Santorini 101: The Islands of Assyrtiko

A famous Greek proverb reads, “Slowly, slowly the sour grape becomes honey.” The expression is a lesson in patience, and it might as well be a metaphor for Santorini. With a history of viticulture that stretches back millennia, Santorini’s path to becoming one of Greece’s most pedigreed winegrowing islands has been a long one. With its white cubic homes with domed azure roofs descending into the crystalline Aegean waters, Santorini offers a postcard-perfect locale for island-hopping tourists. But, it also cultivates some of Greece’s most serious wines, most notably a quintessential summer white worth discovering. THE LAND AND THE GRAPES Santorini is a small archipelago resting between Crete and mainland Greece in the southern reaches of the Aegean Sea. With the largest and namesake island resembling the shape of a crescent, these islands circle around a caldera, the vestiges of an ancient volcano that famously erupted around 1,600 BC, devastating the Minoan civilization. The singular wines of Santorini earn their distinction through the triumphant survival skills of one indigenous grape variety: Assyrtiko (pronounced AH-SEER-TEE-KOH). Born on these Aegean islands, Assyrtiko has adapted impeccably to the harsh environment with the aid of vintners who have mastered how to farm here. According to Paris Sigalas of Domaine Sigalas, “Assyrtiko as an indigenous variety is inextricably linked to the terroir of Santorini due to its multi-dynamic character.” Assyrtiko faces three chief adversaries in this exposed, volcanic terroir: wind, dryness, and sand. To combat the tempestuous air currents that descend upon the islands, producers train their vineyards extremely low to the ground in an idiosyncratic fashion. They coil the vines into basket-shape patterns called “stefani,” which protect the clusters that grow within. The stefani also help capture the scarce water available in these arid lands in the form of dew drops that coat the grapes each morning. Whereas other varieties might rot or face other ailments when in daily moist conditions, Assyrtiko has developed a thick skin – literally – which saves it from disaster. According to Dr. Yiannis Paraskevopoulos, proprietor and winemaker at Gaia, the advantages of Assyrtiko’s solid build don’t stop there. “Its thick skin, will also act as an ‘armour’ against those fine soil particles that are picked-up by the ever-blowing Meltemi north wind and catapulted against everything in their path, including the Assyrtiko berries,” he explains. Assyrtiko has been so successful on its native Santorini that winemakers throughout Greece experiment with the grape. Yet, Assyrtiko continues to yield its most structured, complex results here in its homeland. While Assyritko must constitute 70% of the blend in Santorini’s dry whites, it can be so austere when young that winemakers will temper its angular, acidic structure with the assistance of the softer blending grapes Aïdani (EYE-DAH-NEE) and Athiri (AH-THEE-REE). A BRIEF HISTORY While Assyrtiko enjoys a 3,500 year history on the islands, Santorini never achieved vinous fame during ancient times. Its wines instead rose to prominence in the 13th century, following the Crusades when Santorini was given to a Venetian crusader. The archipelago was subsequently absorbed into the Duchy of Naxos, a state consisting of Aegean islands with strong Venetian ties. Santorini earned renown for the sturdy wines it exported back to Venice, sweet blends of Athiri and Mandilaria (a red variety) that could withstand the voyage. Despite Santorini’s booming tourism industry perilously encroaching upon its historic vineyard space, these islands have led the charge for Greece’s wine revival in the last couple decades. A quorum of conscientious producers have pioneered new tactics to bring Assyrtiko wines, and Greek wines at large, into the modern era - wines that value freshness and terroir-expression above ripeness and weight. “There is a continuous and targeted effort from winemakers to combine tradition with progress, and give Assyrtiko its well-deserved place at the pantheon of worldwide wines,” notes Paris Sigalas. For Stefanos Georgas of Argyros Estate those changes start in the vineyard. “The most significant example is the time of the harvest that has been transferred a month earlier compared to the past.” Yiannis Paraskevopoulos adds, “the changes introduced in the cellars concerning the making of the dry wines is of a cosmic dimension.” Developments such as chilling the handpicked grapes before crush and ageing the wines on their lees (the texture and richness imparting dead yeast cells that settle at the bottom of a tank or barrel) have helped propel Santorini’s wines as the poster children for Greece’s new winemaking era. THE WINES Santorini is most famous for its dry white wines, grounded upon the Assyrtiko grape. They’re the quintessential summer white wines – refreshingly crisp and electrifyingly mineral. They taste of the islands from which they were born with their salty, sea spray flavors and wildflower rusticity. Yet despite their easy charms, the wines are far from simple. Assyrtiko’s stoic structure and pillared acidity allow the wines both the capacity to age as well as stand up to heartier fare. “Oysters and Assyrtiko is – and by far - the most stunning food pairing I have ever enjoyed,” admits Paraskevopoulos, but adds that fatty meats can also work. Stefanos Georgas suggests, “anything Greek, anything from the sea.” For a vegetarian like me, Assyrtiko seems to beg for a block of fresh feta and olive oil. Beyond the dry wines, Santorini carries a second trick up its sleeve: vinsanto. A portmanteau of the Venetian phrase “vino di Santo” or “wine from Santorini,” vinsanto is a luscious sweet wine produced from sun-dried grapes, 51% of which must be Assyrtiko. As the berries shrivel to raisins, their sugars become more concentrated, creating a viscous liquid that is aged for at least two years, but often for upwards of a decade in oak barrels. The result is an amber-hued dessert wine that can compete with any of the world’s finest and age for what seems like infinity. If dry Assyrtiko feels of summer, vinsanto tastes like the holiday season in a glass, with its earthy, spicy breadth. While expensive and hard to track down, if you find a bottle – do yourself a favor and treat yourself and let Christmas come early. — Bryce Wiatrak Do you have a favorite summer white? We can’t wait to see what you’re sipping! Scan the label and add your tasting notes on Delectable.

