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.
Whether we are out at a taverna or dining at home, there is one constant on the table. The production of cheese in Greece dates back over 6,000 years. The ancient poet Homer describes the production of cheese, like feta and kasseri, in his epic works. Greece is still an important producer and exporter of a wide variety of cheese today, with the majority of the production coming out of Northern Greece. Most Greek cheese is made from sheep’s or goat’s milk since such a mountainous country cannot support vast herds of cattle.
Many countryside housekeepers still make their own cheese using traditional methods. Straining the heated milk through a cheesecloth, allowing to stand and then slicing to release more whey. The word feta means slice in Greek and it is from this part of the process that the cheese gets its generic name.
It was produced to be able to withstand time without being refrigerated. The salt and liquid in which it is stored help it maintain freshness even in warmer conditions. You can buy feta packaged or you can get it from the delicatessens or supermarket deli straight out of the barrel and most regions produce their own local version each one varying in taste from the other. Feta is excellent in salads, baked or served on its own as an appetizer. It is a standard side dish with any Greek meal.
Types of Greek cheese
Kasseri cheese is also commonly used. Made from sheep’s milk it is a mild, semi hard, pale yellow cheese that has a tendency to be slightly oily. It is a little salty and slightly pungent, but has a sweet finish. In Greece, Kasseri seems to have taken the role of mozzarella. It is easy to slice and use for sandwiches, as well as chopping in small cubes for hors d'oeuvres, added to pizzas, omelets or baked in filo dough to make cheese pies. Thessaly, Macedonia and Mytilini are renowned for their Kasseri production.
Mizithria cheese is produced from either sheep’s or goat’s milk. It is available in two forms. You can buy a fresh, sweeter Mizithra that is very soft, resembling a ricotta cheese. Sifnos Island produces Mizithria locally and it often replaces feta in their horiatiki salata (Greek Salad). Aged Mizithra is firm and quite salty. As a hard cheese that doesn’t melt very quickly, it can be easily grated and added nicely to pastas and as a top off to other cheesy dishes.
Graviera cheese is a personal favorite! It is a light yellow, hard texture, wheel cheese with an external rind that is very versatile. Naxos and Crete are most widely associated with this particular type of cheese. Crete uses sheep’s milk to make their famous Graviera, while the Naxos version is made from mostly cow’s milk. It is excellent served as an appetizer and adds a zing to anything. It can be fried up saganaki style, served in salads, grated and used in combination with most other cheeses for things like stuffed peppers or on pasta. It can even be sliced and added to a sandwich to give it a richer flavor. The flavor is fruity and nutty with the Cretan varieties having a heavier caramelized taste.
Kapnisto Metsovone is one of Greece’s only smoked cheese varieties. It makes its way to our dinner tables from the village of Metsovo, in Northern Greece, 1200 meters high up in the mountains. It is a mild, smoked, yellow, semi hard, wheel cheese that is known for its high quality. It is delectable by itself, but also goes perfect in a sandwich or served as an hors d'oeuvres with smoked salmon or crackers.
Kefalotiri is made with a combination of sheep’s and goat’s milk and sea salt. It has a tangy, sharp taste and is dry and salty. In some seasons, the cheese is almost white, but also appears again in a golden yellow. The texture is very hard, therefore, is primarily used for frying or grated and added to stews and sauces. Kefalotiri is made in several regions of Greece, including the Ionian and Cycladic Islands.
Kefalograviera is made from sheep’s milk and is used similarly to Kefalotiri. The flavor is between Graviera and Kefalotiri. Often fried for ‘saganaki,’ grated or used as a table cheese, it pops up often in a Greek meal. Western Macedonia and Epirus are large producers of this type of cheese.
Other cheese worth mentioning are Anthotiri and Manouri which are similar to the soft Mizithra. They are often used in pastries or served with honey as a dessert.
Part of the fun of traveling in Greece is sampling all of the great food. Wherever you travel in Greece, ask what cheese they produce locally. In the villages, some even make their own at home! Greeks are always proud of their local production and more than willing to let you have a sample to taste. You will find that there is something different to try just about everywhere you go. Just when you have declared your favorite, you will stumble across something new!