When it comes to the history of wine, there is clearly more than one viable origin story, but the one I like the best goes as follows: About 4,000 B.C. in Mesopotamia, there was a sad maiden who decided life was too much to bear, so she drank some spoiled grape juice that was sometimes used as a poison because it was full of bacteria. Much to the surprise of all, she not only awoke, but felt fine, even carefree — thank you very much. Being observant folk, the Mesopotamians tried some controlled experiments with spoiled, aka fermented, juice. Lo and behold they got happy, too. Eureka! Wine was born and for the next several centuries the Middle East and Mediterranean regions were the center of the wine universe.
Fast forward 6,000 years and this area is again on the wine map and garnering accolades for tasty well-made vino. We’ll focus on the two regions that feature wines from indigenous ancient grapes that are readily available stateside.
Let’s start in Greece where the industry was once dominated by funky pine-resin, infused wines called Retsina. Today’s wines are made to be more attractive to a world palate. The main red wines are made from Xinomavro and Agiorgitiko grapes. The former makes powerful tannic wine often labeled after the region of Naoussa and the latter makes spicy dark-cherry-flavored wines with softer palates. Both offer plenty of Old-World earthy character. Primary white grapes are Assyrtiko, Moschofilero and Muscat. When growing these on the Greek Islands vintners have had to develop a unique and labor-intensive system of training the vines into bird’s nest shapes because of fierce winds. In particular, the sweet whites from the islands are some of the most delicious and intensely flavored anywhere. All over Greece, white wines combine complex fruit, flower and spice flavors with crisp acidity — the type of wines that keep you coming back for another sip.
Next up is the wine region closest to where it all started – the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon and especially the high-elevation vineyards of snow-capped Mount Lebanon. Vintners, such as the Hochar Family of Chateau Musar, have suffered slings and arrows — I mean bullets and mortars — for decades to craft these beautiful wines that combine Bordeaux and Rhône varietals with native grapes. The results are wines of great character that easily and gracefully age for decades. If you are a fan of aged red Bordeaux or Rhône whites, these are right in your wheelhouse.
To find these gems, you will probably need to visit a major wine retailer, but the expansion of your wine journey and the tasty drinking experience make it worth the trip.