“There you go!” – The Greek Origins of Everyday Words

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words by Mihalis Boutaris

In the sequel of the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, one of the grandsons of Gus, the stereotypical Greek-American patriarch, has fully adopted the habit of deriving the origins of any conceivable word of American English directly from ancient Greek. Upon explaining (in a most incredulous way) the etymology of a random word, he echoes his grandfather’s exclamation: “There you go!”

This exaggeration is one of the key triggers of laughter in both the original film and its sequel. It is also the reason my foreign friends often tease me… But there is some truth to it: More than 50,000 English words are transliterations of Greek words. Some are used mainly in scientific terminology, but many are used every day.

For the sake of continuing the fun, I picked out a few that are related to the world of food and wine. Here are some geeky ones that come to mind:

  • Ampelography: the science of identifying and classifying different vines and grape varieties. It stems from the words “ampelos” (άμπελος) [vine in Greek] and “graphy” (γραφή) [writing, record-keeping]
  • Microclimate: “micro” (μικρό) [little] + “climate” (κλίμα) [climate]. It is the divergence from the average climatic conditions of an area that apply only to one of its sub-regions because of localized weather phenomena, that only occur there due to some special land formation. Microclimates are particularly important for winemaking. Especially in Greece due to the prevalence of mountains and islands on a highly variegated terrain, one can be surprised by how cool a north-facing plateau could be in South Greece during a hot summer day or how humid a valley could be in an overall arid place. Grapevines do generally thrive anywhere in the world, but every microclimate gives rise to different grape and wine characteristics. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the Greek word for climate (κλίμα) is so close to the word for grapevine (κλήμα)… They are both pronounced as “klima”, but written in a slightly different way for the “i” sound – climate sounding more like “klima” and grapevine more like “kleema”
  • Biodynamic: “bios” (βίος) [life] + «dynami” (δύναμη) [force]. Biodynamic wines are becoming more and more known. The theory behind them is based on the aspiration of a biodynamic winemaker to become a mere steward of the life force of a vineyard and winery with all the micro and macro factors that come into play, to produce a product that is as free from artificial interventions as possible.

Furthermore, there are some ordinary cases that are not readily recognizable as words that come from the wine culture of ancient Greeks. For instance:

  • Symposium: < symposio (συμπόσιο) < “syn” (συν) [plus, together, jointly, added] + “pinw” (πίνω) [to drink] = literally “to drink together”. Today the meaning of the word symposium is used almost exclusively for scientific conferences. In ancient Greece, but sometimes still in modern Greece, drinking wine together was not an end in itself, but a means of gaining knowledge. The subject was invariably philosophical, but at the time, philosophy was all about science and politics and any subject of discussion for that matter to find the best way to live. So a wine gathering was really a way to expand the horizons of the mind and through discussion come up with better ideas about which way of life was better, how one could solve a technical problem and so on and so forth. The role of the symposia was to promote the intellectual curiosity and emotional maturity of free-born citizens.
  • Gastronomy: gastronomia (γαστρονομία) < “gastra” (γάστρα) [belly] + “nomos” [law] = the rules of what and how one should eat and drink wine, since for Greeks wines have been always been considered part of food – not an alcoholic beverage. Wine styles in different parts of Greece are markedly different from each other and they all seem to be an ideal match to the local cuisine.
  • Tragedy: tragodia (τραγωδία) < “tragos” (τράγος) [male goat] + “ode” (ωδή) [ode, song, oration] = literally and metaphorically “tragedy”. Tragic poetry in classical times originates from prehistoric rituals associated with wine drinking. Goatskins were used in ancient times to store wine, as well as to make bagpipes. The combination of ecstatic music, wine-induced inebriety, and feasts was central to these “tragic” rituals – all related to goats. Goat milk was also a liquid of living force like wine governed by the force of Dionysus, the wine deity worshipped by ancient Greeks to assign meaning to the seemingly miraculous phenomenon of winemaking and its psychotropic effects.
  • Crater: “kratir” (κρατήρ) = ornate jug to mix water with wine. It was not until the Age of Enlightenment in West Europe that sulfites at very low concentrations started being used in wine to stop bacteria from turning wine into vinegar. Until then, the main method of preserving wine was to keep it sweet. Antique wines like the Greek Vinsanto, medieval wines like the Italian Vinsanto and Madeira were examples of how wine could keep its fruit and weather through highly oxidative conditions. A combination of high residual sugar and alcohol would mean that the symposia would end up being too short to reach the goal set for learning, so ancient Greeks used a “kratir” to dilute the potent wines of the time with water. The other side of the same coin was that wine was used to actually disinfect water and make it potable – they had realized that stagnant water which was the norm would most likely kill them, unless they mixed it with wine. A kratir could be quite big depending on the size of the drinking party. Some really big “kratires” must have inspired the first geologists to call craters by this name…

