A word of warning before diving into the wines of the Eastern Mediterranean: some of the names can be a little hard to pronounce. I can just about manage Agiorgitiko, a red grape from Greece which means St George, then there’s the umlaut-riddled Öküzgözü from Turkey and finally Crljenak Katelanski, a grape from Croatia that I will only ever learn to pronounce in its Californian translation – Zinfandel. You’d be forgiven for sticking to Malbec. But you’d be missing out because countries such as Croatia, Greece, Bulgaria, Turkey and Cyprus are producing some brilliant wines. This part of the world was once famous for its sweet wines in ancient times. In the Middle Ages, wines from the Greek islands were highly prized by Venetian merchants. Following Ottoman rule, war and – for some – Communism, quality winemaking died out; however, many native grapes did not.
Greece was the first Eastern Mediterranean country to revive its vineyards in the ’90s. No man has done more to bring Greek wine to the attention of the British drinker than importer Steve Daniel. He explains the appeal: “Greece has very old soils and heritage grape varieties which they have blended with modern winemaking techniques.” Take the island of Santorini, for example, with a climate that enjoys fierce heat, little rainfall and winds so strong that the vines are trained into bird’s nest-like structures that are sunk into the ground to provide moisture and protect the grapes.
Modern temperature-controlling techniques mean that the island’s native grape, Assyrtiko, can now be made into a bracingly fresh wine. “It’s a sommelier’s best friend,” says Daniel. Meanwhile, over in Turkey, he would recommend pairing Öküzgözü with Turkish grilled meats that are currently all the rage. Much of this interest is driven by a more discerning breed of tourist. Visitors to Croatia don’t just want to sun themselves anymore, they want to sample the local food and wine. The local winemakers, too, are travelling more. Award-winning wine writer Miquel Hudin says, “Many gems have emerged in recent years as the locals re-learn their native grapes and a horde of very experienced winemakers return home after working abroad.”
Hudin epitomises this new generation – he is a Croatian-American, who now works in Spain. Another transplant is Californian winemaker Daniel O’Donnell, who makes wine in Turkey because “the native varietals are stunning”. As well as rediscovering old varieties, others are reviving old styles. Gaia Estate on Santorini make Vinsanto – the original sacred wine – made from dried grapes that would be familiar to Roman emperors and Venetian merchants. It’s very sweet, yet extremely fresh and floral; you can almost taste the sea air. Ancient and modern – that’s the Eastern Mediterranean in a glass.
ON THE GRAPEVINE
Four of the best wines from the Eastern Mediterranean
GAIA THALASSITIS ASSYRTIKO 2016
Intense, lemony and saline for the full Santorini experience.
KYPEROUNDA PETRITIS 2016
Cypriot white wine made from the rare Xynisteri variety with amazing freshness.
KOZLOVI TERAN 2015
Muscular but perfumed red from Istria, the bit of Croatia nearest Italy.
KAYRA KALECIK KARASı 2014
Turkish red that tastes like a particularly juicy Pinot Noir.