When we say “I love Greek wine” we are specifically referring to bottled, eponymous wine that bears an official label. The sort of wine made under modern, international standards by wineries and winemakers committed to serving their wine-producing zone(s) and respective grape varieties, as well as to respecting their consumers.
Why do we feel the need to clarify all the above, addressing an international audience? Well, that’s because wine lovers (and tourists in general) visiting Greece from abroad will often come into contact with wine served in a carafe or a characteristic tin jug commonly called “katroutso“, a slang word derived from the Italian “quartuccio“, referring to the quantity it can hold: a quarter of a kilo. This is what we call “loose” wine – the local word is “heema” – and it’s usually served in tavernas and traditional meze restaurants, while one will also see it pictured in advertisements in tourist guides and magazines or even in billboards in major tourist destinations, such as airports. You see, loose or heema wine is somehow considered pure, quaint, traditional, cute, in other words the definition of Greek wine.
The reality, however, is nowhere near as romantic or straightforward. Constant random checks show that a considerable proportion of the loose wine that’s available in the market – especially in popular tourist spots – is of the lowest quality and often sourced outside of Greece, crossing the borders in large vat-carrying trucks. As one can understand, such a “procurement” process is not always 100% legal and under such circumstances quality control is not exactly a priority. In fact, while corner shop owners or waiters will try to persuade you that this is wine that is made by traditional methods and is as “un-adulterated” as it can be, the reality will probably be that it was made by industrial means in large scale, with the usual sulphites that are used in winemaking added, in these cases, in abundance, in order to provide life support to low quality, semi-oxidized wines for as long as possible (the next morning’s hangover will easily attest to all that). Finally, the price or value advantage of loose versus bottled wine is very easily dismissed if one considers that fact that in most cases loose wine is purchased at prices that range between 70 and 90 cents per kilo, only to be sold at a taverna for an average price of 9 euro per kilo (when you do the math, feel free to freak out at the extent of overcharging)!
So what should one do? Well, the most straightforward answer is to always ask for bottled wine, meaning PDO, PGI as well as varietal wines by established producers from all over Greece, for reasons such as respect, responsibility, quality and – let’s not forget – traceability. Oh, and by the way, because, in their striking majority, these wines are much more enjoyable than any loose wine and will pair with Greek food perfectly.
And what happens at establishments where only anonymous caraffe/loose wine is served? There the consumer is perfectly entitled to ask where/how the wine was sourced, as well as questions about its producer, varieties, origin, etc. By the way, if a taverna owner or waiter were to offer the easy, usual answer that “this wine is our own production“, I, for one, would be very sceptical. I would ask for more information about their vineyards and/or winemaking infrastructure and, even if it was true, I would definitely not be happy paying for a taverna owner’s amateur attempts at winemaking, in a country that boasts established wineries with award-winning wines that will not only pair well with my meal, but will actually offer me a true gastronomic experience. Finally, if you ask me, at places where only loose wine is served, I either bring my own bottle or drink a nice cold beer, or even move on to the next establishment, where I will find a good list of bottled, eponymous wines.
Above all, please don’t believe that by drinking loose wine in a glass carafe or a tin katroutso you’re doing “what the locals do” or that you are supporting Greek wine; true wine lovers in Greece choose, enjoy and share the eponymous bottled wines of our many top quality winemakers. By doing the same, you are actually helping the Greek wine sector to claim its position in the domestic and global market by promoting not just our country’s rich wine heritage, but, more importantly, its unique terroirs, grape varieties and know-how. Thank you!