Finally, there is one more case I’d like to point out: the etymology of the word sommelier. It’s not Greek in any way, although the profession of the sommelier is as ancient as Greece. The job of the sommelier in ancient Greece was to know the origins of the wine, source it and store it much like today.

In addition, the job entailed blending the selected wine with water in a kratir at a dilution rate that would keep all the guests at the same pace of sobriety and extend the wine drinking gathering as late as possible. Part of the job was to keep the guests sober, but tipsy enough to keep the symposium going.

Inspiration and eloquence were the objectives of the symposium members and the sommeliers “oinochooi” had the responsibility to unleash the magical powers of wine to this end. The Greek word for sommelier is “oinochoos” < “oinos” (οίνος) [wine] + “heo” (χέω) [to pour]. If I were to ask Gus or his grandson to derive the word from Greek, they would probably come up with something as far-fetched as this: “sommelier” < “soma” (σώμα) [body] + “elia” (ελιά) [olive, olive tree] = young wine waiter as slender as the divine olive tree, the gift of Goddess Athena, pouring her wisdom into my wine cup!

There you go!

Chris Morrison’s Wine Journey Through Greece

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Sommelier and wine writer Chris Morrison went to Greece (alongside BSC’s own Peter Marchant) with New Wines of Greece. Here’s what he learned about Greek wine. 

There is so much emotion and honesty in Greek food and wine. Few countries can match Greece’s history but even the future of Greek wine is set to stand out from previous generations, thanks to a new group of winemakers and grape growers coming through. Greece has a gastronomic DNA few countries can match.

I witnessed this first hand during a trip to Greece last year. The village of Dafnes is about 30 minutes’ drive from the city of Heraklion on the island of Crete. High in the mountains, surrounded by rolling hillsides cross–planted with grape vines, olive trees and grazing sheep, we ate a meal that for me captured the spirt of Greek wine.

To be honest, I don’t remember as much about the wines themselves, but more what went with them. The best tomatoes I have ever eaten, shortly followed by the best green melon.

The intensely briny dolmades, no bigger than your pinky finger, the lamb served ‘Flintstones-style’, huge and on the bone, from stone grills built into the walls of people’s houses. We sat in the town square as the sun went down with what felt like the entire village. Music, laughter, and food were everywhere.

That’s Greek wine for me. It’s part of a lifestyle and an ingredient in a recipe for life that the Greeks do better than most. Now with more Greek wines coming to the rest of the world, finally we have access to that key ingredient.

Varieties, Regions and Styles

Assyrtiko from Santorini
Postcard-perfect backdrops are nothing new to the winemaking fraternity of Santorini. But what is changing is the growing demand from sommeliers and wine buyers for this light- to medium-bodied dry white, with whip-cracking acidity and a dry, savoury mouthfeel.

Malagousia from Macedonia and Attica
Medium- to full-bodied white wine that can be as bold as chardonnay in texture and mouthfeel. Oak adds to the wine’s complexity and richness. It should be drunk young and shouldn’t be overly chilled.

Xinomavro from Naoussa
This is the king of wine in northern Greece. Wines can vary from light- to medium-bodied and savoury, to fuller bodied, dense, astringent wines with deep, dark flavours and gum-humming tannins.

