The new Greek generation

As Greece begins to emerge from its long financial crisis, Gregory Michailos looks at how the country’s wine industry has survived.

George Skouras, president, Greek Wine Federation
George Skouras, president, Greek Wine Federation

Travelling north to south through Greece during the harvest period shows how challenging it is to make quality wine in Greece today. During the past 10 years or so, the wine industry has been pounded by economic insecurity, cruel taxes, capital controls and limited profit margins, as well as the fall of the average standard of living. Greek consumers have turned their back on quality wine because they simply could not afford it, and who could blame them? 

Moreover, in 2018 Greek wine producers have had to cope with adverse weather conditions in almost every single wine-growing region. The vineyards were hit by rains, hailstorms, droughts and intense heat throughout the growing season. After four consecutive years of extreme weather in Santorini, renowned winemaker Paris Sigalas expressed fears that without rain during the coming winter, the stressed vines would not be able to bear another crop. “The vines are in bad shape, weak and damaged because they have suffered continuous stress,” he said. According to Apostolos Mountrichas, owner of Santorini’s Avantis Estate, “compared to 2017, the harvest has dropped by 25% in the majestic volcanic island”. 

Smaller production, combined with high demand from the export markets, has resulted in “astronomic” grape prices, which peaked at €5.50 ($6.32) per kilo this year. That has put a lot of pressure on winemakers and had them competing for grapes. Higher prices for Santorini wine will be unavoidable for a second consecutive year, an issue that is a real problem for producers. 

Soldiering on

Greeks, however, have once more proved to be true fighters, effectively handling the consequences of the unpredictable weather. The harvest was still under way at the time of writing and, despite decreased quantities in many wine regions, there is much anticipation and optimism regarding the quality of the wines to come. Ongoing fermentations, beautifully scented cellars bursting with varietal aromas and experimentation both in the vineyard and the winery reveal winemakers’ willingness to express the uniqueness and diversity of Greek terroir, even under difficult circumstances. 

The Greeks’ fighting nature may also explain what could be called “the Greek paradox”:  that despite the sharp economic downturn, the industry has witnessed a boom in growth during the past 10 years. George Skouras, winemaker and president of the Greek Wine Federation, points out that “since 2008 and the beginning of the economic depression, the number of wineries has exploded from 500 to 1,100 registered today, and we are still counting. This increase indicates that the Greek wine industry is currently blooming.”

Even under financial pressure some well-established businesses are not just surviving but thriving and further expanding their activities. For example, Biblia Chora Estate recently landed on the island of Thirassia – the small islet opposite to Santorini – joining forces with oenologist Ioanna Vamvakouri in a new project under the name Ktima Mikra Thira (Estate Small Thira). A new winery is on the way and the experimental 2018 vintage already looks excellent, according to the owner, Vangelis Gerovassiliou. 

Thirassia is part of the Santorini complex and also part of the Santorini PDO system, possessing a small 32ha vineyard at the moment. This is the fourth winery under the ownership of Gerovassiliou as a shareholder, along with Ktima Biblia Chora, Ktima Gerovassiliou and Estate Kokkalis. Another very successful Greek producer, Apostolos Thymiopoulos, has recently expanded his business. He has added to his Naoussa estate a vineyard and winery in Rapsani, a beautiful terroir on the slopes of Mount Olympus. It possesses a large number of old vines able to produce world-class wines from the indigenous grape varieties Xinomavro, Stavroto and Krassato.

Tough times ahead

These expansions don’t mean that everything is rosy for Greek wine. As the Greek Wine Federation’s president Skouras says, “Greek wine is in constant flow and anything can happen. Next to the emergence of exciting wineries or the expansion of already existing ones, there are lots of other businesses that struggle to survive in the fierce competition and the unstable economic environment.” Unfortunately it’s not just small players facing financial problems; some big ones are too.

But despite the instability, a raft of new players has entered the industry – 600 or so. Most of these are small businesses that have decided to start making wine despite the difficult economic circumstances. This kind of entrepreneurialism is not at all unfamiliar in Greek history. In this case, the impulse comes from families who own vineyards and have passed them down to their children. Despite being born in the city, this younger generation has been unwilling to sell its heritage and has instead abandoned an urban lifestyle to take over the plots of land. It was the deep recession that prompted them to move to the countryside in search of their roots, and to take control of their own fate. 

One example is 31-year-old Panos Papagiannakopoulos, who completed a Master of Oenology and Viticulture, and then established a boutique winery in Nemea, an ancient part of the northeastern Peloponnese, in 2013. He has rented a small warehouse and turned it into a winemaking facility using grapes from his family’s vineyards. Now, he is a first generation winemaker exclusively using the indigenous varieties of the Peloponnese, including Agiorgitiko, Kydonitsa, Moschofilero and others.

Will all these new producers survive the test of time? “Maybe yes or maybe not,” is Skouras’s answer. Success definitely takes great skills, knowhow, commitment, consistency and financial resources. But their mere presence in the market could generate good publicity for Greece. When Mark Andrew MW of Noble Rot magazine was asked by wine writer Yiannis Karakasis MW what Greece needed in order to have a stronger presence in international markets, he replied: “There is a shortage of small artisanal boutique wineries focusing on indigenous varieties compared to France, Italy and Spain.” These new enterprises could fill this gap and provide a much needed breath of fresh air in the Greek wine industry.

A new generation

During the 1980s, a new generation of well-educated winemakers led a renaissance of the Greek industry. But the next generation of emerging winemakers has an even greater depth of knowledge and has gained much experience while studying and working overseas before settling back in Greece. Dimitris Skouras, the second generation of Domaine Skouras in Moscofilero in the Peloponnese, studied in Montpellier, France, where he received his Postgraduate Diploma in Chemistry and Oenology. Aged 24, he began working with a grower-producer in the Champagne region before gaining experience at estates in the Rhone Valley and Bordeaux. After he returned to Greece, he worked with a number of wineries before joining his family estate. 

Other contemporary examples include second-generation winemakers Argyris Gerovassiliou, Theodora Rouvalis, Evangelia Palivou, Gerasimos and George Lazaridis, Nikos Karavitakis, Athena Lafazanis and others. After studying in top universities around the globe, they have either taken control of their family estates or are now working hand-in-hand with the previous generation, bringing fresh ideas and cosmopolitan views. 

Greece also benefits from its many unique autochthonous varieties. It needs to communicate the value of these to the global markets to add extra value to the Greek wine offering and to showcase Greece’s diverse terroirs.

As Skouras states: “You need more than 100 years to make a truly great wine. Our generation made the first step and established a brand name for Greek wine even if we didn’t succeed to add extra value. Now it’s time for Greek wine with the aid of the new generation to gain this value and recognition in the international markets.” 

A good example of how this is already happening is with Assyrtiko from Santorini, which has already achieved a certain degree of international renown. Other varieties such as Xinomavro, or Agiorgitiko from Naoussa and Nemea also show potential. It’s time for the new generation to add this extra value to Greek wines with their commitment, innovation and hard work both in the vineyard and the winery.

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