DRINK / Grapevine: Kathryn McWhirter interprets from Greek

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The Independent Culture
'WE TOOK the advice of the man at the hotel. My God, it was like warmed-up tea and sherry mixed. The other wines were even worse, and we slumped back on to beer.' My friends are just back from Crete. If I had done my huge Greek wine tasting three weeks earlier, I might have armed them with a more palatable wine list - although the strike-rate of enjoyable wines in Greece is still quite low.

There has, however, been a tiny upsurge in Greece in the past 10 years of small estate wineries. Perhaps 100 estates now make and bottle their own, instead of sending their grapes, juice or wine to the big companies or the local co-op. Small is not always beautiful - quality is mixed, and prices are often high because these wines are highly regarded in smart Greek circles. My favourite white is the soft, attractive **1991 Strofilia ( pounds 7 The Greek Wine Centre of Shrewsbury, ring 0743 364636 for mail order and local stockists), an interestingly smoky wine from a family winery by the sea south of Athens. (The owners also run a smart wine bar called Strofilia in central Athens.) Gentilini is my other tip for whites, though these are expensive. From a beautiful estate on the Ionian island of Cephalonia, the crisp, grassy *1992 Gentilini ( pounds 8.20 mail order Adnams of Southwold) and richer **1992 Gentilini Fume ( pounds 10.20 Adnams) are made by Nicolas Cosmetatos, who is half Greek and half English.

But in Greek restaurants, here or there, the only drinkable white alternative to beer is often retsina. Retsina is best in Greece straight from the cask, so long as it is young and fresh. But in Britain, my favourites are the light, fresh, piney *Boutari Retsina ( pounds 2.95 Asda, pounds 2.99 Tesco, and pounds 3.55 James Aitken of Dundee) and especially the very piney and freshly tangy **Tsantali Retsina ( pounds 3 The Greek Wine Centre of Shrewsbury).

Reds are better - easier to get right in a hot climate, and the native red grapes have more interesting flavours than the whites, provided the winemaker knows what he's doing. Greece's two main red appellations are worth looking out for: Nemea, made south of the Corinth Canal in the Peloponnese, and Naoussa, from up north in Macedonia. You will find these all over Greece.

My two current favourites are **1991 Nemea, Boutari ( pounds 3.79 Tesco, pounds 3.89 William Low, pounds 3.99 Oddbins, and pounds 4.09 James Aitken), a fairly complex and full red with rich strawberry fruit and a hint of 'stable'; and **1988 Koros Nemea, Kourtakis ( pounds 4.89 Unwins), with lovely plum and strawberry fruit and a hint of spice. *1991 Nemea, Semeli ( pounds 5 The Greek Wine Centre) is also good, mid- weight, fruity and fresh, with strawberry flavour and some oak. Boutari has the best Naoussa: *1990 Naoussa, Boutari ( pounds 3.99 Safeway, pounds 4.45 James Aitken), very easy drinking and softly strawberry-fruity, and **1987 Naoussa Grand Reserve, Boutari ( pounds 6.49 James Aitken), light and maturing, with rich strawberry fruit.

The Hatzi Michalis estate, about 30 miles north of Athens, has recently improved a lot, and has made an expensive splash in America and at home in Greece. So you have to pay over the odds for the attractive **1990 Domaine Hatzi Michalis Cabernet ( pounds 7.95 Holland Park Wine Company, pounds 8 The Greek Wine Centre) - like super-ripe claret (at twice the price) - and **1991 Hatzi Michalis Merlot ( pounds 14 The Greek Wine Centre, pounds 17.95 Holland Park Wine Company), very ripe, soft and oaky. Chateau Carras, made on an estate near Thessaloniki, used to be the one redeeming feature on Greece's wine map. There is some competition now, but **1987 Chateau Carras, Cotes de Meliton ( pounds 6.50 Wine Society) is still good, fruity with some tannin, a tarry overtone and a pleasant, honeyed aftertaste. You wouldn't guess it was made from the same grapes as claret.

With sweet wines you are on safer ground. ***Achaia Clauss Imperial Mavrodaphne of Patras ( pounds 3.69 Milia Wines of London NW1, pounds 3.70 Gerry's of London W1, and pounds 3.99 Salamis of London N7) is a real bargain; it's a lovely, aged sweet wine with intense fruit and dark flavours of fig and tobacco. Nice but not nearly as classy, *Achaia Clauss Muscat de Patras ( pounds 3.50 Gerry's, pounds 3.59 Milia Wines, pounds 3.99 Majestic Wine Warehouses and Salamis) is very sweet and concentrated; *Tsantali Moscato of Limnos ( pounds 4.50 The Greek Wine Centre) is similar but with a hint of pine; and *Samos, Kourtakis ( pounds 4.99 Unwins) is rich, soft and marmaladey.

***excellent; **very good; *good

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