At the stomach doctor in Thessaloníki's covered market, a waitress deposits spicy, thin hamburgers and skewers of pork sprinkled with oregano directly onto the paper-covered table in front of us. Charcoal-grilled sardines, sausages and bowls of vinegary shredded cabbage tossed with scallions, carrots and parsley are delivered to us along with dented cups filled to the brim with cold retsina, the traditional Greek wine fermented with pine resin. We squeeze fat lemon wedges over the sizzling meat and fish and start eating, pausing only to grab at one of those spring-fed steel napkin dispensers because everything is soon dripping with juice—mouths, chins, hands.
It could be the 1950s, after the Greek civil war, when wine was cheap and sold in bulk by a few big companies and co-ops. Or the late '60s. The customers standing at the bar drinking grappa-like tsipouro could be talking about the military junta that ran the country until 1974.
I'm having tsipouro, too, flavored with anise. Everyone else at the table, including a Master of Wine, an enologist and a wine importer, is reveling in the thin retsina. Its very awfulness seems to excite them. We all crave something that doesn't require note taking. We need a break from obscure indigenous grapes with hard-to-pronounce names. We're tired of asking about what's in the blend. (Retsina is primarily Savatiano—sa-va-tya-NO.)
We've been tasting scores of singular, distinguished wines since we landed almost a week ago in Thessaloníki, Greece's second-largest city, on the Gulf of Thermaikós, and the historic capital of Macedonia. We've been crisscrossing this northern Greek region bordering Bulgaria, Albania and the Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia, stopping to taste world-class bottlings at wineries and restaurants favored by local winemakers. Dozens of these wines are made with indigenous grapes; many are amazing values. And Macedonia is just one of Greece's premier wine regions. Producers are also making terrific wines in Peloponnese from Agiorgitiko (ah-yor-YEE-ti-ko) and Moschofilero (mos-ko-FEE-le-ro), and in the Cyclades islands from Assyrtiko (a-SEER-tee-ko). Sometimes these grapes are blended with other indigenous varieties, sometimes with European grapes like Sauvignon Blanc or Merlot.
We'd started our wine-tasting tour at Vráchos, a fish restaurant in Thessaloníki. Winemaker Evangelos Gerovassiliou had sent his associate enologist, Thrassivoulos Giantsidis, as his ambassador. When the first wine came to the table, I muttered to the retsina-loving Master of Wine that we didn't need to go to Greece to drink Chardonnay. Then we spread some taramasalata on a pita toast and tried it with the wine. We both got very quiet. This Chardonnay, with plenty of crisp acidity and the aroma of ripe peaches, was delicious with the salty pink dip. So was the wine from another white grape, one I'd never heard of, Malagousia (mah-la-gou-ZYA). I smelled jasmine. It was fresh but softer than the Chardonnay. I wanted to know more about it.
A few days later we toured Domaine Gerovassiliou, a half-hour drive southwest of Thessaloníki and just outside the town of Epanomi. As we walked around the property, I couldn't help thinking of France. All the plants were pruned with elegant precision—the grapevines, of course, but also the shrubs on the terrace overlooking the sandy vineyards, the Gulf of Thermaikós visible in the distance. Here, as in Bordeaux, red rosebushes were planted at the ends of some of the vine rows. French-speaking Evangelos Gerovassiliou—tall, with thick and graying hair, wearing a blue button-down oxford shirt—could have been a Bordelais winemaker.
As he showed us his winery's basement-cum-museum, filled with 1,300 corkscrews and cases and cases of old winemaking artifacts, including amphorae dating back to the first century b.c., Gerovassiliou told us about his background. One of the first Greeks to study at the University of Bordeaux in the 1970s, he became a protégé of the legendary consultant Emile Peynaud. At Domaine Porto Carras, perched on the Sithonía peninsula in southern Macedonia, he began experimenting in the late '70s with international varieties—Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc—as well as Assyrtiko, Santorini's exquisite, Muscadetlike grape. Then at home in Epanomi, starting in 1983, he worked to bring back the native white grape Malagousia from virtual extinction. Gerovassiliou is still making new wines with ancient Greek grapes. "I've got three varieties in trials," he told me. "We'll see what they taste like in five or 10 years."
At a special lunch in one of the winery's tasting rooms (these are open to the public, though reservations are essential on weekends), we ate one of Gerovassiliou's favorite dishes: pork shoulder and leeks braised until meltingly soft, served with rich cooking juices that had been thickened with egg yolks and sharpened with lemon. With the stew, we drank his Malagousia and Chardonnay again, alongside the Gerovassiliou White, a blend of Malagousia and crisp Assyrtiko, and I thought, These whites are amazing. Flashy, superoaky wines turn me off, and these were subtle and fruity, balanced by acidity.
I realized I was witnessing a fantastic white-wine phenomenon when I drank the Ktima Pavlidis White (ktima means "estate") produced by 38-year-old Christoforos Pavlidis, one of Greece's young winemakers on the rise. Pavlidis met us in Thessaloníki at 7 Seas, a two-year-old fish restaurant on the promenade facing the Gulf of Thermaikós, to introduce us to his wines. At any time of the day or night Thessaloníkians stream past—mostly young, mostly decked out—occasionally stopping at one of the nearby cafés for frappé, the frothy, cold, sweet, caffeine-charged Nescafé drink. Seashell lights hang above the French doors at this modern spot, and popular Greek music plays a little too loudly. The room is decorated with sailing paraphernalia: a buoy, a model ship. Above the banquette, metal fish seem to be swimming out of the wall.
Pavlidis is small, dark and intense. After earning an MBA from Oxford, he worked in his family's marble business in Drama, 93 miles northeast of Thessaloníki, before launching his own winery nearby in 1998. Pavlidis hired the brilliant Angelos Iatridis to consult on everything from harvesting to bottling.
