Wine has been pretty interesting to many people throughout the ages and should be one of the main ingredients in a successful self catering holiday, but where do you start in a country which exports very little of this wonderful nectar so the wineries and grape varieties are little know to foreigners traveling in Greece.
I was once stopped by a gentleman in Kefalonia who asked my advice regarding choosing a nice bottle of Greek wine to accompany the food his wife had prepared, he said that I looked like I knew what I was buying, though I am not quite sure what he meant by that! Normally, he would have known which variety and year were the ones to go for but in this little winery just outside Fiskardo, the man was lost. It is not so surprising since there are over 300 indigenous grape varieties in Greece although only 24 of them are of any great significance, producing wines for an international market. The remaining varieties end up being served in the little metal jugs that we find in the majority of tavernas throughout Greece that we foreigners collectively refer to as Retsina. This is a mistake of ours since Retsina is a wine that has been treated with pine tree resin which gives it a sappy and turpentine like flavour but the truth is that it all tastes pretty much the same.
The main point of this editorial is to focus more on the international quality wines than the ones that are served in metal jugs and Greece has its fair share of really excellent wine. Moscofilero, Assyrtiko, Vilana, Xynisteri, Robola and Rhoditis grape varieties produce the majority of the good white wines of Greece while Xinomavro, Agiorgitiko, Mandelaria, Limnio, Mavro and Ophthalmo are the names of the red grape varieties. Wine makers often blend these juices with more familiar grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Grenache, Merlot, Syrah and Chardonnay which are also all grown in Greece. So where does the average holiday maker start? There are several labels that are well worth looking out for. Here are some of them below.
The Peloponnese grows about a quarter of the grapes used in the production of Greek wine and is predominantly red wine country. Nemea uses the Agioritiko grape to produce a spicy, well structured red while the highly prized Mavro Daphne of Patras offers a dark, oily fortified wine. The Mantinea region produces a fruity white wine using the Moscofilero grape, which is a particular favourite of mine. The best wine makers can be found in Macedonia, the most famous being the Boutari winemakers who sells its wine both nationally and abroad under the label John Boutari & Sons. Yannis Boutari himself makes high quality red wine in deliberately small quantities and markets them under the label Kir Yianni. Constantin Lazaridi created a very modern estate in 1992 which aims to produce wine of international class. Laziridi winery is located in the Drama region. Markovitis estate focuses on organic methods and the Gerovassiliou winery develop French wine culture and aims to produce the same very high quality wine.
Many of the islands offer really good wines, the most famous being Kefalonia, Santorini, Paros, Samos and Crete. It is believed that the first Mediterranean vineyards were found on Crete and the practice of wine making was taken by the Minoans to the islands of Santorini and Paros. Due to the strong winds that blow up in the Aegean, the grapes are not grown high on trelaces but low, on the ground, in basket like shapes. The volcanic rocks of Santorini collect moisture from the sea at night and release it gradually throughout the day to the vines. This unique micro climate is responsible for the production of the best white wines of the Assyrtiko grape variety. One of the grapes most frequently grown in the Attika region is the white wine grape Savatiano and it is from this grape that some of the best white wines in Greece are produced. The grape produces distinctly robust and full of character wines that are relatively low in alcoholic content. Hatzimichalis, Fragou, Vassiliou, Strofilia, Semeli and Megapanos are the names of the more renowned estates in the Attika region.
Lying South of Athens and very easy to get to, artistic, bohemian in style, a ‘hang out’ for the stylish, sophisticated and sometimes famous, Hydra is definitely a place well worth considering as a summer destination.
With the prices of air-flights to the Ionian soaring, it’s worth taking advantage of the cheap offers made by budget and schedule airlines that arrive into Athens International. The new Proastiakos railway as well as the Metro terminate in the airport building so it is very easy to reach the port of Piraeus to catch an interconnecting hydrofoil that will whisk you within 1½ hours to Hydra. All forms of transport are prohibited on Hydra so no need for car hire. The island has benefited hugely from this ruling – no smelly engines or noisy mopeds to interfere with the simplicity of life and the peacefulness of the majestic surroundings.
One must be prepared to walk in Hydra since all properties are located across three hillsides and most of them are at least a 10-15 minute climb. Once up, sitting on your veranda, the views are just superb and the tendency is to remain there sipping your preferred beverage and enjoying clean air and blissful silence.
The coastline of Hydra is mainly rocky and the sea is a cool temperature and crystal clear. The municipality has installed swimming ladders so it is easy to gain access to the refreshing waters. However, the local kids prefer to access the sea by their own means. With deep plunge pools to cushion the impact, the children leap from the rocks into the sea with huge grins on their faces, only to repeat the hilarious procedure again and again and again...
The villages of Kamini and Vlychos lie to the west of Hydra town and can be easily accessed by water taxis or by local caique boats found on the quayside in front of the clock tower. All have pebbly beaches so ‘jelly’ shoes are recommended for those with tender feet! Good local food is served in the tavernas which are dotted along the coastline.
Further west is Bisti Bay, a favourite for snorkelling and exploring. A wonderful thing to do is to search for the black spiky sea urchins, break them open and guzzle them in oyster fashion with some lemon juice, olive oil, crusty bread and of course some chilled white wine.
There are other secrets to be found on the nearby island of Dhokos which, like all the other suggested places, are best accessed under the experience of one of the local caique boat captains. They aren’t too expensive and it is ‘a must’ for at least one day of a holiday. The seadogs know the secrets and can steer you in the right direction!
Autumn and springtime are fabulous seasons to visit Greece especially if your interests extend beyond the beach. Hydra is a choice destination for an alternative holiday and the network of walking paths that line the inland offer a walker’s paradise.
Most of the paths are dirt tracks mainly used by the donkeys. GPS compatible OS maps are available in many of the shops that line the harbour so with a hand held device it is very hard to get lost. The island is long and narrow so it is easy to explore the heartland which is dotted with monasteries and a profusion of flowers especially in the spring.
A favourite hike is along the west coast of Hydra to a Byzantine village called Episkopi. The walk along the coast road is reasonably flat, until you arrive at the little harbour of Palamidas, then the route goes inward and upwards through a lush forest of pine trees. Following the track you arrive at a little group of houses, surrounded by olive groves.
The local people respond warmly to a friendly smile and a greeting of "Yasou". Generous invitations are often made, to sit for a while and enjoy whatever has been prepared that day. Remember that the local wine has quite a kick and the only way back is by foot!