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A very good friend of mine is getting married this Fall who posed a wine pairing conundrum: which wine to serve? While there are endless possibilities, her situation had a couple of caveats:

1) The venue for the reception does not allow any red wine to be served, because the space is actually lined with white marble.
2) Oh, lamb is on the menu, so that white wine should pair well with that too…
3) … and there will be around 300 guests, so it has to have an excellent price to quality ratio.

The issue is a common one, I think, and we actually challenged ourselves in an office tasting two years ago that I wrote about on snooth, in which we paired whites wines with barbecue and red wines with fish … with great results. But on a value level (witAThinahout compromising quality, of course), it poses another level of difficulty.

It is easy enough to find a white wine that behaves like a red wine–but only at a certain price point. Wines with great, red wine-like structure, like a Savennières or a Ramato-style Pinot Grigio from Friuli, are not inexpensive, typically starting at around $30 on the retail shelf. Not exactly ideal for a larger crowd of 300.

The solution came after brainstorming with many of my restaurateurs and retailers. More off than not, the answer that came back was Assyrtiko from Greece (pronounced Ah-sere-tea-koh).

And why not? They do serve lots of lamb in Greece, so why not choose a Greek white? Grown on the poor soils of a volcanic crater-island, Assyrtiko offers richness, minerality, smoky, haunting flavors, making it a wine that really does lend itself well to red meat (and it works, we had it with meatloaf last weekend to test it out). And there are several good ones on the market: Athina, Argyros, Gai’a, Sigalas. Try it for yourself. And if it piques your interest, you can find out more about Assyrtiko and other Greek wines here or in a recent article by Eric Asimov.

This week I had the pleasure of pairing up with Jordan Zimmerman, the Education Director at Murray’s Cheese, for a consumer event at City Winery. My job was to select Greek wines; hers was to find the right cheese for each one. All the results were amazing, but here are three of my favorites and why they worked:

Pairing one: TEXTURE
The Wine: Moraitis Sillogi 2010. A blend of Assyrtiko and Malagousia from the Cycladic Islands, with crisp acidity and notes of honeydew melon, ripe apples, white pepper and a hint of minerality.
The Cheese: Hudson Flower: Sumptuously creamy sheep’s milk cheese from upstate with a bloomy, herbaceous rind–lemon thyme, marjoram, rosemary and more.

What worked? The zesty brightness (ie. acidity) of the wine harmonized perfectly with the dense, almost buttery texture of this cheese. Wines with higher acidity tend to refresh the palate when eating richer, fattier foods. In the same way, sparkling wines achieves the same effect: bubbles and paté, anyone?


Pairing two: BALANCE
The Wine: Semeli Mountain Sun Red 2010. A mainland red from the Peloponnese made entirely from Agiorgitiko. Bright notes of ripe, dark cherry, plum  and a hint of mocha with a spicy finish and although this isn’t a big wine, it does have some tannic backbone.
The Cheese: Ossau-Iraty Vieille. A granular cheese from the Pyrenees with rich, nutty and grassy flavors.

What worked? This pairing worked because this wine and cheese were balanced in both weight (eg non-fat milk versus half and half) and intensity of flavors. Neither was overpowered by the other.


Pairing three: FLAVOR
The Wine: Kiryanni Ramnista 2007. This wine, made from Xinomavro, showed beautifully, with lots of flavors unfolding on the palat: blackberries, dried cherries, tea leaves, smokiness.

The Cheese: Madaio Calcagno. Made from the milk of sheep grazing on Sardinian wild herbs and aged in stone caves in Campania– a truly Mediterranean cheese– with a wealth of flavors.

What worked? These wines achieved balance in the broad flavors and level of complexity. Flavors can be either complementary (matching citrus notes with fruit in a salad) or contrasting (chutney and roast tenderloin). For this pairing the intertwining flavors really elevated the sensory experience.

KIR - Ramnista

All this said however, any wine and cheese pairing is successful if you like it. And when it comes to pairing, the fun is in the trial and error… Even a bad match can be educational!

… well, four wonderful Greek grapes in any case.

Greek wines have been around for a long, long time… some 4,000 years to be sure! Greece (aka ‘the land of the wine-dark sea’) is not only responsible for spreading the vines throughout its colonies in Europe beginning in the 8th century, but also for ‘democratizing’ the drink and making it a social (rather than strictly religious) beverage. That said, upon mention of Greek wines, many still only think of ‘Retsina’ (traditional wine aged in pine resin) and this is usually followed by running and screaming to the hills.

So despite its illustrious beginnings, the  modern Greek wine industry had a lot of catching up to do since ancient times, but since the 60’s and 70’s, it has caught up quickly. Today Greece offers wines that are incredibly food-friendly because of the zesty acidity in both white and red wines AND at excellent value.

Moreover, it’s a wine adventurer’s dream: there are over 300 grape varieties that are indigenous to Greece to explore. Unfortunately, many people are intimidated by all these impossible-to-pronounce grapes and wines, so they tend to shun them altogether. If by chance you fall into this camp, there is help. Here are four grapes to help you get started:

1. Moschofilero (moss KOH feel air oh): A pink-skinned variety from mainland Greece known for floral, grape-fruited and citrus white wines (still or sparkling). It is similar in aromatics to the grape Muscat.

2. Assyrtiko (Ah SERE tee koh): A smokey, minerally white wine with haunting flavor and complexity, from the Cycladic islands, most notably the volcanic island of Santorini.

3. Agiorgitiko (aye YORE yeh tee koh): This is the noble red of mainland Greece in Nemea (where Hercules killed the lion) and is responsible for wines that range from lighter and fruity (but still with tannic grip) to deeper and more brooding flavors. The name is actually a corruption of ‘St. George.’

4. Xynomavro (zee NOH ma vroh): This northern Greek grape translates as ‘bitter-black’ but don’t let that scare you, it’s delicious and often described as a cross between Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo.

If these four grapes whet your appetite (and I think they will), you should check out the New Wines of Greece website, it’s packed with information … Happy exploring!