The Greek Wine Scene

0507curThinking outside the box is a maxim that can bring positive results. The restaurant business is centuries old, so finding something new is a rare opportunity. Ironically, one is developing from an ancient source: Greek wine.

The country that gave us Aristotelian logic, democratic government and the god of wine slowly disappeared from the wine world despite sending many of its vines to vineyards in what would become Italy, France, and Spain.

But Greece is back on the wine scene. Young winemakers, trained in France, Italy, and California, are bringing modern winemaking techniques to ancient vineyards. Successful business people are building up-to-date wineries and transferring proven business methods to their new ventures.

It might be hard to believe, but twenty-five years ago, only a handful of restaurant owners were promoting California wines. Italian restaurants restricted their list to Italian wines; French restaurant wine lists were a recital of Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Champagne. However, as young Americans entered the restaurant business, wine lists started expanding; just as they blended the ingredients and concepts of many ethnic cuisines from Italian to Chinese, these enterprising restaurateurs offered diners wines from new California wineries like Trefethen, Shafer, Dry Creek Vineyards, Chappellet and Jordan alongside the standard Bordeaux, Barolo and Chianti Classico repertoire.

Offering California wines on menus made dining out exciting and catapulted the careers and businesses of those who saw the opportunity to expand the horizon of the dining public. It’s time, once again, for American restaurateurs to think outside the box.

While Greek winemakers are using the gamut of international grapes that winemakers around the world have made all too common, creative restaurateurs and sommeliers can find new flavors, wonderful aromas, and perfect food partners in Greece’s indigenous red grapes like xinomavro, agiorghitiko, limino and mavrodophne. And white wines are equally striking from assyrtiko, moschofilero, robola and athiri.

Red wines made from xinomavro (zsee-no-MA-vro) are a wonderful alternative to California pinot noirs. No matter that they received a great boost from the film Sideways, too many of California’s pinot noirs have the faults of many merlots: overuse of oak and lack of acidity, resulting in boring, flabby flavor and texture.

Xinomavro is as vibrant as a Greek dancer. Its medium tannins, high acidity and flavors ranging from ripe raspberry, rhubarb and black olive to sun-dried tomatoes give xinomavro the power to create a wonderful sensation on the palate. Like a red Burgundy from Santenay, Aloxe-Corton, or Chambolle-Musigny, xinomavro offers enchanting aromas, refined texture and flavors that partner well with dishes ranging from grilled tuna to roasted pork and ratatouille.

Xinomavro is also delightful when made as a rosé. It brings a cherry tint to the eye and has a strawberry-like flavor. The natural acidity of the grape gives the wine a dry finish that is as pleasant on a warm day as a cool northern breeze.

Some winemakers like to blend xinomavro with merlot or the native agiorghitiko or negoska. Xinomavro’s acidity, which can resemble that of sangiovese, brings balance to these more fruit-forward grapes.

Xinomavro seems to do best in northern Greece, especially from the town of Naoussa. This location was the first area to gain appellation status in 1971 from the Greek wine authority.

Mavrodaphne (mav-ro-tha-fnee) is another red grape that captured my palate’s attention during a recent trip to Greece. It has an engrossing combination of mint, prune, raisin, and honey-like aromas and flavors. Like Xinomavro, it is sometimes used as a blending grape, but in this case, with refosco. Mavrodaphne is best known as a dessert wine that is akin to the flavor and aroma of tawny port. It is delightful with chocolate cake and semi-sweet chocolate desserts and candies.

Agiorghitiko (ah-yer-YEE-ti-ko), translated as St. George, is an important red grape. It can be a muscular wine, exploding with black berry and plum-like flavors, elegant tannins, and a lingering finish. When oak-aged it complements grilled meats, roast leg of lamb, prime rib, and filet mignon. When winemakers produce it in stainless steel tanks it has a structure resembling Beaujolais, Dolcetto, or red Sancerre. Its flavor leans towards black cherry, and matches well with grilled salmon or chicken quesadillas.

Greek winemakers are making a determined effort with their native white wine grapes. Moschofilero (Mos-ko-FEE-le-ro) offers enchanting floral and vanilla cake-like aromas. A lemony flavor with mild acidity makes moschofilero an ideal restaurant selection for wine by the glass. Some winemakers offer it in sparkling and rosé creations but during my trip to Greece I found it best in its white wine uniform.

Assyrtiko (A-SEER-tee-ko) is a chameleon. Its natural appearance is a dry, high acid white wine with aromas ranging from lilies to basil, and a flavor and texture that can remind one of Chablis. In this guise it converses well with grilled octopus. Other times it cross-dresses with chardonnay or sauvignon blanc, providing a bit of zip to chardonnay and taming sauvignon blanc’s aggressive aroma. With these wines, lobster, shrimp, and the fish bronzino make good mates.

Athiri, lagorthi, malagousia, robola, and roditis are other indigenous white wine grapes capturing the attention of Grecian winemakers. Sometimes these grapes speak for themselves; on other occasions they are blended with assyrtiko or another grape.

Along with bringing the winemaking into the 21st century, Greek wineries are in the learning phase about what is required to compete in the American market. Aside from Boutari, few Greek wines are distributed throughout America. At the moment, restaurateurs will be best served by contacting two companies working to establish regional and national marketing for small, high quality wineries: All About Greek Wine in Atlanta, GA at www.allaboutgreekwine.com and Trireme Imports in Huntersville, NC, at www.trireme imports.com. Also, check out Sotiris Bafitis Selections at www.greekwinemakers.com.

