I recently caught Chris Tarrant quizzing a contestant on whether retsina came from Greece, Italy, France or Portugal. Those of us who still can't get the taste of pine resin out of our mouths after a misspent youth on a Greek island holiday would have been £16,000 better off. The young contestant's ignorance, however, is forgiveable. Retsina is on the verge of becoming ancient history as the Greeks demand something more challenging to go with their souvlaki and kleftiko.
Some wine traditions are worth preserving, but I don't suppose Dionysus will be turning in his grave if this endangered species disappears. At the same time Greece's surprisingly extensive wine industry is at last delivering some serious wines. The lion's share is churned out by three big companies - Boutari, Tsantali and Kourtakis - who have made considerable progress, as well as many co-operatives.
But the most exciting wines come from a handful of dynamos who are shaking Greece out of its torpor. "To produce a good wine you need to reduce the yields," acknowledges one such winemaker, Tsaktsarlis Vassilius from Biblia Chora Estate, newly established in Macedonia. Joining Biblia Chora, other names that belong in the new Greek temples of gastronomy include Costa Lazaridi, Gerovassiliou, Gaia Estate, Evharis and Parparoussi in the Peloponnese, Hatzidakis and Sigalas on Santorini. Most are experimenting with Greece's wide variety of indigenous grapes.
There are good wines made from the usual suspects, cabernet sauvignon, syrah and chardonnay, but they are not necessarily the best and certainly not the most distinctive of the 150 varieties planted in Greece. One with a bright future is the assyrtiko grape, which originates on the windswept, volcanic island of Santorini. Assyrtiko is an aromatic variety with a kinship to semillon and riesling, often showing a similarly tongue-tingling, citrus-zesty character and an ability to age well without the support of oak. The promising malagoussia is an ancient variety resurrected almost single-handedly by one of Greece's best winemakers, Evangelis Gerovassiliou. Even if they don't quite trip off the tongue, the potential of reds like Aghiorghitiko (St George), Xinomavro, Limnio, Mandelaria and Mavrotragano underlie Greece's emerging self-confidence as a wine-producing nation.
Given the bewildering array of tongue-twisting grape varieties and the equally unpronounceable names of many of its winemakers, Greece still needs help marketing itself. Oddbins to date has done a great job. They are not alone. Mary Pateras is passionate about Greek wine and recently set up a wine business, Eclectic Wines (020-8941 9222/ www.eclecticwines.com), importing some of Greece's top names like Hatzidakis and Evharis Estate.
In the run-up to next year's Olympics the race is on to get across the message that there's more to Greek wine than retsina.
Making sense of Greek wines from Oddbins: 2001 Gaia Notios White, £6.39, and Red, £7.39; 2001 Thalassitis, Santorini, £9.59; 2001 Constantin Lazaradi Amethystos White, £8.39, Fumé, £8.99, Red, £10.19, and Rosé, £7.99; 1998 Domaine Mercouri Red, £8.29; 2002 Domaine Gerovassiliou, Malagousia, £8.39, 1998 Domaine Gerovassiliou Red, £10.39.Reuse content