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Summer Thrill Ride: Assyrtiko from Santorini
By Linda Murphy
Aug 14, 2012
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Attention acid freaks:  If you’re not drinking Assyrtiko from Santorini, you’re missing out on an extraordinarily electric wine-drinking experience.

Santorini, the Aegean island to which the Assyrtiko vine variety is native, produces nervy, minerally, oceanic and extremely flavorful wines that are, arguably, Greece’s finest.  Assyrtiko (ah-SEER-teh-koh), as its name suggests, is assertive and not for the faint of palate; wines made from the grape have the acid tension of a Jimi Hendrix solo.  Yet uncork a bottle with a plate of raw or cooked seafood, and Assyrtiko assumes the beautiful harmony of the Beach Boys in their heyday. 

Assyrtiko is grown and produced in other regions of Greece, yet Santorini is its gold standard for the grape.  The beauty of the island -- azure seas, whitewashed buildings clinging precipitously to steep hillsides, with their cobalt-blue rooftops matching the color of the ocean -- is matched by the vibrancy of the Assyrtiko-based wines that appear at every restaurant, paired with grilled fish, prawns, octopus and squid, vinaigrette-dressed salads, tomato dishes and the traditional Greek tzatziki sauce of yogurt, cucumber and garlic.  They’ve also become sommelier darlings in U.S.  restaurants. 

The wines’ tart citrus (lime, grapefruit), unripe melon, Granny Smith apple and often salty and chalky flavors -- and did I mention high acidity? -- also pair well with oysters, clams, roast chicken and pork. 

Assyrtiko, which accounts for approximately 70 percent of the vineyard plantings on Santorini, can be a stand-alone varietal, and is also blended with fellow indigenous white grapes Athiri (for plumpness) and Aidani (for floral aroma).  Most versions are fermented and aged in stainless steel tanks, others spend time in oak and other wood barrels and casks, and a few are fermented with native rather than commercial yeasts, and are labeled as such. 

What about red wines? The Mandalaria grape is the most common red from Santorni and tends to make a simple, starkly tannic wine (although the natives seem to embrace it).  It’s also blended with Assyrtiko to produce rosé.  Some vintners, particularly Domaine Sigalas and Argyros Estate, have high hopes for Mavrotragano, which has been revived only in the last 15 years or so.  It makes a monster of a wine, from my limited tastings of the varietal; overall, the reds are a work in progress.   

There is also excellent Santorini Vinsanto sweet wine, produced from sun-dried Assyrtiko and Aidani grapes, but that’s another story.  Today’s tale is of Assyrtiko. 

When grown on Santorini, Assyrtiko takes on a minerally character encouraged, no doubt, by the volcanic soils tapped by the vines’ deep roots, and a saltiness from the grapes’ close proximity to the Aegean Sea; sea spray can actually coat the clusters in some vineyards.

Most winemakers and viticulturists talk about dirt; Santorini vintners talk about black sand, pumice, ash and granite, the principal soil content of the island’s vineyards.  A calamatous volcanic explosion 3,600 years ago left a caldera, or crater, where the center of the island used to be, forming what are now harbors for fishing boats and cruise ships, and steep oceanside cliffs upon which hotels, restaurants and homes are perched.  Archaeological digs at Akotiri show that wine was produced on Santorini by the Minoans before the eruption buried the city; winemakers today benefit from that which destroyed so much thousands of years ago.

Santorini’s summertime climate is hot and very dry, the winds fierce.  There is no rainfall during the growing season, and no available irrigation water; the vines get their tiny drops of moisture from ocean mists.  That grapevines can survive in these conditions is a marvel, assisted in large measure by the unique way the vines are trained.  That Assyrtiko develops high sugars (and alcohol content of between 13 percent and 14 percent in the wines) while also retaining its bracing acidity is seemingly a miracle. 

To shield their vines from the winds, growers prune them into “baskets,” similar to grapevine wreaths sold in wine country gift shops.  The vines’ canes are woven to form a nest in which the grape clusters nestle as they mature, protected from the wind and searing sun by the leaves that cover the top of the basket.  Tending the vines and harvesting the grapes is backbreaking work because they are so low to the ground; but if they were on traditional trellises, they likely would not survive.

