Drinking with Dionysus: an Insider Guide to the Vineyards of Southern Greece

Guiding us through Cretan organic estates and introducing us to innovators on Kos, sommelier Mark Osburn takes us on an assyrtiko-assisted pilgrimage through the vineyards of southern Greece.

Does wine taste better when sipped on its home soil? It's a question we've long pondered. Regardless of the science, we've rarely tasted better bins than those served at a local Greek taverna, atop a blue-checked tablecloth, in a glass carafe.

Having recently returned from a wine-scouting trip in Greece, sommelier and SommSelect discoveries manager Mark Osburn is well versed in the country's most exciting wineries and vineyards. Fresh from exploring its historic landscapes and fascinating growing techniques, he's come to the conclusion that Greece is one of the most unique wine nations on earth, deserving of a place beside Tuscany's brunette hillside terraces and Bordeaux's château-crowned vineyards. We sat down with the grape connoisseur to find out why we should be paying attention to Hellenic bins, and to get some expert tips on the vineyards to visit when planning a wine-focused trip.

A sommelier's pick of Greece's top vineyards

SommSelect Sommelier, Mark Osburn
White grapes sit in the hand of a winemaker at Kos' vineyard Ktima Akrani

SommSelects' Mark Osburn, left, and the harvest at Ktima Akrani Winery on Kos.


The micro-scale farming and powerfully distinct terroir of Santorini will mesmerise wine lovers. With a curved backbone spanning just 19km, the island is small enough that everything is a short drive away, no matter where you're staying, making it perfect for visiting multiple locations. Mark recommends choosing one base - somewhere like the 12-suite Istoria - and then setting off from there to visit the various wineries.

The unique low-level vines of Santorini at Hatzidakis Winery


Hatzidakis Winery

Why visit: "If you know Santorini, you'll know of the late Haridimos Hatzidakis, 'The Wizard of Wine'. He was a mastermind who toiled for decades, conducting innovative, industry-leading work that still reverberates today. Considered by many to be the most talented winemaker to ever grace the island, he was a fearless champion for natural farming and low-intervention winemaking. His vinous creations first impressed locals in the 90s, then importers, before eventually making their way onto top wine lists and into shops around the world. Today, his daughters oversee this jewel-box estate and its newly built, state-of-the-art winery. It's by appointment only - but worth the hassle."

What to try: "Keep an eye out for assyrtiko, the white wine grape native to Santorini. At Hatzidakis, the Skitali and Cuvée No.15 assyrtikos are a must. If you're lucky, they'll uncork an older nykteri for you."


Kallistis, Pyrgos, Thira 84701, Santorini

The entrance to Estate Argyros in Santorini


Estate Argyros

Why visit: "You'll definitely find Argyros bottles on the tables at tavernas across Santorini, as well as in wine stores further afield. Next year marks the vineyard's 120th anniversary, making now a great time to visit."

What to try: "The Cuvée Monsignori. The vineyard has a selection of ungrafted, seemingly immortal vines that have soaked up the island's volcanic soils for over 200 years. The vineyard uses the fruits to create an assyrtiko of jaw-dropping power and beauty."


Episkopi Gonias, Thira 84700, Santorini

The Koutsoyannopoulos Winery in Santorini, Greece
Photo credit: Antonio Gravante / Shutterstock.com


Koutsoyannopoulos Winery

Why visit: "By Santorini standards, Koutsoyannopoulos is a relic, having been operating since 1880. If you ever find yourself at the winery, prepare to learn all about its origins in the winery's peculiar, hand-built museum. Deep underground is a sprawling maze filled with the history of Santorini winemaking, complete with audio guides and (slightly terrifying) animatronics. Still, the overarching lesson here is that Koutsoyannopoulos is one of Greece's oldest, most venerable winemaking families. In recent decades, it has been a pioneer in reviving the island's ancient vine-growing traditions. Today, fourth-generation owner Georgios Koutsoyannopoulos crafts world-class assyrtikos from the family's small estate."

What to try: "Got a sweet tooth? Pray they'll open an old vin santo for you."


Vothonas 84700, Santorini


Although not as well known as Santorini, the sprawling island of Crete has no need to fight for the limelight. This verdant, topographically diverse paradise is home to some of the most historic winemaking traditions on Earth. It's one of those stunning, untouched landscapes that feels frozen in ancient times - just like its wines. Bed down at Manili Boutique Suites, and don't miss Osburn's favourite restaurant, Peskesi, in Heraklion.

Lyrarakis Estate, Crete
Photo credit: Lyrarakis Estate


Lyrarakis Estate

Why visit: "Lyrarakis Estate is a quick 30-minute drive from the capital city of Heraklion, making it a perfect, stress-free destination for those wishing to dip their toes into the Cretan wine scene. You'll experience a gaggle of local grape varieties that you've never heard of - dafní, plytó, melissaki - but don't let that scare you away. Lyrarakis has been largely responsible for elevating Crete's contemporary wine scene in the past decade."

