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A Grand Greek Wine Tasting: More Than Just Retsina at Memorial Wine Cellar

Evan Turner, sommelier at Memorial Wine Cellar and expert on all things Greek.
Evan Turner, sommelier at Memorial Wine Cellar and expert on all things Greek.

I guess I need to get in the habit of drinking more wine, as I only made it through 14 of the 21 wines available at Memorial Wine Cellar yesterday evening for sommelier Evan Turner's grand Greek wine tasting event before throwing my hands up in happy defeat. Turner has long been a passionate advocate for Greek wine and food -- and for bringing more authentic forms of both to Houston, breaking down American assumptions of what Greek wine and food are in the process.

Turner, who lived for a time in Thessaloniki, had brought in nearly three dozen different wines from the mountainous country to taste. He'd even brought Kir-Yanni Vineyards owner Stelios Boutaris in from Greece to explain why there's never been a better time to get into Greek grapes.

"Consider us the 'new' old world," joked Boutaris to the crowd at yesterday's packed event. "We're not making just another Cabernet or just another Chardonnay." There are more than 300 different varietals of Greek grapes, Boutaris explained, each with their own unique flavor profiles and personalities.

The taste and nose of Greek wines may be somewhat familiar, Boutaris said, and somewhat close to French or Italian wines. But, he said, "they're done our own way."

A Grand Greek Wine Tasting: More Than Just Retsina at Memorial Wine Cellar

Although I only nosed my way into the red wine portion of the night's tasting, my eyes were opened by the fantastically light and sharp whites that I tried. Of particular note were two of the more inexpensive bottles: an Alpha Estate Sauvignon Blanc from the snowy vineyards of Florina and an Estate Hatzimichalis Chardonnay from the Atalanti Valley, not far from where the famous Battle of Thermopylae was fought.

Neither tasted exactly like a Sauvignon Blanc or a Chardonnay, but they retained some strikingly similar characteristics nevertheless: the Alpha Estate had a light sweetness to it, but the sweetness of figs and citrus. And the Estate Hatzimichalis had a faint oaky, buttery flavor -- it is partially aged in French oak barrels, after all -- but was bright with notes of pears, peaches and apricots.

Throughout the evening, Turner walked through the crowds explaining not only the wines but also the food that he made for the event along with his wife, Elissa, and their friend and chef Will Springfield. It was not your traditional spread of Greek meze in any sense, and that's just how Turner planned it.

A Grand Greek Wine Tasting: More Than Just Retsina at Memorial Wine Cellar

"These are chips made with anchovies and black olives," he explained of addictively crispy little crackers made even better when spread with htipiti, a dip made with a blend of tart feta and yogurt, chile flakes and red pepper. He'd also made an enormous array of other dishes that could be instant classics in Houston, given our appreciation for Mediterranean flavors: a winter salad with cabbage, olives, parsley and dill; Greek "fajitas" marinated with white wine, olive oil, garlic and lemon served over wilted dandelion greens; meatballs in a creamy avgolemono sauce.

Turner even tried to make some traditional Greek crawfish but was stymied by the lack of large enough crawdads this season. He substituted shrimp, though, and all was forgiven by a boil thick with fennel, paprika, chile flakes and ouzo. Turner's dream has been to open a Greek place of his own, serving more authentic Greek dishes such as these, and we were lucky to get a taste of what he could accomplish with the right restaurant. Houston has a great many Greek restaurants, but most of them offer up the same parade of standards each and every time, marching in expected formation. A Greek restaurant like the one of Turner's dreams would turn them all on their ears, and the city would be richer for it.

A Grand Greek Wine Tasting: More Than Just Retsina at Memorial Wine Cellar

Another favorite last night, a Sigalas Assyrtiko Santorini made with uniquely Greek Assyrtiko grapes, was also one of the big crowd-pleasers. It was vibrant and bright, sharp but soft with fruit, and I believed it when sommelier Jonathan Honefenger -- one of Turner's buddies who'd turned out in support -- told me it was also one of Greece's best.

When he was working at Brennan's of Houston as a wine neophyte, the Sigalas was the first case of wine Honefenger bought by himself, a decision that James Koonce -- Brennan's respected sommelier -- disagreed with. Greek wines just don't sell the way that other old world wines do.

"This is on your head," Honefenger remembers Koonce telling him. So he put it on happy hour menus, sold it by the glass: anything to get patrons to give the Greek wine a shot. It worked, and before long the Sigalas had become one of the restaurant's best-selling wines.

Honefenger, like Turner, believes that people will come to love Greek wines if given a chance. After last night, I'm a believer too.



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