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Wine is just as much a part of Greek culture as the temples of ancient Greece. Just look at all those statues of Dionysus, the god of wine and pleasure who made it his mission to spread the gift of vine cultivation, and Homer’s tales of Greek soldiers drinking locally made wine on the eve of the Siege of Troy and you’ll understand.
But visiting vineyards and going wine-tasting in Greece is about much more than myths and history. It’s one of the best ways to really explore Greece - the mountains and valleys as well as ideal grape-growing terroirs (mountainous, continental and volcanic). And best of all, you’ll meet the people who have dedicated their lives to making Greek wines to the highest European standards, with boutique, family-owned wineries that have incorporated modern viniculture techniques to their age-old traditions.
Many of Europe’s leading grape varieties flourish in vineyards around the country (from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir to Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc). So far, so expected. But here’s where exploring Greece through its wines gets really interesting as you’re introduced to the local grape varieties that give Greek wines their unique colour and flavour.
The classics are well known by international wine experts: the Agiorgitiko and Xinomavro grapes producing rich, fruity reds and the Moschofilero and Assyrtiko grapes that create aromatic and crisp, clean whites. And amongst the best-known emerging grape varieties are Mavrodaphne, Malagouzia, Moschato, Savatiano and Roditis. But there are many more, with no fewer than 34 Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) locations around Greece and more than 100 Protected Geographical Indication wines.
As wine-making has advanced in Greece, wine roads have sprung up all around the country, dotted with vineyards that offer winery tours and wine-tasting. If you find yourself in Crete or Santorini, or in the Peloponnese, Macedonia or Central Greece, you’re in for a treat. And you’ll find organised wine routes in Attica, Thrace, Epirus as well as on Aegean and Ionian Islands. In other words, everywhere in Greece.
Even if it’s just a family-owned plot of land supplying local tavernas, there are vineyards on just about every Greek island. If you want some highlights, there are a few that stand out. Santorini is famous for its Assyrtiko wines but the PDO-awarded wine here is the sweet Vinsanto dessert wine (made with sun-dried grapes). Whatever your preference, a wine-tasting experience in Santorini is a must for wine lovers.
Meanwhile, Lemnos (another volcanic island) is all about the Muscat of Alexandria grape introduced from Egypt. However, in recent years PDO Limnio (believed to be the most ancient grape variety) has made a comeback.
Samos also has an ancient wine-growing tradition but its heyday was in in the 16th century when the Venetians introduced the Muscat grapes on the slopes of Mount Ambelos, whose granite soil is one of the toughest but most rewarding for the wine-growers producing PDO Samos wines (the largest PDO for Greek sweet whites).
And Kefalonia is all about the white Robola grape on the slopes of Mt Ainos (also introduced by the Venetians) and Crete has wine routes from Heraklion (with four PDO-level appellations but be sure to leave time to visit the Palace of Knossos) and Chania (into the villages in the foothills of the White Mountains), with wine-tasting and vineyard tours in each.
How many European capital cities have vineyards you can visit? Well that’s the case with Athens, which has three mountains across its northern border. Of course, the experience starts with the wine bars in the city centre (where you’ll be able to sample labels from all around the country) but there’s also an established Attica wine road, an initiative of wine-producers that have connected the local wineries with scattered archaeological sites and natural attractions of the area. The most widely grown grape here Savatiano (used in retsina).
Another region with an established wine road, the Peloponnese is best known for the wines of Nemea, the largest PDO zone for Greek red wines and where the Agiorgitiko grape rules. Both the wineries and the undulating terrain of the land where Hercules carried out two of his famous tasks are some of the most impressive in Greece.
And that’s barely the start when it comes to wine-growing in the Peloponnese. The mountains of Arcadia hide beautiful villages, lakes and vineyards, whilst the area around Patras and Kalavryta includes the largest PDO zones for Greek white wines (PDO Patras) and sweet reds (PDO Pavrodaphe Patras).
Beyond that, visiting wineries in the Peloponnese can be combined with some of Greece’s top cultural sites – such as visiting the vineyards around Nafplio as well as Ancient Epidaurus or Messene and exploring wineries around Ancient Olympia. Likewise, Monemvasia, Mani and Pylos in the southern Peloponnese also offer some of the best culture-and-wine pairings anywhere in the country.
Finally, no tour of the wine regions of Greece is complete without focusing on the vineyards of northern Greece (home to the wine-makers of northern Greece, an innovative network of wineries in the region). Where Nemea and Agiorgitiko rule the roost in the Peloponnese, Naoussa and the Xinomavro grape are king in northern Greece, with a fascinating wine road starting from the town of Veria that includes a visit to Philip of Macedon’s tomb in Vergina. And there are established wines roads in Halkidiki (including Limno, a grape variety mentioned by Aristotle) and even a wine route around Thessaloniki.
Wherever your wine travels take you in northern Greece, you’ll be richly rewarded. The wineries around Mt Olympus and in Epirus take you through some of the most beautiful scenery in Europe, and there’s a wine route of Dionysus around Kavala (so-named because nearby Mt Pagaion was a centre of Dionysian worship in ancient times).
Meanwhile, wineries around Goumenissa can be combined with a visit to Ancient Pella (the birthplace of Alexander the Great) and the PDO Amyntaion zone in western Macedonia is famous for its two lakes (Vegoritida and Petra) and proximity to Nymfaio (a traditional Macedonian settlement next to a bear sanctuary) as well the nearby Prespes Lakes. You can’t get more remote in Greece.