurants because people were unaware of the wine but once they did try it, they appreciate something different.” Flox was encouraged by a successful recent trial with Tsantali’s Kanenas range. “I didn’t envisage the response would be so fantastic.”

Kanenas will join the growing Greek wine labels available in Australia later this year.

A Taste of Gaia and Kir-Yianni: Wines from Greece 4-6pm, Saturday June 5; Europa Cellars, 150 Wellington Pde, East Melbourne. ($20) as part of the Antipodes Festival Bookings: (03) 9662 2722;