My Big Fat Greek Food and Wine Pairings
Written by Denise Kotopoulos on March 23, 2011
I wasn’t born with this difficult-to-pronounce Greek last name. My maiden name is Murphy – plain, simple and easy to spell. I’m sad to say that cooking wasn’t a big part of my upbringing. Most of what I consumed as a child came from a can or was boiled to death. (Sorry, Mom!) But all is not lost. At just about the same time I fell in love with my husband, I fell in love with Greek food. My taste buds came alive the minute I stepped inside my mother-in-law, YiaYia Effie’s kouzina and to this day, nothing compares, in my book, to Greek cuisine, especially when paired with the right wines!
This year our respective observations of Easter Sunday (Catholic and Eastern Orthodox) are celebrated on the same day giving me the perfect cross-cultural occasion to prepare Greek dishes for my family and experiment with wines that make them come to life. It’s not every year that these two holidays are in synch with one another. It just so happens that this year, like last year, the two dates coincide. Although it’s fun to celebrate each holiday separately, I love the result when the two dates happen together.
Although the Traveling Vineyard doesn’t carry Greek wines, other international varietals can certainly substitute when it comes to pairing with Greek dishes. In fact, wines from most Mediterranean regions work well. This month, I’m suggesting a Rhône-style blend from southern France, a Spanish Tempranillo, and a selection crafted from a native Italian grape. I’ve also included a few copycats from California and other international regions that have adopted signature European grapes, namely Argentina and Australia.
I’m focusing on three major categories of food popular at the Greek-American table: cheese and veggies, fish and red meat. You’ll find these ethnic foods and the delicious wines I’m pairing with them appropriate at any hyphenated American table and especially delicious for your next Spring celebration!
Cheese and Veggies
No Greek meze is complete without feta cheese. Meze literally means “taste” or “bite”. Think of it like Spanish “tapas”. These small portion plates during cocktail hour give you the opportunity to try out many different wines – a buffet of wines along with your buffet of food!
For a Mediterranean starter, try hummus layered with cucumbers, tomatoes, kalamata olives and lots of feta served with toasted pita chips. This easy to prepare appetizer really shines alongside a Tempranillo-based red like our 2002 Palaciego, Riserva, Rioja Spain (SPA099). As a lighter red with mild tannins similar in weight to a Pinot Noir or Sangiovese, Tempranillo is a real crowd pleaser. Spiced cherry and cranberry fruit flavors cut the thick texture of the hummus as the vegetal quality of the wine is brought out by the chopped veggies. Salty feta beautifully contrasts the raspberry-strawberry fruitiness in the wine.
Leek Patties (Prasokeftetha)
The first time I experienced these little cakes filled with feta cheese, cottage cheese, bread crumbs and leeks, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. They’re a cross between a spinach pie and a potato pancake. Serve these veggie bites at room temperature with tzatziki (strained yogurt dipping sauce with garlic and cucumbers.) I like them with a crisp, grassy California Sauvignon Blanc as in the 2008 Steeple Street Sauvignon Blanc, California (CAL910). The herbal character of the wine is the perfect match with leeks. Or, you might try a lemony, cool-climate version from Chile’s Limari Valley like the 2009 Kuri Limari Valley Sauvignon Blanc (CHI127). The citrusy wine’s acidity tempers the salty, somewhat tangy feta cheese.
During Lent, dietary restrictions cause us to gravitate toward fish (psari). The traditional Greek Palm Sunday dinner is sprightly tomato sauce baked with haddock. Smothered in onions, garlic and tomatoes with lots of olive oil, this dish mimics Italian cooking and is best paired with a red wine because of the tomato sauce. For a winning combination, go with a good southern Italian blend, the 2003 Messapicus, Salice Salentino Riserva, Puglia, Italy (ITA665), a gold medal winner at the 2008 Los Angeles International Wine & Spirits Competition. This regional blend of 80% Negroamaro, 20% Malvasia Nera hails from the “heel” of the boot-shaped peninsula and boasts smooth, yet ripe fruit flavors and a warm finish.
A smooth North Coast Pinot Noir like the 2006 Tria Pinot Noir, California (CAL908) would work as a red here. Offered with a side of buttery rice, it delivers the requisite fruitiness to flatter this crunchy, buttery dish.
On Easter Sunday, Greek lamb is typically prepared with large amounts of thick, rich garlic making this the perfect opportunity to uncork my favorite varietal, Syrah/Shiraz. Prepared bone-in as chops or shish kebab style (souvlaki), lamb is the ultimate with Syrah which provides a smoky, peppery counterpoint to this somewhat gamy red meat.
My first match pairs lamb with the 2007 Tria, Syrah, California (CAL911). The earthy mix of red fruit flavors and fresh ground spices in this release will link with the meat. It’s no surprise that the “Down Under” version of Syrah, a blackberry-rich Shiraz like the 2005 Jumpup Creek, Adelaide Hills Shiraz, South Australia (AUS284), is great with beef “on the barbie” lathered in all sorts of spices. However, my personal choice for lamb is the 2005 Flavius Coteaux du Languedoc (FRA282), a Rhône-style blend of Syrah, Grenache, Cinsault and Carignan from a little known, yet up-and-coming area of southern France called the Languedoc – the perfect Mediterranean match with this Mediterranean specialty.