A Greek White Instead of Rosé

Memorial Day means summer, which, of course to some people means rosé.  But for me it means light to mid-weight white wines with energy, verve, and most of all, character.  There are lots of French whites that fit that category, from zippy Muscadet to flinty village Chablis, to simple Bourgogne Blanc, to racy Sancerre.  German and Australian Riesling with their bracing acidity are all good choices for summer sipping.  From Gavi in Piedmont to Carricante in Sicily, Italy has too many refreshing whites to name.  I was just introduced to another one, previously unknown to me.  It’s embarrassing since its home is less than an hour from a major metropolis where I’ve vacationed twice with my family recently.  I overlooked Savatiano because I was focused on other major Greek wines when we were in Athens.  In a sense, that’s a great problem for Greece to have—too many intriguing wines to explore.  I was recently introduced to the grape and its wines at an illuminating seminar held in New York City that was organized by the Wine of Attica (a.k.a. Attiki) and led by Levi Dalton, former sommelier and now host and producer of the outstanding podcast, I’ll Drink to That, and Sofia Perpera, an enologist and chemist with the Greek Wine Federation.

Since I was unfamiliar with Attica or Attiki, as the Greeks know it, I suspect many of you readers are too, so let me start with some background.  Attica, with its roughly 15,000 acres of vines, is one of Greece’s PGIs (Protected Geographical Indication, akin to an appellation) that is literally a stone’s throw from Athens.  Indeed, the construction of the Athens airport in the late 1990s resulted in the loss of many acres of vineyards.  A small sliver of the appellation crosses the water and lies on the coast of the Peloponnese.  The white Savatiano grape is the star in Attica, comprising 90 percent of the plantings.  In reality, the wines of Attica, analogous to Frascati from the Castelli Romani surrounding Rome, are the wines of Athens.  And like Frascati, top growers are now transforming Savatiano into high-quality wines.

Vines have been planted in Attica and wine made from them for millennia.  The traditional wine from this region was, and in large measure, still is Retsina, a wine to which pine resin is added during fermentation.  Restoration of vineyards after phylloxera, which arrived in Greece later than in France, started only in the 1960s with bush vine plantings, which allowed the vines to retain more moisture in this very hot and dry region.  Attica’s modern wine history starts only in the 1990s.  Retsina still plays a major role in the industry and young producers are fine-tuning it, trying to make the wine more appealing to the general public.

Savatiano is well suited to Attica, the hottest and driest part of Greece, because it is resistant to drought and fungal diseases.  Mountains protect the vineyards against cold north winds during months when they pose potential problems.  There’s plenty of sunshine.  The poor fertility of the clay limestone soil is ideal for grapes.  Organic viticulture is easier here—and producers are embracing it—because of the dry climate and breezes from the sea.  Though as Dalton points out, growers sometimes feel like it’s “easier to do organic farming than the organic paperwork.”  The grape is prolific and, according to Perpera, growers need to limit yields to produce high-quality wines.

With upwards of 7,000 growers and with the average holding just over 2-acres, Attica has a family-oriented production philosophy rather than a large-scale corporate imprint.  Since the vineyards tend to stay within families for generation, it is easy to understand why 80 percent of the vines are more than 30 years old.

As with the resurrection of an any area by younger growers, experimentation is bound to occur.  Some growers use stainless steel for fermentation and aging, while others are experimenting with barrels of oak or acacia for those tasks.  Some growers are making orange-like wine by fermenting the juice with the skins.  Whether to stir lees is another individual choice.  Then, of course, comes the question of when to drink the wines—when they are young and vibrant, or with a little bottle age which typically smooths the edges.

For consumers the stylistic diversity is a double-edged sword.  The variety means there’s something for everybody.  No cookie-cutter wines here!  The downside, of course, is the inability to know exactly what’s in the bottle from reading the label.  Varietal labeling, that is, the grape name, Savatiano, clearly on the label as opposed to yet another geographic name, makes things easier.  That’s not to say that geography is irrelevant.  Indeed, it is important because there are subzones within Attica with their own PGI that tend to produce more distinctive wines.  Thankfully, even wines labeled with just a subzone PGI, such as Slopes of Kitherona or Markopoulo, will still carry Savatiano on the label.  A careful search will usually reveal the word Attica or Wine of Athens somewhere on either the front or back label.

