The Best Greek Wines to Pour at a Picnic

© Ethan Fixell
Your Labor Day weekend needs more Agiorgitiko.

Greek wine has been around for over 4000 years, but most of us are more familiar with Cabernet than Xinomavro. There's a good reason to change that: Greek wine is tremendously versatile, and many hard-to-pronounce indigenous grapes yield wines that are perfect for summer picnic foods.

To prove the point, I got in touch with Kamal Kouiri, General Manager and Wine Director of New York's Molyvos, which boasts a list of nearly 700 bottles, all Greek. I challenged Kouiri to pair wines from his menu with five all-American summer picnic foods (courtesy of Stew Leonard's, a group of family-owned and operated food stores in New York and Connecticut that's known for strong selection and singing animatronic food items). Here, our findings:

Burgers

© Ethan Fixell

To pair with the ultimate American classic, Kouiri chose Alpha Estate's 2012 Xinomavro Hedgehog Vineyard ($19). The earthy tannins stood up to the char of the meat, while its raspberry and cranberry notes played well with the ketchup (I know, but trust me). Best of all, the acidity and tannins worked well with fat and the condiments on the burger, which I've now learned is a crucial element of pairing.

But Kouiri had one more wine up his sleeve for the burger: a 50-50 Xinomavro-Syrah 2015 Rosé from Alpha Estate ($21). With lush fruit (even more cranberry and raspberry), a light body and refreshing acidity, this Provencal-style rosé was an ideal palate cleanser between bites.

Fried Chicken

© Ethan Fixell

What's a picnic without fried chicken? (Yogi Bear would likely argue that it's simply not.) When eating crispy, salty fried chicken skin, "your palate demands a relief from all of the fat and protein," Kouiri explained as he reached for a 2015 Gaia Estate Thalassitis ($25). "For a deep fried, skin-on protein, you need some serious wine with great structure and amazing acidity," which you definitely get from Assyrtiko, a white grape indigenous to the island of Santorini.

Kouiri elaborated that Greek food, like American food, is all about fat (though in Greece, it admittedly comes from healthier foods such as olive oil, fish or hummus). And all fats (you guessed it) demand acid. The Thalassitis works with fats as well as similarly dry, white wines like Riesling work with bratwurst or sausage in Germany. So the acid, minerality and salinity of the wine would also surely work well with the meat—and mustard—of a hot dog.

For a red accompaniment for fried chicken, Kouiri suggested the 2014 Thymiopoulos "Young Vines" Xinomavro ($15), made in stainless steel.  "It almost works backwards" he said. "The chicken softens the wine, and the wine's acidity cuts the fat. So you have a good marriage between the flavors."

Macaroni Salad

© Ethan Fixell

To cut through the starch of the pasta and the fat of the mayo, Kouiri recommended a 2015 Tselepos Driopi Agiorgitiko Rosé ($12), which has plenty of refreshing acidity. "When you drink...you're ready for the next bite," he says. The pairing worked, especially because our salad was also particularly tangy and a bit spicy, which meshed with the wine's pomegranate flavors.

We also liked the mac salad with a 2014 Gaia Notios Red ($15), a blend of 85 percent Agiorgitiko and 15 percent Syrah. The red Agiorgitiko grape is from the same region as those used in the Driopi rosé, but Syrah adds aroma and spice. It was still fresh and easy-going, but has more tannin and body than the rosé. "Anything starchy, I love tannins with that," Kouiri says.

Kale and Broccoli Salad

© Ethan Fixell

With its aromatic and floral nose featuring zesty notes of lemon, lime and kumquat, the 2014 Rhous White works incredibly well with fresh vegetables. This refreshing, mouth-cleansing blend of 80 percent Muscat of Spina (a Greek clone of Muscat) and 20 percent Vidiano (a variety indigenous to the island of Crete) turned out to be an excellent pairing for S-L's mayo-based salad.

Alternatively, Kouiri offered a 2015 Samos High Peaks ($15), made from Muscat of Spina. The grapes were grown at high altitude (where they ripen late, resulting in deeper flavors) and in limestone soil (which promotes low yields and, in turn, concentrated grape juice). The wine's salinity and minerality made it slightly bitter on its own, but it balanced the sweetness of the cranberry in the dish incredibly well.

Watermelon

© Ethan Fixell

Noting its sugar content, Kouiri decided to pair watermelon with a 2014 Dafnios Vidiano ($15), made from the same Cretian grape we'd tasted earlier in the Rhous. "It's like a Vouvray!" Kouiri said, referencing a French region known for its ageable Chenin Blanc. "For me, Vidiano doesn't show in the first year," he said, and explained that he likes to cellar the wine for at least two years before selling it. Layered with complex stone fruit pit bitterness and minerality, the Vidiano counterbalanced the sweet watermelon brilliantly.

But nothing says summer like rosé. And it turned out that the Alpha Estate rosé we'd tried earlier with the hamburger was pretty good with watermelon, too. "It's very sexy rosé," said Kouri, "let's put it that way."

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