Greece is one of the oldest wine-producing regions on Earth, and grapes have been cultivated throughout the mainland and its many islands for more than 6,000 years. But its wines are relatively new to many American wine drinkers.
American wine shops and restaurant wine lists have long been packed with wines from California and Old World producers in France and Italy. It's only in the last two decades that they've expanded to include broader selections from other wine regions, including both ancient and newly developing areas. People with adventurous palates have ever more regions, varietals and wines to explore, including Greek wines, increasingly popular Portuguese exports and new wines from countries like Chile that already have a foothold in the American market.
Much has changed since American-made wines first gained international acclaim in the mid-1970s. American wine palates matured and the U.S. became the world's largest wine-consuming nation. Interest in new flavors and styles was aided by advancements in shipping and storage that have made it easier to import wines from far-flung producers.
Overshadowed by its neighboring wine-producing heavyweights, Portugal is best known for its blended wines, which match well with a variety of foods. Portuguese producers are working to increase familiarity with its indigenous grape varieties.
Portugal has great soils, plenty of sunlight, excellent climate and a well-established system to make aged, sweet-but-structured ports. The grapes used to make port also were used to make Portugal's finest red wines, which only recently have begun to rival high-quality reds from other regions.
The grape touriga nacional is different than touriga Francesa, although they likely are related and both are used in port and blended to make velvety, flavorful red wines.
Touriga nacional has claimed a distinguished place in the production of red wines. This aromatic grape provides wines that are laden with black fruit flavors, but yields are low. Vineyards are primarily located in the Douro, where ports are made, and the Dao, northwest of Lisbon. In Greece, grape growers have to cope with incredible heat spikes and arid spells.
Sometimes, winemakers minimize the grape's rougher qualities by using it to make rose — softening the tannins found on the skins but taking full advantage of the sugars in the fruit.
A recent tasting of 2012 Avidagos Rose from the Douro showed a subtle, dry, pale-hued wine with minerality that equaled roses from France's Provence. Made from traditional grapes — touriga national, tinta Roriz and tinta barroca — the wine is good alone or with food.
The primary grape used in Greek white wines is assyrtiko, which has a flavor profile often compared to German Riesling. Assyrtiko has a strong backbone of acid as it matures, and with the maritime influences of its home on Santorini, it is a good white wine to pair with fresh seafood and game.
Agiorghitiko, translated as St. George's grape, is Greece's premier red wine varietal. It has been used to produce soft, velvety red wines that are full of body and flavor, and it has some aging potential — about five years depending on the vintage and acidity, which this vine has trouble producing.
The other red grape of note is xinomavro, which translates to "sour black," and it grows best in valleys surrounded by mountains — some of the most picturesque vineyards in Greece. Most Greek red wines are blends, because vintners attempt to raise acid levels and reduce troublesome tannins.
Like neighboring Argentina, Chile has made a splash on the American wine scene. The nation has produced delicious, well-priced, approachable wines marked by fine aromatics.
Chile's main red grape, carmenere, however, has been the source of some confusion. In the early 1980s, the Chilean wine industry undertook a major push to produce and export more wine. There were already ample established vineyards, so they were ahead of the game. Wine production facilities and practices were improved, including installation of irrigation systems and full arrays of modern, stainless steel vinifying equipment. Chile was on its way to sending quality wine products to the world.
Many vines were identified as merlot, and the wines were well-received, winning awards at wine competitions. But the vines were not merlot; they were carmenere, a French blending grape from Bordeaux.
Chilean carmenere came from vines that were never attacked by phylloxera, a root louse that caused extensive damage to French vineyards. Every vine in France was replanted following a series of phylloxera attacks. Chile never suffered an infestation because of its mountain barriers and proximity to the coast.
Chile's carmenere exhibits merlot-like qualities of deep red color, spice and red and black fruit flavors, a long smooth finish and excellent acidity.
Although carmenere is capable of producing a stand-alone bottling, the varietal truly sings in blends with cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah. It joins Chile's sauvignon blancs and pinot noirs in hitting high notes and gaining international attention for quality.