A Greek Food and Wine Pairing Odyssey at Home in Australia: Finding Greek Wines for the Dishes Yiayia Used to Make
Greek food holds a special place in my heart.
I grew up in Australia and, for the most part, I ate what other kids ate: roast dinners, Vegemite toast, and lamingtons (sponge cake squares covered in chocolate and coconut). But unlike most Aussie kids, I had a love for Kalamata olives, which I ate by the handful.
My love of olives from a young age might be attributed to the Greek side of my family. Most weekends I visited my warm and generous yiayia (Greek for grandma), who is from the beautiful Greek island of Kythera. Visiting Yiayia was my first introduction to a cuisine that had a name: Greek food.
When I ‘fell into’ wine it was in part because wine offered a way to stay in the moment. I now see that wine introduced—or possibly, re-introduced—me to a way of life typical of traditional wine-drinking cultures. That is, a way of life that is focused on enjoying food, having long lunches with wine, and cooking recipes that have been cooked for generations.
We didn’t have Greek wines, or any wines in fact, at Yiayia’s house growing up, but recently I started to get curious about which Greek wines would pair well with the plates she typically prepared.
So, I set out on a culinary adventure to cook those plates my yiayia made and pair them with Greek wines.
On Cooking Greek Food
My experience of Greek food has typically been that everyone selects what they want to eat from a smorgasbord of food, including taramasalata (fish roe dip), dolmades (vine leaves stuffed with rice), spanakopita (spinach pie), keftedes (small meatballs), pastitsio (spaghetti and mince lasagne), lamb with lemon potatoes, and a greek salad. Of course, there is dessert too.
I tried to make all of these dishes, plus some, and I was exhausted, sweaty, and covered in garlic, lemon juice and olive oil. In fact, the cooking process was like taking a trip to Greece; wasps came into my apartment and hovered around the sweet melomakaronas (orange and spice-flavoured biscuits covered in honey syrup and crushed walnuts), which reminded me of being in Kythera, where wasps swarm around the flowers while goats climb the cliff-face looking down to the turquoise waters.
Shopping for Greek cooking is also tougher than I expected. Silverbeet for the spanakopita poked out of the shopping bag making it hard to carry and the quantity of lemons needed for the dishes weighed down the shopping basket. One thing became clear though: In Greek cooking there are a lot of lemons, red onions, and tomatoes, and so many of the dishes are quite acidic and should be paired with high acid wines.
On Greek Wines
Greek wines can be hard to find in Australia, though this is changing now as the quality of modern Greek wines is recognised.
The Assyrtiko grape makes a refreshing, dry white wine, and it’s most famously grown on the island of Santorini. Malagousia is a grape variety that was almost extinct but now makes elegant, aromatic white wines likened to those from Alsace in France. Mavrotragano is grown in Santorini and is used to make rosé. On the Peloponese, Agioritiko is used to make a quality red wine and in the north of Greece, Xinomavro is used to make deeply coloured, tannic red wines.
There are a number of famous sweet wines from Greece, including a Vinsanto from Santorini and Muscat from the island of Samos.
On Greek Food and Wine Pairings
It is possible to pair Greek food with Australian wines, but since food and wine often evolve together to complement each other, it makes sense to pair Greek food with Greek wines.
The Thalassitis White Dry Wine is produced by Gaia Estate from Assyrtiko grapes grown in Santorini and is a versatile white wine that can be paired with a number of Greek dishes. Its crisp acidity pairs well with the lemon in Greek dishes, such as the lemon potatoes and even the lamb baked in lemon juice and oregano. It also pairs well with vegetarian dolmades, spanakopita, Greek salad, and seafood, such as prawn saganaki (prawns baked in tomato sauce and crumbled feta). The minerality of this wine embodies the taste of Santorini and the honeysuckle aromas are delightful.
Malagousia is an aromatic white wine and the Malagousia produced by Avantis Estate has an intense nose of exotic fruits, rose, and orange blossoms. It’s a rich wine on the palate and pairs well with my favourite Greek dip, taramasalata. (I think some taramasalata, pita bread and a bottle of Avantis Malagousia is a recipe for supreme happiness.) This Malagousia also paired well with vegetarian dolmades.
A trio of Greek dips, which may include taramasalata, would pair well with the dry Domaine Sigalas rosé from Santorini made from the grape varieties of Mavrotragano and Mandilaria. This rosé is a gorgeous, deep ruby colour and is fruity on the palate with good minerality on the finish.
Pastitsio pairs well with a medium-bodied, velvety Agiorgitiko, such as the Lafazanis Agiorgitiko Cabernet Sauvignon blend. This Lafazanis Agiorgitiko, with dark spicy cherry aromas, also paired well with keftedes and lamb.
I think a better match for the lamb, though, is the Alpha Estate blend of Syrah, Merlot and Xinomavro, which is a superb, complex wine. It has an intense nose of red cherries and vanilla and a long finish.
My favourite Greek biscuit is the melomakarona, which is coated in a syrup made from honey, orange peel and cinnamon. This biscuit is a perfect match for the golden vin doux of Samos, which has honey, apricot and orange peel on the nose and honey and dried apricots on the palate. The vin doux of Samos enhances the flavours of the melomakarona, which is a nice surprise since I didn’t think they could taste any better.
In sum, Greek wines are food friendly and what is most important is that everyone drinks the wines that they like with their meal. If I was to choose one white and one red for sharing, it would be an Assyrtiko for the white and a Xinomavro blend for the red.