Who’s Who in Greece

Despite a decade of financial instability, the Greeks have built a thriving wine industry. Grigoris Michailos looks at the people who have helped make this happen.

Thalia Kartali and Pinelopi Katsatou
Thalia Kartali and Pinelopi Katsatou

While times have been tough, with the Greek economy still fragile and unpredictable, the Greek wine sector has been a bright exception. Even in the depths of recession, Greek producers have reinvented themselves and attracted worldwide attention for grapes as unique as Assyrtiko, Xinomavro, Moschofilero, Malagousia and Agiorgitiko. Not only does Greece boasts a number of quality indigenous varieties, but there is also a niche global market thirsty to learn more about these hidden gems. 

Despite being a small nation with an average crop of 2.5ml hl in 2016 (the lowest harvest ever) sourced from 62,700ha of vines, Greece has seen an impressive increase in premium export markets. There was a volume increase of 81.4% of exports to the US from 2009 to 2016, with figures rising to 90.7% in Canada. Down under in Australia there was a dramatic rise to 104.9% in volume, while in markets like China and Japan, where Greek wines were formerly non-existent, the numbers skyrocketed to 556.9% and 562.4% respectively over the same period, according to the Interprofessional Organisation of Vines and Wine (OIV). The average export price grew by 41.3% and 45.4% in the US and Canada, while in China they almost doubled within a seven year period. 

While exports constitute a safety valve for producers, the local market remains of prime importance. About 90% of the total production is consumed within the country, with a mere 10% exported. Even if the recession means Greeks struggle to retain such a quality drink as part of their lives, they still consume an astounding 22.9 L of wine a head each year, most of which is Greek. But what brings enthusiasm and profound optimism to the market is the prosperous tourism sector, with more than 25m people visiting Greece in 2017. This is almost two and a half times the country’s population. Mr Vertigo, a boutique wine cellar in the centre of Athens saw an increase of almost 50% in foreign customers this summer. Impressively, it’s the Greek varieties they always seek.

Ever so slowly, Greece is moving forward, leaving behind a painful decade of recession and instability. What seems to be driving the change is a burst of interest in wine education both from wine professionals and consumers, wishing to know more about what they are drinking. Athens now boasts an adventurous wine and culinary scene offering an extraordinary array of wine tastings, masterclasses, food and wine events, educational activities and wine festivals. And this is gradually spreading to other cities, which are adopting the trend and creating their own wine cultures. 

Wine education

The Wine & Spirits Professional Centre (WSPC) was founded in Greece in 2004 and provides both Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET) and Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) Europe courses. Since 2004, it has been in the forefront of wine education in Greece with a notable track record of 12,000 students having attended one of its WSET or CMS courses to date. When Stelios Boutaris, winemaker and president of Wines of Northern Greece was asked a couple of years ago about the best thing that has happened to Greek wine over the last decade, he responded: “The WSPC school and its numerous students, that created a whole new wine culture in Greece.” In 2018, the WSPC relocated to new premises of 1200m2, the best facilities among all WSET providers in Europe. Konstantinos Lazarakis MW, a leading figure of the Greek wine industry is the chairman of the WSPC.

Wine bodies

EDOAO is an Inter-professional organization bringing together the private producers and the growers (cooperatives) in Greece. Among its goals is to promote Greek wine through the brand name Wines of Greece. The organization is financed from its 120 or so members. It has implemented a strategic plan for branding and marketing Greek wine since 2010 and runs a number of EU funded campaigns in strategic markets such as the USA, Canada and Australasia. The recent success of Greek wine in premium export markets is largely due to these focused efforts. The program aims to bring together Greek wine producers with importers, opinion leaders, journalists and key players in every individual market through a series of roadshows, masterclasses, educational courses, tastings and group visits in Greek wine-producing regions. This effort also receives support from Enterprise Greece, the official Invest and Trade agency of the Greek government aiming to promote Greek products and services abroad. Enterprise Greece runs a number of promotional activities such as regional participation in major international wine exhibitions like Prowein, and Vinexpo, advertisements in important wine publications around the globe, as well as roadshows and masterclasses for Greek wines in Korea, Japan and China. Enterprise Greece also funds visits of wine-buyers and journalists in Greece for educational purposes. 

