The Greeks know a thing or two about wine – as they should: they’ve been making it for the past 6,500 years. Until quite recently, though, visitors to Greece might have questioned the evolution of a culture that offered a choice – in tavernas, at least – of insipid, mass-market plonk or floor cleaner-scented retsina.
It came as a pleasant surprise, then, to stumble across a clutch of excellent wine bars in Athens, all nestled between Monastiraki, Syntagma and Pláka – districts better known for tin jugs of house white than carefully stored and poured vintages. Greece’s economic woes are well known, but the wine industry has – despite obstacles at every turn – bucked the trend.
Patriotically, these bars also offer Greek cheeses and charcuterie to nibble with your tipple. You might find yourself island-hopping without leaving your seat: Vintage, for example, offers the sublime, lactic, salty arseniko, a cheese made of goat, sheep and cow’s milk on Naxos, and louza, cured and smoked pork loin from Tinos – both fine matches for a piercing, lemon-spiked Assyrtiko from Santorini.
Vintage offers proper beef too: picanha, the rump cap much favoured by Brazilians, cooked medium rare and served with – what else? – a wine sauce. A Xinomavro from Naoussa, an iron fist of tannin in a velvet glove of fruit, would suit it perfectly.
Assyrtiko is perhaps the best-known Greek white, but Robola deserves equal renown. It is similarly dry and bracing: I tried the Vino di Sasso, made by Sklavos in Cephalonia, at Heteroclito, a wine bar as bright and bubbly as its Blink Brut from Macedonia.
Then there is By the Glass, which occupies one side of a pretty colonnade near Syntagma Square: thanks partly to Coravin (the gadget that extracts wine without disturbing the cork, much used in Athens), it has 50 or so wines available by the glass. The kitchen does an excellent mushroom risotto too.
At Oinoscent – Athens’ original downtown wine bar opened by brothers Agis and Danis Agapitos – the stellar list is curated by perhaps the city’s most knowledgeable and friendly staff. Danis gave me a tutored tasting, accompanied by Cretan rusks and olives, a delightful change from the usual water biscuits offered at tastings: I especially recommend a superb, almost water-clear Robola and a dry, herb-scented Mavrodaphne, both from Gentilini on Cephalonia.
Cheeses include graviera from Crete and a wine-matured creation from Ios; for charcuterie there is pastrami from Drama, in the northeast, and salami from Corfu. Oinoscent, like other bars nearby, is a thoroughly civilised spot, as befits one of the cradles of civilisation, and Greek wine seems to be maturing nicely. Well, what’s a few millennia between friends?