Wandering Sommelier: Jean K. Reilly in Greece

Wandering Sommelier: Jean K. Reilly in Greece

Jean K. Reilly MW, the wine director of Morrell Wine Bar & Café at Rockefeller Center in New York City, recently visited Greece. In addition to meeting local winemakers and visiting vineyards, she went off the beaten path in search of authentic food at local tavernas. Here, she shares her favorite wine and food finds.

Oinomageiremata, in Naoussa
In the quaint, hilltop town of Naoussa, I had dinner with Stellios Boutaris, owner of the nearby Kir-Yianni winery (kiryianni.gr), who had brought along a bottle of his 1991 Ramnista. It quickly became the star of the evening. It was a double magnum, so it evolved very slowly and become enormously complex in the process. The dinner was equally astonishing, both for the delicate seasoning of the dishes and because they were regional specialties, fashioned in a culinary style I had not run into in any of the burgeoning number of cutting-edge Greek restaurants I haunt in New York. The best dish with the wine was zigouri, lamb that is slow cooked with herbs and onions. Zigouri is actually the name of a lamb of a certain age; in the same way that the Eskimos have many words for snow, the Greeks have many different words for lamb. My next visit to Oinomageiremata will be on a Tuesday. The restaurant is closed on Mondays because the owner, Dimitris, goes fishing in the Aegean. On Tuesday, they serve whatever he catches. Venizelou Naousa, 30/(6) 233-202-3576

Selene, on Santorini
When you visit a country for the first time, you always have ideas about the dishes you will run into. Sometimes they are spot on, sometimes they are way off. I expected to see phyllo-wrapped packages everywhere in Greece, and I did, but only on the corners, at the street food vendors. I quickly realized that phyllo is not considered fancy enough for even the most casual restaurants. Selene, on the island of Santorini, was one of the few really swank restaurants I visited on this trip and there it was on the menu, spanakopita, the famous phyllo-wrapped spinach pie. The plate was actually a deconstruction of spanakopita, with fresh spinach leaves, a poached farm egg, crispy homemade bread similar to flatbread, and a timbale of spinach cooked in herbs with a goat cheese foam on the side. And, just to add a nontraditional touch, some siglino (smoked pork). It was a stunning combination of flavors and textures. I was fortunate to have a wide range of wines from Santorini to wash down this exceptional dish, having just attended a tasting with a number of the local winemakers. Santorini produces some of the most exceptional white wines in the world. The volcanic soil and the windswept nature of the island imbue them with unusual intensity and an unmistakable mineral streak. I firmly believe that Santorini’s principal white grape, Assyrtiko, is equal to grapes such as Chardonnay in terms of the quality of wines it can produce. Pyrgos village near the central square, 30 /(6) 228-602-2249, selene.gr

Krinaki, on Santorini
Krinaki is located in the village of Finikia, but has no street address, as it is several pedestrian walkways from any road. I had lunch there with Paris Sigalas, one of the owners of nearby Domaine Sigalas (sigalas-wine.com). Like many Greek winemakers, he studied winemaking in France and was therefore more comfortable speaking French than English. This was no problem for the group of sommeliers from Montreal that I was traveling with and quite enjoyable for me; conversations about food and wine seem to take on another dimension in French. We were treated to several bottles of older Santorini that had aged marvelously, taking on Riesling-like petrol aromas without losing any of the bright acidity that makes the wine a superlative food partner. It made a thrilling pairing with the yellow fava bean spread (shown at top). I doubt that there were any unusually brilliant ingredients in the smooth and comforting concotion; just a local strain of fava bean, the flavor of which is irreproducible outside this small, geologically unique island. Tigania followed, a side of pig roasted in wine whose flavors were so delectable that after the meat was finished (which didn’t take long), several of my companions used the pork drippings as a sauce for the fresh local bread. After we had taken in the stunning views during our leisurely meal on the terrace, a stroll through the untouristed hillside town of Finikia proved an irresistible pleasure, not to mention a good way to combat the effects of a nine-course lunch that wrapped up with pork fat. Centre of Finikia, Oia, 30/(6) 228-607-1993, krinaki-santorini.gr

Tholos, in Ano Doliana
One night I ventured to a cliffside town called Ano Doliana, which clings perilously to the side of Mount Parnon in the Peloponnese. The winding road that led up the mountain seemed to be about a foot narrower than our car; I was convinced we would go hurtling down a cliff at any minute and I had trouble believing that there was a taverna in this deserted, isolated outpost. But there was, and a popular one at that. It was one rustic spot—bathrooms? Outside. The place was so tucked away, I had the feeling I was one of only a few non-Greeks ever to experience it. I remember very well the sautéed wild greens, something of a cross between dandelion greens and broccolini; apparently there is no translation in English. And then there was the feta. I had great feta throughout Greece, but here it was particularly moist and flavorful; I’ve spent a good amount of time since I’ve been back home in NYC trying to find feta of the same quality, but no luck. Everything was served family style, as is the custom across Greece. A heaping platter of roasted lamb went exceptionally well with the local Nemea reds, based on Agiorghitiko, a very characterful grape capable of making wines that can rival the world’s most famous. 220 Doliana 13, Kastri Arcadia, Peloponnese, 30/(6) 271-022-7635

Gavrilis, in Kouvaras
The town of Porto Rafia is a beautiful coastal community just an hour outside of Athens. In the summer, the beaches are crowded with the beautiful people of Athens taking refuge from the steamy city. Although there were many seaside restaurants with stunning views, I wanted to continue my quest for restaurants untrodden by tourists, Greek or not. I headed inland, to the town of Kouvaras, where I had dinner with Tonia and Vassili Papagiannakos, the super-charming owners of the super-unpronounceable Domaine Papagiannakos winery.

In this part of the world, the butcher and the taverna owner are often the same person. Guests accompany the owner to the meat locker, where they look over the sides of meat and pick out the parts they want for dinner. It was the mutton I was after here, a specialty of this taverna. It was rich and flavorful, with some similarities to lamb but having a more robust, penetrating flavor. Papagiannakos is famous in Greece and abroad for white wines made from Savatiano, a grape that came close to stealing my heart away from Assyrtiko over the course of the meal. I was surprised at how well it handled the flavorful mutton. I left very content at having found a great wine partner for mutton and hoping (foolishly?) that I would get to use that knowledge sooner rather than later.
47 Ag. Dimitriou Str, 30/(6) 229-906-9092

Jen grew up in Pt. Pleasant, NJ (yes, the Shore), escaped to school in Boston, and fell in love with travel when she went abroad to study in Australia. After nearly ten years of eating and drinking herself silly in NYC, she finally reached the west coast. Things that makes her happy: the ocean, books, mountains, bikes, friends, good beer, ice cream, unplanned adventures, football, live music.
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