From Assyrtiko to Xinomavro with Greek Wine Maven Kamal Kouiri of Molyvos

A New York sommelier predicts Greece’s next big wine hit

Kamal Kouiri helped put Greek wines on the map with his work at Molyvos. Since 2000, he has watched the Greek wine world blossom from a couple hundred wineries to 900-some today, and has been putting every great bottle he can find on his list. Long gone are the days when he had to cajole guests into trying a Santorini; now, his biggest task is deciding what to show them next—and keeping prices reasonable.

Does Santorini still prevail?
Santorini used to dominate by the glass, but now I need to buy ten cases of wine to get maybe $22 a bottle—it doesn’t make economic sense. I worry for them: A Greek restaurant will always support Santorini, but non-Greek restaurants—why were they listing Santorini? Because it’s a classic region of the world, sure, but the economics also made sense. If you had chardonnay from Burgundy $30 a glass and put assyrtiko at $20 a glass, people would go for it. At the prices now, I don’t think a French restaurant is going to do Santorini by the glass.

Your best-selling wine was a xinomavro.
Maybe I’m biased a little bit—my grape is xinomavro. It gives me different things to play with. Xinomavro I can get from Amyndeon, from Naoussa, from Velvendos; Rapsani is coming along; there are a lot of small producers—all these things. And the producers have found a balance between fruit and oak. Greece’s economic struggle has actually helped—now they keep their barrels for a couple of years. Xinomavro is the next grape after Santorini, and it has even more potential than what we see now.

What’s the next Greek variety to watch for?
Vidiano will be the grape we will talk about in the future. It’s the grape of Crete, and Crete has always been there because it’s a tourist destination, but now it’s benefiting from a lot of small wineries. There’s this one vidiano [Karavitakis Crete Elia]—I’ve been watching it for three years now. It’s almost Sancerre-ish—in texture, minerality and limestone; there’s nice fruit to it and it’s so fresh. I bought one pallet and it’s already gone. It’s a wine that’s delicious when it’s young and fresh, but give it a few months and it will drink even better. And, next year it will take on even another dimension; vidiano can age.

Orange vs. natural wine:
It’s funny: Even though so many Greek wines are made naturally, people find orange wines are more “natural” than white. They want it funky and dark. They are mixing up “natural” with “orange.”

I tried an orange wine in Molyvos—a vidiano, orange, in amphora—and took it off the list. I put the same wine in at The Athenian [his own restaurant] and it’s flying. There, I have three orange wines and I’m always ordering them. So, I think it’s more a downtown thing—more rebellion, more, ‘we want natural wine.’ You don’t see that in Midtown.

Still, I sell more sparkling wine than orange wine, and that’s only about three percent of my sales.

Are people asking for Greek grappa?
People have been asking for byproducts of wine—for tsipouros. I have almost 14 tsipouoros now made from must—I also have ones made from pomace—but 14 made from must of mavrodaphne, sidirits, xinomavro…I couldn’t believe—am I dreaming? People are asking for these things. It’s cool, and for people who don’t know it, I tell them tsiporo drinks like grappa.

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Kamal Kouiri on Santorini

interviewed by Tara Q. Thomas