Greek grapes to celebrate

Zeus is being a grumpy old man today,'' says Evangelos Gerovassiliou, as we lunch on the verandah of his winery Domaine Gerovassiliou in Epanomi in northern Greece. Black clouds gather over Mount Olympus, which dominates the horizon, and is said to be the home of Zeus.

Sure enough, we scarcely finish our may fish with olive oil and lemon sauce, a delicious tomato-and-onion salad and eggplant with garlic, before the torrent comes down. We take the remnants of our assyrtiko white wine indoors. Greeks love to eat and drink and, as we know, neither bad weather (rare) nor bad economic news (less rare) are allowed to interfere.

Indeed, it's not all bad news out of Greece: the country's wine exports are bubbling along quite happily. Some say Greece is the world's oldest new wine region. It is the world's oldest wine-producing culture of note - the Greeks introduced ancient Romans to the vine - but the Greek wine industry has been reborn in the past 20 years.

The revival parallels similar events in most parts of the wine world. Its extra kick along, I suspect, is the relatively recent but widespread fascination with indigenous (or autochthonous, as the Greeks say) grape varieties. The Greeks have about 300, of which several are likely to travel. That's travel in two senses: the wines are being exported and so are the vines.

The Barry family in Clare has recently planted assyrtiko, the lip-smacking dry-white seafood wine grape grown in hot, dry, windy conditions on Santorini.

It is one of the most terroir-driven wines I've tasted. It actually smells of the volcanic ash, or pumice, that passes for soil on an island blown apart by one of the world's most violent volcanoes. It doesn't sound appetising but it is dry, crisp and a great accompaniment to fish.

The best assyrtikos I taste are made by Gaia (pronounced ''Yair''), Argyros and Domaine Sigalas on Santorini, and Domaine Gerovassiliou in the Macedonia region. They are all imported and sold in the $25-$39 price range.

The statement about terroir and assyrtiko is no hollow claim: in Macedonia's Amyndeon and Epanomi regions they make lovely assyrtiko, but it tastes quite different from Santorini's ''volcanic'' version. ''The difference has to be the terroir,'' says Gaia's Yiannis Paraskevopoulos, who co-founded the winery in 2004 with Leon Karatsalos.

The Greeks grow chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, shiraz, cabernet sauvignon and merlot, but the world is more likely to be intrigued by their autochthonous vines. In whites, there's roditis, malagousia, aidani and moschofilero as well as assyrtiko, and in reds, mavrotragano, xinomavro, mavrodaphne, limnio and agiorgitiko. Hard to pronounce, let alone remember, but it helps to know ''mavro'' means ''black''. And ''g'' is pronounced ''y''. Say ''aye-your-yittiko'' 20 times to yourself.

I taste beautifully clean, modern, well-made wines from all these grapes, but I'm sure I have a vetted selection and some pretty ordinary stuff also exists.

The local hope is for xinomavro, perhaps the most distinctive and interesting of the black grapes, although it is a high-vigour vine that must be strictly controlled to produce good wine. It is prone to weak colour, high acidity and rather hard tannins except when low-yielding vines achieve full ripeness. This is a hard ask. But the best wines I tasted did bear out the local catch-cry that xinomavro is the Greek pinot noir, or perhaps the Greek nebbiolo. The degree of difficulty is high but the rewards are there.

Kir-Yianni winery, in the Macedonian region of Naoussa, puts a major effort into xinomavro and is producing the best results. The 2011 vintage, indeed all its 2011 reds, are stunning and worth waiting for.

Of the finished xinomavro reds I taste, the best is the 2008 Alpha Old Vines, an old-vine bottling off 87-year-old bush-vines growing on pure sand. It's made by Angelos Iatrides at his Alpha winery in Amyndeon. It has fleshy richness, velvet-smooth tannins, sumptuous dark cherry flavours and real gravitas.

The easier to appreciate and enjoy indigenous black variety is agiorgitiko. This can be a marvellous wine, especially in the hands of the Gaia company - which has a second winery in the southerly Peloponnese province, which specialises in this grape.

Dark-coloured, rich, fruit-sweet and balanced, without excessive acid or edgy tannins, it is a wine to which most red-wine lovers would instantly warm. The best I tasted were under the Gaia Estate label (the 2006 is $60 in Australia), but the younger, earlier-drinking 2010 Agiorgitiko by Gaia ($27) is a delicious and affordable entree to this exciting grape variety.

Gaia partner and winemaker Paraskevopoulos lectures in wine science at the University of Athens, so he knows his stuff. A man whose talent for winemaking is matched by his ability to communicate, he's playing a key role in getting the word out about modern Greek wines.

Agiorgitiko also makes splendid rose´s, none better than Gaia 14-18h Rose´ (the 2011 is $22). It's light, soft, beautifully balanced and moreish.

And talking of pink wines: against all expectation I taste a sparkling xinomavro at the tiny, family-owned Karanika winery in Amyndeon that is truly excellent. Used in much the same way as pinot noir in champagne, this organically grown and hand-made brut cuvee speciale was a 2010 vintage aged on lees for 12 months. With a shrug of the shoulders, Karanika's owner and winemaker Laurens Hartman says: ''No matter how hard the crisis hits, we have sparkling wine every day!''


Sigalas Cremorne Cellars; Elizabeth Bay Cellars; Vintage Blue, Sydney.

Gaia, Gerovassiliou and Argyros Ultimo Wine Centre; Castlecrag Cellars; Annandale Cellars; Elizabeth Bay Cellars.

Alpha Mr Liquor.

Huon Hooke visited Greece with the assistance of the European Union and the Greek government.