Retsina, which is another PGI, will always carry that name on the label.  A traditional wine of Attica, Retsina got its name from a pine resin covering of the amphora in which the wine was stored.  The resin flavored the wine leading to the name Retsina.  Perpera explains that there are two kinds of Retsina, “good and not so good.  The flabby, oxidized style gave it a bad image.”  Now, producers make Retsina by judiciously adding tea bag-like packets of pine resin to the fermenting wine.

You may read that Savatiano is a low acid grape.  That may be.  The wines, however, are by no means low-acid.  Quite the opposite, which is what makes me so enthusiastic about them.  (I’ll let others explain how a winemaker makes a verve-filled wine from a low-acid grape.)

Savatiano remains a niche category.  The wines certainly have not made it into the mainstream.  Some of my recommendations below are not yet imported (indicated by NYI) and even those that are do not have widespread distribution, so expect to search for them.  Even Flatiron Wines & Spirits, a top retail shop in New York, had none on its racks.  So why write about them?  Because it’s a distinctive category that is likely to enter the mainstream soon.

These three fresh and lively examples below show the pleasure of drinking Savatiano young.  They were all fermented and aged in stainless steel tanks to preserve their freshness.  As a group, they combine bracing acidity with the stone fruit character of the white wines from the southern Rhône.

Weighing in at a mere 12.8 percent alcohol, Anastasia Fragou’s zesty 2022 Savatiano (PGI Attiki) delivers a hint of stone fruitiness buttressed by invigorating saline acidity.  At the price, it’s a steal (90 pts; $11, imported by Fantis Foods).  Lively freshness balances Markou Vineyards’ rounder and peachy 2021 Savatiano (PGI Attiki).  Despite a 12.5 percent stated alcohol this organic delight has excellent concentration (90 pts, $17, imported by Athenee Importers).  Gikas Winery’s edgy 2021 Savatiano, labeled San Tovato, (PGI Slopes of Kitharona) combines subtle peach-like nuances with distinct mineral notes.  Great length and bracing acidity amplify its charms.  Its stature is likely due, in part, to the location of the vineyards, roughly 2,000 feet above sea level (92 pts, NYI).

Both the 2019 single vineyard bottling, Vientzi, from Domaine Papagiannakos (PGI Markopoulo), and Mylonas Winery’s 2017 Cuvee Vouno (PGI Attiki) show the virtue of aging Savatiano for a few years.  Papagiannakos’ mineral infused and lively Vientzi packs plenty of character into its 12.5 percent stated alcohol frame without losing any of its energy (93 pts; $33).  Mylonas’ Cuvee Vouno has developed a captivating richness to accompany its peach-like nuances and uplifting saline acidity (91 pts; $18; imported by Diamond Wine Importers).

You trade freshness and verve for a subtle creaminess in Savatiano renditions that are fermented or aged in oak or acacia barrels instead of stainless-steel tanks.  The risk, of course, is winding up with overly woody wines.  That is clearly not a problem with the balanced 2018 Kokotos Savatiano (PGI Attiki), which is more evidence that Savatiano can evolve with bottle age.  Kokotos has managed to capture a peach cream quality that retains plenty of energy (92 pts, NYI).

I have never been charmed by Retsina as a category finding the wines too flamboyant with a Bengay® or Tiger Balm® character.  A knowledgeable waiter at a Greek restaurant in New York City recently described Retsina to me as, “drinking a Christmas tree.”  The same waiter suggested I try Anastasia Fragou’s Old Vines Retsina (PGI Retsina, 88 pts, $13, imported by Fantis Foods).  Both it and Papagiannis’s Retsina of Attiki (89 pts., NYI) made me reassess my opinion because the resin-y character in these two wines acted as a subtle accent to the stone fruit nuances, not the main player.  Although I’m not sure I’d want to drink it throughout a meal, I can see it as an enticing aperitif.

Not surprisingly, the depth and vibrancy of these Savatiano wines make them perfect matches for whatever comes from the sea, and yes, even roast lamb.  See my article on white wine with meat: http://winereviewonline.com/Michael_Apstein_White_with_Meat.cfm.  So, instead of rosé, I suggest you give Savatiano a try this summer.

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E-mail me your thoughts about Greek wines in general or the wine of Attica in specific at [email protected] and follow me on Twitter and Instagram @MichaelApstein

June 14, 2023