Shattered by the financial crisis in 2008 Greece's wine industry almost descended into Hades. But relying on its ancient heritage and with the blessings of the Gods the country is rising like a Phoenix and shaping its wine landscape with entrepreneurial spirit and confidence.
Wine making in Greece has a long standing tradition. Already in ancient times the country was a famous producer of all sorts of alcoholic beverages. However, over time, the wine industry in Hellas lost ground, and the only drinks that have made a name for themselves in the outside world were Retsina and Ouzo - and sadly very often the quality of these was more than questionable.
Greece for a very long time could not compete with market leaders like France or Italy, but when the economic crisis hit in 2008, change was on the horizon.
At first Greek winemakers had to literally survive in the most difficult conditions. Sales within the country dropped drastically and the solution was to turn for help to the west. But in order to obtain support from outside they needed to change something. Producers knew if they had to look for new markets to sell their products there had to be an improvement in quality. When Greek wines gradually entered the western market, the results were immediately positive. Many producers were surprised to see that there was actually a big demand for alcoholic beverages originally from Hellas.
Looking back on these difficult years local producers today say that the financial crisis has definitely benefited the entire industry. The difficult situation has given them a new impetus to development.
As the economy went into free fall, there was explosive growth in new wineries, many on Aegean islands where winemaking had been all but abandoned. Several big producers had collapsed because of the crisis, so there was space for more small growers to join the market. These are shaking up the industry in a positive way, trying out different grape varieties and exporting on a small scale. These small producers remembered their heritage and did not rely on mass production of cheap white wine with a distinct resin taste. They rediscovered old autochtone grape varieties and created a completely new image for Greek wines.
An interesting factor is that the crisis encouraged all different kinds of people to try their hand at wine making. A typical new grower might be a former investment banker or asset manager investing what's left of their money in a vineyard, or a pair of jobless young graduates moving to the countryside to plant vines on family-owned land. This entrepreneurial spirit and the courage to try something new reshaped the country's wine landscape tremendously. And since Greece has plenty of local agronomists to provide advice to these novice growers plus a growing cohort of professional winemakers with experience of working in Italy, France or Australia, the newbies find themselves in good hands and are bound to succeed.
The crisis has also given a push to Greece’s reputation as a maker of high quality wines. Established producers who were facing financial pressure had to ramp up exports, while smaller operations had to sell abroad to survive. Prices became more competitive and consumers abroad realised just how good Greek wine has become.
What also changed massively are the grape varieties being planted and used. In the 1990s Greek winemakers believed it was important to work with international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Chardonnay to prove that a Mediterranean newcomer could compete with international producers. But as their confidence grew, winemakers began blending local with international varieties, creating distinctive flavours that appealed to local and foreign consumers.
At first there still wasn’t a lot of trust in the quality of the Greek varieties, so blending was considered to be the safe way to success. Over the past decade, however, the proportion of Greek to international varieties has been reversed. The usage of indigenous varieties has now outrun international grapes. Greek producers explore the country’s exceptionally rich heritage of indigenous wine grapes, following the worldwide trend to recover long forgotten varieties that can produce distinctive new wines.
The adoption of modern cultivation methods, moving to low yields and the establishment of terroir consciousness are also factors that paved the way to an immense change in quality of Greek wines. The improvement of business formulations and technologies, label design and shape of bottles came as a natural consequence to promote the final products successfully. They began to travel around the world in order to present their product in other countries. And with the wine industry going beyond the borders of the country it has become more open to the foreign market. The financial crisis also forced the vintners to revise the pricing policy.
After the phase of pure survival now finally the Greek wine industry is developing rapidly.
So next time you are visiting the country have a look at your favourite tavern's wine list to see what treasures and unfamiliar names it has to offer to the curious wine drinker.
Next to flagship varieties such as Agiorgitiko, Xinomaro and Mavrodaphne you will see a bunch of new names that sound equally enchanting – think Zakynthino from the Ionian Islands, Mavrostifo from Northern Peloponnese or Assyrtiko from the volcanic island of Santorini.
And yes, you can still find Retsina - but it has been revamped as well. Today it is a sophiticaed white wine, beautifully balanced in fruit and acidity and only providing a hint of resin – just enough to make you long for those endless blamy Greek summer nights.