The idea that Greek wines only belong in Greek restaurants is as antiquated as an exclusively Italian, French, or Spanish wine list. New American cooking incorporates many ingredients from Mediterranean cuisines that are enhanced by modern Greek wines. Creative restaurateurs will understand that adding these quality wines from Greece to their lists gives their customers a new dining experience and their restaurant an edge.


John Foy is a restaurant consultant and former chef and owner of three restaurants in New Jersey. He has been writing about wine and food since 1982.


Chain, Chain, Chain

In what area does your operation’s beverage program shine? Does it offer the best beer program in the U.S.? Are your cocktail sales the driving force in your business? Is your wine program a cut above the rest? Is your non-alcohol program enticing and creative? Then it’s time to start planning your submission for the 2006 Cheers Awards for Beverage Excellence, which will be presented at the Cheers Beverage Conference next February at the Sheraton Hotel in New Orleans.

There’s nationwide competition in eight categories open only to chains. Here’s a run-down of last year’s winners: Best Chain Beer Program went to Old Chicago; Best Chain Wine Program was awarded to Maggiano’s; Best Chain Spirit Program was given to T.G.I. Fridays; Best Chain Non-Alcohol Program’s winner was Restaurants Unlimited; Best Chain Overall Beverage Program went to RAM International; Best Beverage Menu went to Anton Airfood; Best Beverage Merchandising Program’s winner was O’Charley’s and the Best Signature Drink was taken by Dave & Buster’s.

Operations may enter in multiple categories but may only win in one category (excluding overall program) in any given year. There is NO entry fee, and all entries will be judged by a distinguished panel of experts in the beverage, bar and restaurant business. See page 22 for entry info.


Remy Outlines Ambitious Growth Plan

0507cur1“We consider our company the best-kept secret in the industry,” said Jim Chambers, president and ceo of the newly named Remy Cointreau USA, in an exclusive interview at the company’s mid-Manhattan offices. Along with executive vice presidents Bob Ambrose (marketing) and Tom Jensen (sales), Chambers outlined an ambitious plan to “re-launch” the company so that it receives more recognition within the trade for the success of its widening portfolio of luxury brands.

The name change, from Remy Amerique, “helps to signify the new initiative in the company, and it better ties into the parent company [Remy Cointreau SA],” Chambers noted.

Ambrose pointed out that a medium-sized company like theirs has the flexibility to adapt quickly to changes in the marketplace. It also plays to what the three executives see as a new “entrepreneurial spirit” infusing the company.

The executives have identified developing a “real partnership with the distributor networks” as a top priority. “We want to work seamlessly with the distributor community,” Chambers said, “and to do that we’re embarking on a new set of collaborative programs with them, to improve the message by which they go to market with our brands.”

Jensen added, “Where the distributors have strengths, we want to work with them; where we can be of help, we’d like to offer that help.” cg_d_curr_remy1

The executive team at the newly named Remy Cointreau USA includes (from left) Tom Jensen, executive vice president, sales; Jim Chambers, president and ceo; and Bob Ambrose, executive vice president, marketing.

The company has restructured its marketing department and strengthened its sales force. “In the past year we’ve created more efficient ways to use our sales staff by setting up strategic channels and by expanding national accounts,” said Jensen. “And we’re always searching for places that we can further penetrate the market.”

Ambrose noted that the company has “increased the marketing budget by strong double-digits.” Regarding its flagship, Remy Martin Cognac, Ambrose said the company is “launching the most aggressive campaign ever for the brand.” The fully integrated marketing program taps into the brand’s “Rewarding Journey” campaign by using celebrity endorsements, utilizing people from humble origins who have risen to tremendous success. The first four are basketball icon and entrepreneur Magic Johnson, well-regarded director Hype Williams, renowned boxer Oscar de la Hoya, and most recently, Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx.

Remy Martin remains the strength of the company, with its VSOP marque the most popular in the market at that level. “We want the consumer to understand the range of our portfolio,” Ambrose said, which also includes VS, XO and Louis XIII, as well as the fairly new 1738, positioned between VSOP and XO (about $50 suggested retail) and currently available in only three to four markets. cg_d_curr_remy2

A selection from Remy Cointreau’s expanding portfolio of luxury brands.

At the same time, Ambrose pointed out that Cointreau continues to grow by double-digit percentages, and that the Scotch portfolio, including The Macallan, Famous Grouse and Highland Park, is doing well. The company, he said, intends to innovate by possibly introducing entry-level malts.

Because of the recent consumption trends favoring premium and superpremium wines and spirits, Chambers feels his company is in a sweet spot. “We deliver high quality products and high profit margin to distributors and retailers.”

Recent developments include an exclusive agreement with Napa-based Merryvale Vineyards, as well as contract renewals by the Antinori and Masi winery families, designating Remy Cointreau USA as exclusive importer for their products. In addition, the company will become the exclusive distributor for Metaxa, the line of Greek aperitifs, including brandy and Ouzo, a brand owned by Remy Cointreau SA.

“You can have the brands, but you also have to have the will to change, to take advantage of opportunities,” said Chambers. “Our ultimate goal is to make a good company into a great company.”

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