Gaia (Gaia's Estate)

Wild Ferment Santorini Assyrtiko 2016

Piney and tactile, Gaia’s wild ferment Assyrtiko finds a feral rusticity without losing focus or point. Flavors of sweat, pear skin, salinity, wilted tarragon, iodine, and chamomile make for a feisty wine with a gripping, mineral character and expansive breadth. A nod to more traditional winemaking practices, relying on ambient yeasts to initiate fermentation. The grapes come from 70-80 year old ungrafted vines in a vineyard outside the town of Pyrgos. 100% Assyrtiko. — a year ago

Ron, Isaac and 12 others liked this

Boutari

Santorini Assyrtiko 2016

Crafted from 50-60 year old vines, Botuari's Assyrtiko is resinous and beaming with salt. The wine finds further complexity through notes of ripe citrus peel, grapefruit pith, lemon oil, sweat, and a tad of animale. Spritely, but also tactile and palate-coating. 100% Αssyrtiko — a year ago

Bryce, Isaac and 13 others liked this

Argyros

Vinsanto Santorini 4 Years Barrel Aged 2008

Outstanding, this wine has so much more than simply being sweet. Piney and resinous, it fluctuates between flavors of sugar dusted dried apricots, candied lemons, marzipan, and honeycomb with pine sap, pollen, chaparral, white balsamic, mint and blanched herbs adding a more savory complexity. Unctuous and long. 80% Assyrtiko, 10% Aidani, 10% Athiri.
— a year ago

Ron, Anthony De and 16 others liked this

Argyros

Estate Santorini Assyrtiko 2016

The majesty of old vines at work, Argyros offers an intensely focused, stony expression of Assyrtiko with finely chiseled flavors of gunflint, iodine, oyster shell, lemon pith, and salt block. The AVERAGE vine age is 150 years, but some of these ungrafted vines reach 300 years of age. A wine of velocity, precision, and cut. 100% Assyrtiko.
— a year ago

Ron, Isaac and 15 others liked this

Santo Winery

Aspa Assyrtiko 2015

A beautifully soft, inviting expression of Santorini, this blend of the island's three core white grape varieties gains further polish through its ageing in French oak barrels. Salty with a long, nervy finish - it imitates so much of the island in its sea spray, oyster shell, pressed wildflowers, green olives, and ripe pear skin tones. Fresh and absolutelylovely. 75% Assyrtiko, 15% Athiri and 10% Aïdani. — 2 years ago

Kimberly, James and 12 others liked this

Domaine Sigalas

Santorini Assyrtiko Athiri 2016

From one of Greece's most iconic producers, this wine is a stunning, lengthy and concentrated expression of Assyrtiko. Salty and mineral - it tastes of iodine, lime pith, fresh green apple, green olive skin and crushed stones, yet the addition of Athiri gives the wine a softness and lift. Completely transportive to the Aegean, the paradigm of an island wine. 75% