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Published: Tuesday, 5/11/2004

There is much to learn about the wines of Greece

After devoting almost all last week's column to Greek wines, I've kept on learning what I can - and so today it's back to Greek wines. It turns out that there are very many choices with which to celebrate Olympic winners.

With a thousand years and more, the Greek peasant farmers were unhurried in sorting out the best wine grapes they came across in the spread of the Greek cultural universe. As a result, today's Greek wine industry relies on a spectrum of wine grapes almost unknown on this side of Italy. A brief list sent my way by an importer counts 13 varieties of vines with brief notes; I recognized only one of the 13 names, Roditis, and knew little more than the name. (Made into either white or red wine, with a beguiling touch of acid; blended with the region's most widely planted white-wine grape, Savatiano, Roditis is often the wine base of retsina.)

Roditis is grown most widely in the Peloponnese, the bulging peninsula south of Corinth that leans west. It is the most productive of the major Greek wine districts, producing one out of every five bottles.

Wine is made everywhere in Greece, but in fitting what's to learn into order, and what to expect of these varied terroirs, you may find it helpful to relate wines and the grapes that produce them to the geography. One, with the least gentle climate, is the north, Macedonia; then central Greece, following a newly authorized district, Amyndon, stuck between Macedonia and central Greece; and finally, the islands of the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean, especially Crete and Santorini.

Keep that word, "authorized," in mind. Like countries where wine making is a well-developed industry, Greece now has an official system defining a guarantee of origin and, one expects, quality, like the Italian DOC, for example. In Greece, the initials to look for on the label are APOP and OPE, the latter an assurance that a sweet wine is made of the Muscat or Mavrodaphne grape.

Retsina, a light wine with a slight dose of pine resin, is, of course, distinctively Greek. Much more attractive Greek wines are sweet dessert wines, made principally on the island of Santorini, of two grapes. Muscat, a familiar source, but vinified in a different style, is one; the other is an indigenous grape, Mavrodaphne, which becomes elegant, silky, and complex with up to eight years' aging. Commercially, the outstanding dessert wine is Vinsanto, and the prospective customer is advised to buy the oldest he can afford!

WHY, I'M sometimes asked, can I buy wines in Michigan that I can't find here? Ask your state representative or state senator, because the Ohio Liquor Control Commission - which without prior notice just doubled the already substantial price of a retailer's licence - has a chokehold on the supply, availability, and price of wine.

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