Greek aromas

To the Metropolitan hotel for a fascinating symposium on Greek wine given by the eloquent and profoundly knowledgeable John Szabo. He goes to Greece almost as often as I do and has devoted much energy to a study of the modern wine industry there. It’s unfortunate that so few of the excellent products enter our sphere of consciousness in Canada but hopefully that will change now that funds have been found to set up organisations in Toronto and Montreal that are virtually wine embassies for Greece. Expect to encounter far more high-quality krassi on restaurant wine lists in years to come.

To that end, perhaps, there seemed to be an exceptional number of sommeliers in Szabo’s audience. This time he concentrated on four grape varieties – moschofilero, aghiorgitiko, assyrtiko and xinomavro (his pronunciation was spot-on). Moschofilero is always a delight – our summertime house white on Corfu – as crisp, lightweight and refreshing as a pinot grigio from the Alto Adige but with an aromatic nose that sometimes reminds me of gewürztraminer or alvarinho and sometimes of torrontes. The assyrtiko wines Szabo chose were from Santorini – fantastically dense, full-bodied whites with negligible fruitiness but spectacular minerality. The vines produce hardly any fruit but are woven into living baskets in the barren volcanic soil to protect them from the ceaseless winds and scorching sun. He presented a decent Chablis alongside – a great idea – both wines are such ascetic conduits for their own terroir; and both are capable of almost infinite subtlety within their narrow spectra.

At lunchtime, when the symposium went downstairs for a fine, very un-Greek buffet and a chance to taste another 36 wines, I sought out the Santorini assyrtikos. Szabo had mentioned how unexpectedly well they had worked when paired with grilled lamb chops and indeed they stood up to everything the hotel threw at them, from salmon sashimi to kebabs. Vintages occasionally brings in one of these wines and they are always worth buying.

There was another epiphany waiting at the end of the event. I am a muscat freak and seek out any examples of the broad and rowdy and often magnificent muscat family whenever possible. I had hoped there might be some viscous, golden, sweet delight from Samos, such as Byron adored, but instead I found something much more vibrant. Patras is a seaport on the northern coast of the Peloponnese. They make a sweet red wine there from mavrodaphne and corinthiaki that is sometimes called “Greek port” by people with no palates at all and was often used as communion wine in the Church of England, when I was a choirboy. But they also press a sweet white wine from muscat grapes that have been picked and left to turn into raisins on beds of straw, like a Hellenic vin de paille. Parparousis is the producer of this bewitching elixir. Fabulously sweet but with a piercing acidity, like an icewine on steroids, it filled my head with its grapey muscat perfume. “Try it with some blue cheese,” said sommelier Christian Lupu, who was pouring on behalf of the importers ( Luckily there was a massive wedge of young moist Stilton over on the cheese table so I was able to take his advice. Oh yes. Yes indeed. The wickedly rich saltiness of the cheese was neatly balanced by the sweetness and acidity in the wine – like the ultimate gladiatorial battle of equally matched warriors fighting with totally different weapons. My mouth was the coliseum. Two thumbs up.

But blue cheese is like that. I can’t think of any other little food-group that provides so many earth-moving moments. Port and Stilton, obviously (and if you’ve never actually tried it, you haven’t lived). Also Ardbeg single malt whisky from Islay (the most phenolic one of the lot) and Cabrales, the Spanish blue: that one will dissolve your tongue. And here’s another: Featherstone gewurztraminer icewine from Niagara with German cambazola. Think about it… Gentler, creamier, heavier and more limpid, more floral – but awesome. Surround yourself with gardenias when you make the experiment just to gild the olfactory lily. You may never be seen again.

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