Vassilis Kourtakis, who died on 5 September this year, was a leading figure in the world of Greek wine. An internationalist and a visionary, he helped make Greek wine competitive, modern and popular. He ran the world famous Retsina Kourtakis and paved the way for the export of bottled Greek wine around the world. He was a founding member of the Hellenic Wine Association over which he presided for twelve years; and instrumental in the creation of Comité Européen des Entreprises Vins – CEEV, based in Brussels. Vassilis’ grandfather, also Vassilis, was the first oenologist in Greece, nicknamed ‘the doctor of wines’.
Vassilis Kourtakis, the CEO of Greek Wine Cellars, was already standing on the shoulders of giants. The family business was established by Vassilis Kourtakis senior (1865-1946), in Markopoulos, in the Mesogaia plain, Attica, and continued by Dimitri ‘Mimis’ Kourtakis (1908-2005), the father of Vassilis, who established a second winery in Ritsona, in the Euboea (Evia) Prefecture. The Ritsona winery was an incredibly modern facility constructed with stainless steel tanks and was referred to as Mimis’ ‘steel cathedral’. This was a brilliant achievement of the post-Colonel Greece era and is still regarded as one of the finest in the industry. Since then, the family have established to more wineries in the Peloponnesus (including the famous Nemea and Mantinia) and Crete. With the advantages brought by Greece entering the European Union in 1981, the Kourtakis business had another spur for exporting their excellent wine.
With degrees from Oxford and Dijon, Vassilis Kourtakis junior came back to Greece to follow in his ancestors’ footsteps. Having gained 10 years of experience in Burgundy after his graduation, he brought great knowledge and energy to the family business. His name became synonymous with Retsina, the beautiful white wine made with pine resin that embodies the Greek spirit.
During the 1960s and 1970s Greek retsina enjoyed immense popularity. Retsina Kourtakis was the first bottled retsina, creating fresh opportunities for business expansion. Up until then all retsina was served on tap in local tavernas and restaurants. From a winemaker’s point of view this would have meant that they could only sell in bulk to a limited catchment area, mainly Attica and nearby islands.
This growth in popularity coincided with a period when foreign tourists started discovering the treasures of Greece in greater numbers. Resinated wines have been made since ancient times using the resin of the Aleppo pine tree to seal wine vessels. Today, retsina wine is made using traditional Greek grapes such as Savatiano (the foremost white grape in the Attica region), Assyrtiko (similar in character to Riesling), the elegant Rhoditis the lemony Athiri from Rhodes and others with the addition of resins to the must. Retsina made in Greece or Cyprus enjoys protected designation of origin status awarded by the European Union. Resinated wines are a favourite with mezes as they complement perfectly the strong flavours of Greek cooking. Among all resinated wines Retsina Kourtakis is the most famous and some would say the best. At its peak, Retsina Kourtakis was selling 60 million bottles per year.
Mr Kourtakis, however, went beyond retsina. His sharp business acumen meant he saw an opportunity for promoting Greek wine beyond the beloved, traditional wine that launched the success of the family firm. He changed the name of the company to Greek Wine Cellars D. Kourtakis SA and dedicated himself to producing Greek wines of exceptional quality, which led his brand becoming the best-selling Greek wine in the USA. Among the additional brands, Mr Kourtakis established is the line of table wines Apelia, created as an everyday wine for the home market, and the discerning Kouros, which was featured on Lufthansa flights. They also produce Mavrodaphne of Patras, a sweet wine made with dried black raisins. Based on an indigenous grape of the Achaia region, this wine harks back to the 1850s and uses the solera method of blending (also used for sherry, Madeira, port, sherry vinegar and several spirits).
Mavrodaphne is a rich, nostalgic after dinner treat and the Greek answer to port. A collaboration with Calliga of Kefalonia led to the establishment of another successful brand within Greek Wine Cellars. Another acquisition offers the excellent ouzo and tsipouro of Babatzim from Chrysoupoli, Kavala (founded by Anestis Babatzimopoulos in 1875 in Constantinople) adding a line of spirits to an already impressive offering. These additions are well received both at home and further afield. Sales are now 50-50 between home and abroad and Greek Wine Cellars has been exporting wine to 32 countries.
The emphasis of Greek Wine Cellars on indigenous Greek grape varieties, the pursuit of single variety wines, the addition of organic wines to their range, the consistency of production and the constant pursuit of excellence make Greek Wine Cellars a model for other small wine producing countries to follow.