Agiorgitiko from the Peloponnese
Greece’s most successful red variety – pronouncing this wine makes you feel like you have a mouth full of marbles. The dense, fruity, softly textured wines are consistent and eminently drinkable.

Three things you need to know about Greek wine.

1. Their ‘smashability’ will surprise you – but go for whites and rosés – these are wines wound tight with acidity, freshness and have a signature long lean palette feel. Reds are beautiful but need the gutsy flavour of local food to polish their rich tannin and high acid profiles

2. Pronouncing the regions and varieties of Greece can be like talking with a mouth full of marbles. Learn to spell phonetically to build confidence when ordering Greek wines. For instance, Assytirko – is A-see-ear-ko and Xinomavro is Zeno-mah-vro

3. One of the fascinating things about Greece is that nearly 90 percent of all its grape varieties are indigenous and unique to Greece. This, combined with the fact that eight out of every 10 wineries are less than 25 years old, translates into wines that are not only serious in their approach to quality but unique in terms of the raw materials used.

Peter’s Wine Journey Through Greece

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Bottle Shop Concepts’ own Peter Marchant spent a week touring the wine regions of Greece with New Wines of Greece. Here’s what he discovered during his time there. 

Flying in to Athens, I was struck by one thing in particular: the colours. The shades of the earth, the leaves, the plants. They were so very different to the almost thermonuclear colours of Australia. Compared to our vibrant green leaves, white sand, and blue ocean, the land I was flying over seemed muted. Not dull, but very different.

As we got closer, I saw the olive trees. Their leaves permeated the entire landscape, giving it the silvery gleam I could see from a higher altitude. The brown dirt underneath seemed the most natural backdrop for these life-giving trees and their fruit. I was to learn just how much they meant in the coming days.

During my week travelling through Athens, Naoussa, Amyndeon, Crete and back to Athens, I was privileged to be able to meet the people responsible for some of the most exciting wines I had tasted in recent years.

The responsibility they feel as custodians of this ancient land is almost palpable. They are proud – and rightfully so – of the work they are doing, of their wines and their place.

The wines fit. They make sense. When you sit by the beach eating freshly-caught red mullet and taste Assytriko, it makes sense. When you are high in the hills in Nauossa and drink Xinomavro with a slow-cooked lamb shoulder, it makes sense.

With wine, context is everything. This was proven again and again in Greece. Some wines are for more than a back deck and a packet of Doritos. They require more flavour, more depth, more everything. The generosity of spirit and the hospitality we were shown was incredible. It’s what the wines NEED. Good people, good food, great times.

I had one of the most incredible nights of my life on Crete, in a village called Dafnes. It was incredible because it was where everything clicked for me about varieties I was still trying to get my head around.

Drinking Vidiano in the village square, with the tiniest, most perfect dolmades prepared by ladies of the village while a group of children and teenagers in full Cretan costumes danced for us, made sense.

Then, the Liatiko came with the goat, or the lamb, or both, it didn’t matter. The spiced and slightly herbal red, grown on the hills around Dafnes, had crunchy acid, medium weight and could not have been a better fit for the food.

After spending the afternoon driving through the vineyards and seeing the steep slopes, the wind, the lack of topsoil, it gave me an understanding of the struggle these vines experience each year to produce fruit. It gives them an intensity, a savoury complexity that I haven’t seen in many other wine regions.

I tried to think of other varieties that could work here, with this food, this climate. I don’t need to. I think they have the correct varieties already there.

Three things you need to know about Greek Wine

1. Just because you can’t pronounce it, doesn’t mean you should be frightened of it. Not that long ago, I had a mate who wouldn’t order bruschetta for fear of mispronouncing it. Suffice to say, he was very hungry in the mid ‘90s.

2. The varieties native to Greece, with all of their syllables, are not necessarily familiar. But neither was Sauvignon Blanc, once. Agiorgitiko, Assyrtiko, Xinamavro, Roditis, Malagousia. Don’t be afraid. Open your mind.

3. Xinomavro is not for the faint of heart. After tasting nearly 30 of these wines in Naoussa, the tannins were certainly bracing. I remembered a Barolo tasting years before, and my face felt very similar.