Pavlidis's intensity clearly extends to eating, because he seemed to order everything on the menu. Dill-flecked, smoked fish pâté. Butter-grilled bay scallops. The most delicious boiled vegetables I've ever tasted. How could cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower served with olive oil and lemon halves be this good? There was a Greek salad with dry rusk toasts, ridiculously tender octopus in tomato sauce, and a platter of linguine topped with spicy shrimp, shells and heads intact. My favorite, though, was the blackened eggplant that had been scooped out of its skin and sprinkled with feta, olive oil and parsley. It had a great smoky flavor. And I loved the tender fritters made with hunks of silky salt cod, served with a garlicky potato puree for dipping.
I couldn't imagine any better wine with this food than the Ktima Pavlidis White. Sauvignon Blanc gives this blend its melony, grapefuit-like aromas; Assyrtiko contributes a briskness and mineral flavor. The wine's refreshing acidity was perfect for the salads and seafood. But here, as with Gerovassiliou's wines, the freshness was surprising. In warm Mediterranean climates, grapes can get very ripe, producing wines that tend to be low in acid and high in alcohol. But Pavlidis's vineyards are up in the foothills of Mount Falakro, he explained, close to Macedonia's winter ski resorts, where the weather never gets unbearably hot.
Trying white wines made from native Greek grapes was thrilling, like discovering Austrian Grüner Veltliner a few years ago. The Greek reds seemed less compelling. Then I had my first taste of Xinomavro (ksee-NO-ma-vro), Macedonia's traditional, most-planted red grape.
Driving past olive trees and rows of fruit trees pruned like goblets, we had found our way to Náoussa, a town in central Macedonia about an hour northwest of Thessaloníki. We were meeting Stellios Boutaris, of the prominent Boutaris wine family, at the restaurant Náoussaiiko. It was a rustic place, with wooden bistro chairs and white tablecloths laid over plaid undercloths. Large windows opened onto a small square, and sheep bells, kerosene lanterns and boat-shaped weaving shuttles decorated the stucco walls.
Stellios uncorked more than a dozen Xinomavro wines from estates around Náoussa, including several from Kir-Yianni, the winery his father, Yiannis, had founded near Náoussa in 1997. They were a light ruby color with spicy notes, great acidity and lots of tannin. I thought these needed food because of all the tannin, like an Italian Nebbiolo. I wasn't sure yet if I liked them.
As we tasted, Stellios told us the story behind Kir-Yianni. Yiannis and his brother, Konstantinos, owned and ran Boutari, the large wine company started by their grandfather in 1879. Yiannis rocked family tradition in the late 1960s by planting a vineyard, buying land in the Náoussa appellation, at 1,150 feet, to grow vines. "You have to understand that we were wine sellers," Stellios said. "We were not farmers." At one of their estates, Yianakohori, Yiannis lowered crop yields, built a new winery and introduced modern winemaking techniques and single-vineyard wines. In 1996 he left Boutari to devote himself full-time to winemaking.
I was very hungry when the first courses arrived—fried cheese sprinkled with lemon juice, sausage-stuffed phyllo, onion fritters and eggs baked with stewed tomatoes. I drank a rosé—the deep pink, medium-bodied Kir-Yianni Akakies made from the Xinomavro grape, which tasted of strawberries. Its juiciness and delightful acidity were wonderful with the rich, fried foods. The main courses were heartier: a pork stew and local lamb braised in an earthenware pot with onions, tomatoes and sweet pale green peppers. The Ramnista, Kir-Yianni's barrel-aged, 100 percent Xinomavro wine, peppery and tasting of plums and raspberries, was a great pairing with the braised meat.
Now that I had discovered Xinomavro, I wanted to taste more of it. From Náoussa, we drove northwest into the remote region of Amyndeon about six miles from the Albanian border to meet Angelos Iatridis. Thirty-nine-year-old Iatridis had consulted on the first vintages at Kir-Yianni, as he did later at Ktima Pavlidis. Then in 1997, when he was just 29, the French-trained (Bordeaux and Suze-la-Rousse) Iatridis started buying land to create his own vineyards and wine under the Alpha Estate label, on a plateau surrounded by mountains in the coldest wine-making region in Greece.
As Iatridis gave us a tour of his sandy vineyards planted with 11 different grapes—including Xinomavro, Mavrodaphe (mav-ro-THAF-nee), Merlot, Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc—he shared his ideas about winemaking. He thinks everything can be measured, every aspect quantified. Most of the winemaking at Alpha Estate is monitored by computer: the temperature in the fermentation tanks, even the moisture in the soil.
How does this philosophy affect his wines? His Xinomavro shows the grape's characteristic pale-red color and is spicy with big tannins. But Iatridis brings a new level of power and new-world personality to the wine. It ages for nine months in oak, not so long that the wine is overwhelmed. It's dense, extracted, fruity and lightly oaky.
Since we need to have something to eat while we drink, Iatridis produced a couple of savory deep-dish pies, a feta one that was as light as an Italian ricotta cheesecake and a spinach-filled one. Iatridis, it turns out, comes from a family that has produced pastry chefs for four generations. How did he end up a winemaker? "I didn't like how many hours my father worked in the shop," he told me. "I wanted to be outside in the countryside, not stuck baking in the basement."
Even if they're not in the kitchen, I'm glad Greek winemakers are so focused on food. Maybe that's why, as they started improving their wines, they made sure these bottles would be at home on the dinner table. If the wines keep improving at this rapid clip, I imagine, one day soon it might even be difficult to find a thrillingly bad retsina.