A Greek Wine Primer with Sommelier Liz Martinez
Many steakhouse wine lists feel like they’ve been phoned in from Cabernet central. In these restaurants, it’s no secret that the most popular red grape in America is king, followed by a whole court of other bold red wines. But for Liz Martinez, who’s in charge of designing the wine program for Detroit’s Prime + Proper, relying on the old classics was not an option.
Having spent years as a DJ, Martinez has an expansive musical palate, which is echoed in her wine preferences. After spending three years as a sommelier at Chicago’s Purple Pig, where obscure Portuguese, Greek and Sicilian bottles were standard issue and the wine list offered 90 wines by the glass, Martinez decided to shift gears, and moved to Detroit to run the wine program at this new Capitol Park steakhouse; with her came her dedication to underappreciated regions and grapes. One corner of her wine list is devoted to Croatian, Lebanese, Armenian and Greek wines, for guests who are willing to be more adventurous.
Martinez became particularly well-versed in Greek wines while working at the Purple Pig. A couple of years ago, she went with importer Ted Diamantes of Diamond Wine Imports to visit the most important areas for Greek wine production and emerged with a real love of the wines. She’s been proselytizing them ever since and it’s working – even in a steakhouse.
“I think people just don’t understand the country, and a lot of the varieties are kind of hard to say. Greek wine just hasn’t been on people’s radar for a very long time,” she says.
Here is Martinez’s guide to what she sees as the four most important regions to delve into, if you want to explore Greek wine.
The Aegean island of Santorini has such distinctive soil that Martinez became transfixed by it. “It’s three stories deep of volcanic soil studded with pumice stones,” she says. “There was a huge volcanic eruption on the island.” While the white wines, mostly from the Assyrtiko grape, that get the most attention on Santorini, Martinez has an appreciation for the reds as well. “They’re made from a really rare variety called Mavrotragano, which is often blended with another grape called Mandelaria. They’re medium-plus in weight with really dark red fruit, but they just have a nice balance.”
This Macedonian region is one of the most important areas for the Xinomavro grape, which is best represented by bottlings from two wineries, Kir Yianni and Domaine Karydas. “I compare Xinomavro to Nebbiolo; it has similar characteristics, in terms of aromatics and structure,” says Martinez. She even did a blind tasting with her tasting group in Detroit, all of whom have great palates, pitting Xinomavro against Nebbiolo. Even some of the stars of her group had a hard time discerning which was which.
Amyndeon is also in Macedonia, in the northwest corner of the region. Here, one of Greece’s most celebrated and significant winemakers, Angelo Iatridis, has his Alpha Estate. “He’s doing a lot of interesting things, working with Syrah, Xinomavro and a Sauvignon Blanc that I love, plus he’s experimenting with Assyrtiko, as well. He even has a tiny plot of Tannat [a grape from southwest France].”
Winemaker George Skouras has played a large role in putting this Peloponnese region on the international wine map. “Agiorgitiko is the king here,” Martinez says of this perfumey red grape. While Skouras works with local grapes, he’s also been a pioneer in bringing international varieties to the region. “His Megas Oenos, a blend of Agiorgitiko and Cabernet Sauvignon, is particularly majestic. It’s a wine that you could put up against a really cool Bordeaux,” says Martinez.
See the full list of the 2019 Sommeliers of the Year.