Xinomavro does get compared to Nebbiolo, and this is primarily referencing the tannin. Xinomavro has more flesh, more weight, darker, more briary fruit. It also has perfume, and some of the lighter examples are pretty and have violets and dried flowers with a smattering of spice. As a general rule, these wines aren’t breakfast wines. They require food, they require thought.

We shouldn’t be afraid of tannin. It is a joy when eating, it gives us the ability to cut through protein, particularly anything with intramuscular fat or gelatinous braised dishes. This is where these wines come into their own.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wine Regions of Greece: Naoussa

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Naoussa, in the hills of Macedonia, is another wine region. It’s most famous for producing Xinomavro… the King of Greek grapes. We asked sommelier and consultant Kavita Faiella to tell us what she knows about this lovely place.

1. The wine region of Naoussa is located in the north of Greece in the greater area known as Macedonia

Macedonia is both a region in northern Greece, a country in south-east Europe (Republic of Macedonia) and an ancient kingdom (Alexander the Great). 

2. Naoussa is also famous for its stone fruits.

In summer you will find orchards full of peaches, plums and the most delicious cherries! Hence the jam brand Naousa is also famous across Greece.

3. The weather of Naoussa is largely influenced by Mount Vermion (2000m)

The Vermio Mountains are the home of Greece’s ski resorts. That’s right – you can can ski in Greece!

4. Naoussa is the home of Xinomavro

Xinomavro, a tannic red varietal, is thought of as the King of Greek grapes, whose Queen is most certainly Assyrtiko. 

5. Wines of Naoussa are often referred to as ‘Greek Burgundy’.

The region produces some of the country’s most elegant and age-worthy wines made from Xinomavro, which are also lighter in colour.

6. Xinomavro literally translates to acid (xino) black (mavro) or black acid…

Sounds more like a heavy metal band, but also gives you an indication of the high acid levels of this wine. 

7. Just like oysters and Chablis or hot chips and Champagne…

The perfect pairing for Xinomavro is lamb. Bring on the souvlaki!

Wine Regions of Greece: Santorini

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One of the best-known wine producing regions in Greece (and one of the best-known regions in Greece in general) is Santorini. We asked Kavita Faiella, sommelier and consultant at Voyageur Selections, to tell us what she knows about this beautiful island.

1. Santorini is an island located in the Aegean Sea

Greece has 6000 islands scattered throughout the Aegean and Ionian Seas…of which only 227 are inhabited. 

2. The ancient name for Santorini is Thera.

There are indications that wine has been produced on the island for over 3500 years!

3. Santorini is a volcanic island that is still active…

In 1630 BC the volcano on the island erupted, revealing its core – the caldera. The whole island was covered ash and pumice 40 meters deep!

4. The soil of Santorini is made up of the same volcanic pumice you use to scrub your feet with in the shower!

Kind of gross… but actually really important. The island is super dry, so when it rains the pumice acts like a sponge soaking up all of the moisture and slowly releases it back to the vines when they need it throughout the year.

5. In winter, Santorini is CRAZY windy.

The winter winds that hit the island are so strong that the grape vines are trained in small baskets rather than the usual rows you might be accustomed to seeing in other wine regions. 

6. On the island of Santorini vines are grown in Koulores (rings) or Kakthia (baskets).

A traditional training technique that protects the vines from strong winds in the winter and intense sunlight in the summer. The upper part of the vine is usually replaced every 15-20 years, but the roots below the ground can be centuries old! It’s the only place in the world where vines are grown like this. 

7. The three main white grape varieties of Santorini all start with A.

Assyrtiko, Aidani, Athiri

8. Assyrtiko is the most planted variety in Santorini and arguably the most well known Greek grape.

It makes super delicious wine. The first planting of Assyrtiko outside of Greece can be found here in Australia’s own Clare Valley.

9. They also make sweet wine in Santorini – Vinsanto (Vino di Santorini)

Produced from sun-dried grapes that bake over summer – just like the tourists visiting the island!