Most visitors to Santorini at some point sip a crisp glass of lemon and sea-salt imbued assyrtiko while sitting hypnotized by the blue of the romantic isle’s caldera; few have gone home and dedicated their lives to it (the wine; plenty of folks pursue bliss). Kamal Kouiri, wine director and general manager of Molyvos (871 Seventh Avenue, 212-582-7500), however, has quietly spent 14 years making the case for Greek wines. He’s a native of Morocco; his Greek wife helped convert him to the charms of her country’s wines, but he required little convincing of the country’s vinous potential.
I sat down with Kouiri at Molyvos to discuss his wine list (the largest Greek-focused collection in the country) and the state of Greece’s modern wine industry.
Though the country valued wine enough to give it its own god back in the day, praise for Greek wines has been omitted from recent history. Only in the past few decades, as local tastes have changed, technology advanced, and with fresh energy injected into the industry, have Greek wines begun their comeback.
During out chat, he extolled the virtues of assyrtiko, divulged his favorite producers, and supplied the lowdown on the next Greek “it” region.
How did you get started in the restaurant industry?
From a young age, I was always in the kitchen assisting my mother. My family entertained guests frequently, so I grew up feeling comfortable around people. I realized that I enjoyed hosting groups of people, and at one point I said to myself, “Why not take these skills and apply it to my career?”
Do you remember your first taste of Greek wine and what it was?
The first Greek wine I ever tasted was assyrtiko in Santorini — in the caldera. I saw a lot of potential in the land and the grape; that was on one of my first trips to Greece, almost 16 years ago.
Why have you dedicated your career to the wines of Greece?
I’ve visited Greece many times and always love traveling there. With each trip, I’m reminded of the potential in the wines and the unique flavors from the various terroirs. When I first started focusing on Greek wine, I tried looking for examples in the U.S., but the selection was very limited. I wanted to seek these unique wines and bring them to guests to try here in the U.S. Greek wines are world-class wines, and they are made with soul.
What’s the focus of the list you created?
From the moment I stepped foot into Molyvos, I saw a lot of potential in the cuisine, but the wine list was quite broad — we had 90 wines by the bottle and 10 offered by the glass. I knew I wanted to give the list more focus with the goal of showcasing that all wines can work with Greek cuisine.
However, as I began to travel to Greece more frequently, I noticed extreme potential in the various regions. It was around this time that I received the blessing from Nick Livanos, owner of Molyvos, and went for the 100 percent Greek wine list, which is now the biggest in the country, with over 500 wines, 50 offered by the glass, representing 50 indigenous varieties.
My goal for 2015 is to build the large-format and magnums list. Currently there are 15 bottles; I’d love to see the list boast at least 50. We try to offer a range of good value wines to those looking to explore without much financial commitment. Finally, we are offering something special this summer: We curated a list of 12 rosés!
Do you play favorites with any of your wines?
My favorite white is assyrtiko from Santorini, from Estate Argyros Santorini, Gaia Estate, Domaine Sigalas, and Hatzidakis Winery. I’m attracted to this grape because of its amazing profile and versatility. The grape grows in a rather harsh environment and proves that the terroir can still produce phenomenal wines. I like to call it a true “Greek wine” and it’s easily paired with food.
As for reds, my favorite is xinomavro, from Alpha Estate in Florina and Thymiopoulos Vineyards in Naoussa. Xinomavro is an intriguing grape that shows a lot of personality. It takes a lot of work to grow this grape and it’s quite challenging given the terroir.
What are some misperceptions about Greek wines?
Greek wine was always associated with retsina, which gave the industry a bad name. And as a result, people were hesitant to try anything else. When guests do go back to re-taste Greek wine, they love it!
If I were to give a recommendation for those trying Greek wine for the first time, I’d recommend the white grape moschofilero from Mantinia or assyrtiko from Santorini. For reds, agiorgitiko from the region of Nemea.
Consumers don’t realize that most wines in Greece are handcrafted in “hard” terroir and the viticulture area is very small. The whole vineyard surface in the country is equivalent to the Bordeaux wine region. Fortunately, there’s been a big push in Greece to showcase the versatility of wines from the different parts of the country and momentum is in our favor.
Is there a next “it” region within Greece?
Crete as an island has been making wines since ancient times. However, for the last 20 years they were only making wine in bulk: They were making less-expensive wine to outsource to Europe. Over the last three or four years, the younger generation of winemakers have been studying the craft in Europe, and now instead of selling these grapes to bigger producers they want to make their own wine. For this reason, I think that Crete is a region to watch. Although I’d also like to note that I’d like to see more consistency within the region, which I think we’ll see over the next five years or so.
Two wineries to watch: Karavitakis Winery and Lyrarakis Winery.
How often do you travel to Greece? Where do you like to go?
I travel to Greece two or three times a year. One trip in the spring and one in the fall; sometimes I’ll travel a third time with my family. I always visit Santorini, Nemea, and Noussa. There’s so much to be explored in Greece, I always make an effort to visit a new region or island that I’ve never been to before, and not only for wine but for food too!