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Neither blue nor red

Ever since Homer wrote the words "wine-dark sea" (many dozens of times, actually) in both the Iliad and the Odyssey, travelers to Greece have scratched their heads or, better, rubbed their eyes. Both the Aegean and Ionian are about as blue a blue as you can see a sea.

The Greeks did not, and do not, drink blue wine.

Scholars have wrestled with the phrase too. Maybe it was a default description, some suggest, for "deep ocean" because no word for "blue" existed in ancient Greek. Perhaps Homer meant the color of the sea at sunset, along the lines of "red sky at night, sailor's delight."

My main issue with Homer here is that he's led generations of people to suppose that most, if not all, Greek wine is dark red. It is not.

Greece produces two bottles of white wine for every bottle of red and drinks most of its wine there, exporting less than 20 percent of either red or white.

If you go to Greece, you'll notice not only that the Aegean and Ionian are quite blue, but also that Greeks drink Herculean amounts of white wine with their meals.

We Americans too often believe that the duty of a wine is to be red, when in truth some of the more delicious Greek wines come from white wine grapes. (Of course, indigenous Greek white wine grapes are spelled in Greek letters. I use standard transliterations plus offer pronunciations.)

Assyrtiko (ah-seer-tee-ko)

It's head of the list alphabetically and some believe qualitatively too. Assyrtiko's trump card is its finely etched acidity, retained even after long ripening in intense heat. Its best showing is on the island of Santorini, where some vines are purported to be upward of 500 years old. Very often blended into it are either the white grapes athiri or aidani, as ways to soften assyrtiko's rather bracing zip.

2011 Sigalas Assyrtiko Athiri Santorini: Spot-on example, with citrus, pear and apple well-suffused with minerals. $18

2011 Argyros Assyrtiko "Atlantis" Santorini/Cyclades: This linear, precise white will explain why this is the Greek default fish wine; nice licorice note; traces of athiri and aidani. $15

2011 Gaia Assyrtiko "Wild Ferment" Santorini: Ungrafted, 80-year-old vines make for more-than-usual ripe pear and lemon curd aromas and flavors, with no stinting on chalk or dry stone. $22-$28

Malagouzia

Highly aromatic grape grown mostly in northern Greece. Does not lose its aroma esters as, say, pinot gris does when ripened in high heat.

2011 Domaine Porto Carras Malagouzia Sithnoia Macedonia: Nearly thick, richly textured; aromatic of lime and jasmine; squeegee-clean finish. $17-$20

2012 Boutari "Domain Roxane Matsa" Malagouzia Pallini: All lemon, peach and hazelnut swaddled in creamy texture. $17-$20

Moschofilero (mo-sko-fee-lay-ro)

Think of this increasingly popular Greek white (that comes from a pink-skinned grape) as a cross, in aroma and flavor, of Spanish albarino and Alsace pinot gris. It registers in with low alcohol so, combined with its lively character, it's extremely refreshing and eminently gulpable.

2012 Boutari Moschofilero Mantinia: Yums at every sip; green apple, green melon, zippy acidity. $17

2012 Skouras Moschofilero "Georges Skouras" Peloponnese: Such a great price for so much flavor and verve; a nice salinity makes it even more juicy. $15-$17

NV Domaine Spiropoulos Brut "Ode Panos" Mantinia: A sparkling moschofilero, charmat method; like liquid apricot pit reined with acidity. $21

Muscat

Disabuse yourself of the knee-jerk that all muscat is sweet. Greece makes those, yes, but some of its better muscat is dry and oh-so-lovely.

2011 UWC Samos Muscat "High Peaks" Samos: OK, Gewurztraminer, step aside for a minute so that this dry and effulgently aromatic off-white can grip me by the nose. $15

Roditis (ro-dee-tees)

Like moschofilero, a pink-skinned grape making white wine, and nearly as aromatic; scented and flavored like the Chilean fruit cherimoya (nicknamed "custard apple" and there you have what the wine's like too). Softly acidic; very refreshing. A fine example, which ratchets up the ripe apple notes with some added peachlike viognier, is the 2011 Mercouri Estate Roditis "Foloi" Peloponnese for $17-$20.

Vidiano

Saved from the brink of extinction, this super-delicious white grape now thrives on the island of Crete. You might get full-on lime and lemon in low-alcohol versions; peach and apricot in those around 13 percent. Neither scrimps on acidity. Rare, but worth a search. Two standouts are the 2012 Alexakis Vidiano Crete at $13-$17 and the 2011 Domaine Douloufakis Vidiano "Dafnios" Crete ($13-$15), notable for its aromas of green apple, lime and wet chalk.

If your wine store does not carry these wines, ask for one similar in style and price.

Bill St John has been writing and teaching about wine for more than 40 years.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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