Greek wines for the celebration

IN MY GLASS

April 19, 2006|By ROB KASPER

Dimitris Spiliadis tells me that when drinking Greek wines, I should remember the lemon and the lamb.

In Greek cooking, he says, "there is no escaping the lemon." It plays a central role in many dishes. So, he says, many of the white wines of Greece display acidic flavors that stand up to the citrus notes of the lemon.

He tells me this as he pours glasses of Haggipavlu Moschofilero Mantinia 2002 and Kir-Yianni Samaropetra 2003. Indeed, these two whites have a sharpness that goes well with a plate of olives or a piece of grilled grouper squirted with lemon.

As for Greek red wines, their dryness and acid backbones make them excellent companions for lamb cooked on a rotisserie, a dish that many Greeks enjoy during their celebration of Easter, which this year falls next Sunday.

The two reds he pours, a Palivou Ancient Vines Nemea 2003 and a Domaine Gerovassiliou Syrah 2002 from Thessaloniki, have enough character to tame even the most rambunctious lamb. The partnership of lamb and red wine is so strong, says his father, Stelios Spiliadis, that Greek lore contends that if the wineglass of the cook tending the rotisserie ever runs dry, the flavor of the lamb suffers.

The Spiliadis men tell me this when I visit the Black Olive, the Fells Point restaurant that the elder Spiliadis, a native of Patras, Greece, and his wife, Pauline, helped their son - a native of Baltimore - open in 1997. Dimitris, 35, has plans to expand the business to include a market, scheduled to open next year, selling Greek foods and wines.

The Black Olive was where I began my journey tasting Greek wines. The journey took me to the Greek wine sections of various stores throughout the Baltimore area - from big shops like Wells Liquors, the Wine Source and Chesapeake Wine Co. to O'Connor's, a check-cashing dispensary on Eastern Avenue a few steps away from the restaurants of Baltimore's Greektown.

Usually, the selection of Greek wines at these spots was limited. Ordinarily, I found a couple of bottles of red, several whites and a bottle of Retsina, the potent Greek wine that contains resin and a few decades ago was responsible for giving me a killer hangover. This time around, I skipped the Retsina.

Instead, under the tutelage of Dimitris, I tasted the Greek wines in his restaurant's ample wine cellar, then tried to find them, or their cousins, in retail shops. Sometimes I did, sometimes I didn't. Generally speaking, the larger shops had better selections.

Most of the red wines I tasted were from the Nemea region and were made with a grape called Aghiorghitiko, also known as St. George. For the whites, I sampled wines made from the Assyrtiko grape, some from the island of Santorini. While some of the whites had a zing reminiscent of New Zealand sauvignon blancs, most of the Assyrtikos had distinctive, tart flavors. Whites made with the Moschofilero grape had more flower and fruit. Both types of whites had the pungency to handle lemons.

Unlike many wines from California, with their lush fruit flavors, I found that Greek wines were not something you quaff, like a cocktail. With their substance and acidity these wines called out for company, for food.

"There is no similarity to California wines," Dimitris told me as we sat in the wine cellar of the restaurant. Instead of the dense, concentrated flavors of California wines, the style most Americans drink, Greek wines generally have more subtle and sour notes, he said.

Sitting in the wine cellar, we paid tribute to Dionysus, the god of wine. Greek wines, Dimitris said, taste of the land where they were grown, a land filled with grapes, history and myths.

To demonstrate, Dimitris picked up a bottle of the Palivou 2003 that we had tried before. The wine, he said, has toasted almond flavors and some strength, which is only fitting. He reminded me it hailed from the region where Hercules won a bare-handed battle with a lion.

rob.kasper@baltsun.com

The samplings

Here, in order of preference, are the Greek wines I tasted:

Reds

Mercouri Estate Antares 2003, $22:

Regional dry red wine of Ilia. Cherry nose, medium body, with pronounced oaky notes.

Palivou Ancient Vines Nemea 2003, $25:

Magnificent berry aroma mixed with hints of oak. Medium body, clean finish. Great with lamb.

Lafazanis St. George 2004, $11:

A dry red wine of the Peloponnese, with a cherry nose and acid backbone and peppery notes. Good with spiced meat.

Domaine Gerovassiliou Syrah Thessaloniki 2002, $32 (left):

Shy nose, medium body, excellent balance. Another lamb red.

Papantonis Agiorgitiko 2000, $19:

Dry red of Peloponnese. An aroma of berries on the nose, medium body, a dry, almost gritty finish. Welcomes meat.

Biblia Chora 2002, $17:

A blend of cabernet and merlot; lots of tannin and acid. It could tame a goat.

Whites

Spyros Hatziyiannis Santorini 2005, $22:

Flowery nose, medium body; slightly tart, grapefruit zing. Nice balance. Great with citrus or a Greek salad.

Haggipavlu Moschofilero Mantinia 2002, $15 (right):

Floral nose, medium body. Slight acid on the end.

Kir-Yianni Samaropetra 2003, $15:

Slight nose, light in body, sharp acidity. Great with grilled fish.

Biblia Chora 2005, $16:

Fruit on the nose, medium body, very clean, extremely fresh.

Samos Muscat Kourtaki (nonvintage), $10:

A sweet golden dessert wine that goes well with pastry.

Domaine Gerovassiliou Malagousia Thessaloniki, 2004, $21:

Faint grapefruit and hint of oak on the nose, medium body.

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