The news that Greece is lifting its lockdown – a reward for acting firmly and swiftly, resulting in just 150 deaths and the prospect of some kind of summer tourist season – prompted wistful memories of my last meal out in London. Early in March, I visited Ampéli, a new Greek restaurant that popped up on one of those cosy little Charlotte Street spaces that seem to change hands every five minutes – a fate this place will, I hope, avoid.
Greece’s famous wine is Retsina, flavoured with pine resin, but judging the country’s impressive roster by a drink that was probably born of gastronomically suspect nostalgia for the resin-sealed amphorae of Classical Greece would be as unfair as presuming that all Greek women sing, or throw tantrums, like Maria Callas.
Ampéli welcomed me with a “new age” Retsina, made from the Savatiano grape by Mylonas (they describe it as “fruity and herbaceous”), but I preferred the same winery’s naturally sweet Savatiano, a delicately acidic peach-and-apricot dessert wine. But here I have leapt from starter to dessert, which seems foolish as this meal has had to feed my imagination for the past three months, and may need to for many more.
I have long loved Xinomavro, a northern red variety with the elegance and restrained power of Pinot Noir. Also Assyrtiko, the white grape of Santorini, where thirsty centenarian roots reach deep into volcanic rock, and the grapes shelter within clustered vines that resemble grounded birds’ nests. Assyrtiko makes a pure, stony wine as dramatic as its birthplace: a rocky crescent formed during an enormous volcanic eruption that some say sank the city of Atlantis.
Gerovassiliou in Macedonia makes a sensually perfumed Malagousia that danced lightly with charcoal-grilled kohlrabi; an Assyrtiko from Crete was more austere than its lees-enriched Santorini cousin: the former suited marinated sardines, while the latter was better with smoked aubergine. Mavrodaphne by Rouvalis in the Peloponnese was savoury, almost salty, while my beloved Xinomavro crossed (by Chatzivariti) with Negkoska, which I’d never heard of, made a great pairing for octopus.
Writing this, from lockdown in rural Burgundy, whispering those poetic, unpronounceable names, makes me want to weep. There probably isn’t a bottle of Greek wine for sale between here and Paris, but what is really inducing my tears are the freedoms that now seem as tragically inaccessible as Atlantis. Sharing an unusual dinner, cooked by someone else; choosing from an exciting wine list; or even jumping in the car and driving down through Italy to Greece itself. I’d stop in trattorie, buy wine to bring home. Why did I never do this, when I could, and will I ever have the chance again?
Atlantis, claimed the philosopher Plato, was a utopia that foundered when the inhabitants became corrupt, greedy and immoral. Its destruction, by a volcano-induced tsunami, resembled the biblical flood, and I like to think that what survived and propagated were not animals but grape seeds. Vines, flourishing on ancient volcanic soil, are a reminder that every apocalypse trails possibility in its wake. At the centre of any inferno is a cool, calm stream of good wine, made with a dedication that can outlast disaster, flavoured with hope, capable of conveying us to different places and better times.
This article appears in the 20 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Moving Left Show