In what he believes to be the oldest living vineyard in the world -- some 500 years -- Yiannis Paraskevopoulos of Gaia Wines pulls back the foliage of a basket vine at a site near Perivolos.  By the number of rings in the above-ground, woody part of the vine, Paraskevopoulos estimates this wood to be 120 years old.  Yet the roots below are four to five centuries old, he says; when a vine becomes too decrepit to produce a crop, it is cut off at ground level, and the roots regenerate new growth.  There is no need to replant.

This is possible because there has never been phylloxera – the root-sapping louse that has, over centuries, killed vineyards in other parts of the world -- on Santorini.  Not only do the sand, pumice and granite soils encourage a minerally sensory perception in the grapes grown in them, they also ensure that phylloxera will not enjoy any time it spends on the island.

In the Domaine Sigalas vineyard near Oia, owner Paris Sigalas (he’s the Robert Mondavi of Santorini; his wines are everywhere on the island, widely available abroad and beautifully made) explains another alternative to replanting:  A long branch from a thriving plant is stretched out as a runner and buried approximately 15 inches deep into the ground.  In three to five years, the runner will have established its own roots and is then separated from its “mother,” to do its own thing.
The Sigalas and Gaia Assyrtikos are top-flight and highly recommended to those unfamiliar to the varietal, as they are expertly made and represent the true character of the variety.  The Sigalas “regular” Assyrtiko is mouthwatering and with a keen balance of fruit to acidity; it’s slightly spritzy in its youth, and a four-year-old bottle had an attractive Riesling-like petrol note on the nose.  The barrel-fermented Assyrtiko showed its oak in a richer texture and fuller mouthfeel, rather than in toastiness or vanillin dominance. 

Gaia was founded in 1994 by Paraskevopoulos and Leon Karatsolos, professors at the University of Thessaloniki.  They have a winery in Nemea, on the Peloponnese peninsula, and in addition to the one Santorini.  The Gaia Assyrtiko Wild Ferment and Thalassitis Assyrtiko are Santorini superstars.  The former, as the name implies, is fermented with yeasts native to the vineyard and winery, and some of the wine is aged in oak barrels.  It’s a complex, racy drink.  The latter is the winery’s flagship – full-bodied and dry, with unobtrusive oak influence.

In addition to Sigalas and Gaia, the most accomplished Santorini makers of Assyrtiko whose wines are currently in the United States include Argyros Estate, Boutari, Gavalas Winery and Hatzidakis Winery.  Santo Wines, a co-op that produces wines from grapes purchased from Santorini growers, may also soon be available in North America.

Boutari, which has five other estates in Greece, is large enough to supply its wines throughout the United States; most of the other producers focus on a handful of key markets.  Boutari is credited with modernizing Santorini winemaking when it opened its island winery in 1989.  Previously, the past-their-prime grapes were picked in the fall, timed to a harvest festival.  Boutari insisted on picking Assyrtiko in mid-August, at its optimum maturity, and had to pay growers extra to do so.  August continues to be Assyrtiko, Aidani and Athiri picking time to this day.  Look for Boutari’s Kallisti and Kallisti Reserve Assyrtikos.

Argyros is an old hand in Santorini, founded in 1903 by George Argyros.  Still family-owned, the winery’s largest market is the U.S. and Canada.  The Argyros Atlantis white, a blend of Assyrtiko, Aidani and Athiri, is attractively priced (list price $16, sometimes discounted) and packaged.  The Argyros Estate Assyrtiko is a step up in complexity and price ($26), with a pronounced – and extraordinarily pleasant – saltiness, a very subtle hint of oak and bright citrus flavors. 

The Hatzidakis Nikteri comes from the Hatzidakis family’s certified organic vineyards and represents a modern style of Assyrtiko.  Aged in oak, it has great depth, 15 percent alcohol (but with no palate heat) and a relatively creamy mouthfeel for Assyrtiko.  Nikteri (also spelled Nykteri) is produced by several Santorini wineries; it takes its name from the Greek word meaning “night work,” when grapes are harvested and fermentation induced in one day.  Nikteri typically indicates a richer wine made from grapes left to hang on the vine a few days longer, and with some oak influence.

Gavalas’ “Santorini” blended wines of Assyrtiko and Aidani are fresh, firm and come in a cool blue bottle.  Its Nikteri, from grapes harvested a week later than the Assyrtiko used for the blends and given some time in oak, is luscious, yet with flashing acidity.

Many wine regions would kill to have a story as authentic and intriguing as Santorini’s.  At the higher end, telling good stories is as vital to selling wine as is the quality of liquid in the bottle, and Santorini has both in spades.