Anyone who has ever had a vaguely turpentine-ish experience with Retsina would find the Greek wine scene very different these days: Luxe restaurants like New York City's Gramercy Tavern, Bar Boulud, Daniel, and Le Bernardin are featuring Greek wines on their lists, right alongside their better known French, Italian, and Californian counterparts. The New York Times recently ran a story about giving Greek reds a chance. And with more and more being sold outside of Greece (until 2009, 80% of the wine was sold within the country) the export is one of the few bright spots in the country's ailing economy. Michael Madrigale, head sommelier at Bar Boulud and Boulud Sud explains why more diners should go Greek.
Why do some people have reservations when it comes to trying Greek wine?
I'm sure the bad reputation came from Retsina which was a totally sh---y wine. It sold for $5, and became synonymous with cheap wine. That's why it was so hard to sell German Riesling for a while because people associated it with Blue Nun. The older generation kind of shudders when you mention Greek wines, like you stepped on their foot or something--they think of Retsina for sure. Then you have people who have traveled in Greece and they had a wonderful vacation and loved the wines, so they're more open. Then there's the younger generation, foodies and industry people who've heard about how interesting wines from Santorini are and want to try them. But the "ugh" group is the majority.
How do you convince them otherwise?
First, I talk about how the food at our restaurants is Mediterranean and the cuisine demands a wine with very high acidity but still rich on the palate, like a dry Assyrtiko—there's a salinity to the wine because it's grown near the Mediterranean. Then I go into how Greece is the cradle of wine production in Europe—they planted grape vines in France after they landed in Marseille. If they're still not convinced, I say "I work for a very important chef [Daniel Boulud], I wouldn't put crap on the list. You can taste it and if you don't like it I'll take it and have it with my dinner tonight at home."
What has the Greek wine industry been doing on their end?
There is a huge push now to delineate everything and organize everything. France did it in the early 20th century, Italy did it in sixties and seventies and Greece is doing it now. They started to push to have the world see their wines in the last 10 to 15 years.
What are your favorites?
I like the reds but the whites are where they really make extraordinary wines. Greece preserves acidity in their wines even though they get a ton of sunlight, and the only way that can happen is when you have vines that have been in the same place for a long time--the vines evolve and become a part of where they're grown. It's like with music: you listen to the Black Keys and they sound like Jimi Hendrix. I look at wine the same way--I want to go to the source, the classics, and Greek wines are from indigenous grapes that have been growing for thousands of years. There's a real point of view and tradition there and that's what's interesting to me.