Notable sommeliers

A raft of new players have entered this very competitive area thanks to completing the WSET courses or other sommelier qualifications offered in Greece. Having said that, Greece doesn’t have a large number of high-end restaurants and some sommeliers are not found working the restaurant floor but in other sectors of the business such as wine sales, promotion or education. On the other hand there is plenty of space in the bursting Greek wine bar scene, where a bunch of young, well-trained sommeliers with less experience but great passion share a good level of knowledge with their customers. The most important Greek sommelier has been working in London since 2010. Terry Kandylis holds a WSET diploma qualification and is currently studying for his Master Sommelier title. He recently passed the theory and practical test and he needs to achieve the tasting to become the first Greek Master Sommelier, hopefully within the next year. He works as a head sommelier at the prestigious Pall Mall 67 private club where an amazing wine program with more than 500 bins served by the glass is run.

Notable wine bars

Wine bars have redefined the way Greeks drink wine and offer a relaxed environment where everyone can experience drinking wines by the glass, usually served with tapas-style bites or cheese and charcuterie plates. Such bars are a hot trend and a young generation of wine drinkers absolutely love them. Overall, wine bars offer good value for money and make wine more approachable to a wider audience. By the Glass and Vintage Wine bar & bistro in Athens are known for their eclectic ambience with refined wine lists and great food menus. Oinoscent attracts a more sophisticated crowd, offering a knowledgeable wine list and weekly tutored tastings during the winter. Heteroclito, although cozy and small, offers a great Greek wine selection and friendly attitude. Finally, Faidon Wine Store is a deli/wine cellar concept in the southern suburbs where patrons can enjoy a glass of wine and a cheese plateau in stools and barrels, the Italian way. There is also a bursting wine bar scene outside Athens making it rather difficult to keep up with the speed at which new wine bars open. 

Notable wine stores

Mr. Vertigo is a boutique wine shop in Athens and offers an extensive selection of 1,500-plus wines, along with great service and expertise. The cellar reflects the love of its owner who is? for authentic wines and showcases a fine selection of biodynamic, organic and natural wines from around the globe. They also run regular wine tastings, wine tours twice a year, and a themed wine club with a subscription for its members. 

Oak Cava is a piece-of-the-art wine cellar in the northern suburbs with a well-stocked library of wines, spirits and cigars. The concept has been recently expanded with a shop-in-shop deli where people can sit and enjoy a glass of wine or take away a favorite bottle and truffle pecorino cheese. House of Wine which is the biggest online-shop in Greece recently relocated to a walk-in cellar where customers can alternatively order wine from two huge touch screens in a contemporary, minimalistic, high-tech environment. 

Notable importers

Aiolos SA has been a constantly developing business since 1991 and Konstantinos Lazarakis MW is in charge of the imports department with an ever-increasing portfolio of high-end producers from around the world featuring names like Alvaro Palacios, Clos de Tart, Yalumba, Eben Sadie, Jean-Pierre Moueix and many others. Other notable importers are Genka SA and Deals SA which have well-established relationships with their powerhouse brands. The former also owns a retail and wholesale branch with four wine stores in Athens. What looks interesting nowadays is the development of boutique, specialized importers with focus on specific countries or styles of wine. K & E Malerdos Co imports small quantities of high-end New Zealand wines while HEBE Wines works exclusively with top Argentinian producers. Mr Vertigo and Les Negociants sur la Mediterranee specialize mostly in biodynamic and natural wines, fulfilling an increasing demand for these styles in Greece.

Notable wine publications

Grape Wine Stories is a new publication, a free press magazine of note with high aesthetics and a joyful and unpretentious approach to wine. It is distributed through a network of selected wine bars, wine cellars, hotels, delicatessens and restaurants, as well as a supplement with Kathimerini newspaper. The printed magazine’s 2,000 copies is published four times a year. Grape has recently expanded to an app version. This year signaled the arrival of the updated edition of Konstantinos Lazarakis MW book Wines of Greece, a decade after its first release. The book offers an in-depth look to Greek wine regions, varieties and producers and is a reference point for Greek wine.

Notable wine writer

After a successful career as an officer flying helicopters, Yiannis Karakasis MW followed his passion and became a Master of Wine in 2015. In 2016 he launched karakasis.mw to convey his knowledge of Greek wine, a topic which was, he says, “an unexplored sea of adventure for the international market”. The blog is bilingual, and it reaches an audience of 20,000 viewers per month. Karakasis is very energetic on multiple social platforms and he also posts videos through his YouTube channel. Karakasis has contributed to numerous international publications and has presented significant masterclasses and in-depth tastings of Greek wines to a broad audience. He is also the author of the Vineyards and Wines of Greece 2017 e-book and he recently launched his first printed book Natural wines in Greece, written in Greek. This is the first effort to list in detail how the natural wine movement is developing in Greece. 

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