What to try: "Give those local grapes a try: dafní, plytó and melissaki."


Alagni, Arkalochori, Heraklion 70300, Crete

Crates of white grapes that have just been harvested


Domaine Paterianakis

Why visit: "This is Crete's very first certified organic winery, and is run by sisters Emmanouela and Nicky, the third generation of the Paterianakis family. Book a lunch with them and they'll treat you to a seasonal, homemade meal paired with five estate wines. I recommend scheduling your visit in tandem with one to Lyrarakis Estate, since they're situated within 2km of each other."

What to try: "The vibrant vidiano and juicy, lightly spicy kotsifali-mandilari red blend are standouts. Keep an eye out for the tsikoudia, too. It's a special Cretan brandy produced from grape pomace."


Meleses, Heraklion 70300, Crete

The Peloponnese

Greece's Peloponnese region is home to some of the world's most storied winemakers. Head to the ancient Nemea Valley, where Hercules supposedly slayed his first lion, and Zeus built a personal sanctuary, to discover some exotic and unusual white wines. Most of the wineries in the region offer on-site accommodation, so inexperienced oenophiles needn't worry about making it back home after a full-on tasting experience.

Vineyards in front of a craggy hill in the Nemea region, Greece


Seméli Estate

Why visit: "Established over 40 years ago, Seméli is located at an altitude of 550m, in hilly Koutsi. This sky-reaching region ranks among the top 'crus' for wine production in Nemea, the best-known PDO (Protected Denomination of Origin) on Greece's Peloponnese peninsula."

What to try: "Along with Nemea reds from the estate's prized agiorgitiko grape, Seméli specialises in whites from the neighbouring Mantinia PDO. Look out for the moschofilero variety."


Koutsi, Nemea 20500

Mecuri Estate in Greece


Mercouri Estate

Why visit: "Mercouri is one of the oldest family-owned wineries in Greece. Despite the newer renovations, its enchanting, old-school charm still shines as you explore the original family home from 1874, the rustic agro-museum and the domed chapel, all of which overlook the dazzling Ionian Sea."

What to try: "Refosco, now known locally as 'mercouri', is a prominent grape that you'll only find on this estate."


Korakochori 27100

The rock-edged town of Monemvasia, Greece


Monemvasia Winery

Why visit: "I'll be honest. Monemvasia is worth a visit and its terroir tour is brilliant, but the reason I always recommend the winery is because of the eponymous town of Monemvasia, a short drive away. It's an ancient Greek marvel - a tiny island town accessible only by a narrow bridge, with a striking medieval castle at its heart that is carved directly out of the rockface."

What to try: "A bit of everything: moschofilero, asproudi, assyrtiko, monemvasia, roditis, agiorgitiko and mavroudi."


Aggelona 23052

Red syrah grapes on the vine


Gaia Wines

Why visit: "Although Gaia's Santorini bottlings are some of the most admired 'back pocket' wines in sommelier circles, it's important to know that the producer also has a second location on the mainland, here in Nemea. Come to try bins of flagship agiorgitiko grape. My favourite is blended with syrah."

What to try: "The syrah."


Koutsi, Nemea 20500


Windswept Paros made its fortune in ancient times thanks to its fertile soils and temperate climate, and those same virtues make growing grapes a doddle on the Cyclades isle. Base yourselves in the bougainvillea-draped mountain town of Lefkes, then head out to find the island's best bins.

Vines growing in Paros, Greece


Moraitis Winery

Why visit: "The Moraitis family has been making wine on Paros for well over 100 years and this is regularly ranked among the top organic estates in the Cyclades. So, if you're planning a trip to Santorini, I strongly suggest adding Paros to the list. It's just a quick ferry ride over.

What to try: "Those who enjoy a thirst-quenching Provençal pink should seek out Moraitis' own rosés, made from aidani."


Naoussa Paros 84401


The Bounty ad beaches of Kos bely the island's craggy, rambunctious interior. Ignore the pull of Poseidon, though, and you'll find an unruly wilderness, dotted with Corinthian ruins, lush flora and a strange, almost tropical climate.

Workers walk through the vines at Ktima Akrani Winery, Greece


Ktima Akrani (Triantafyllopoulos) Winery

Why visit: "Located just 5km off the coast of Turkey, Kos is known as the 'Garden of the Aegean' because of its verdant landscape. Despite its distance from Greece proper, this lush island is worth the trouble. Ktima Akrani promises familiar wines served up within a tropical oasis, producing modern-style wines from well-established grape varieties. Its work, in a short time, has rekindled Kos' winemaking fame and made the winery one to watch in the region."

What to try: "There's a lot to unpack here, but keep an eye out for regional varieties like athiri and malagousia."


Miniera, Asfendiou 85300

The Lowdown

Sommelier Mark Osburn is the discoveries manager at SommSelect, which provides a sommelier-curated selection of bottles for curious wine drinkers.

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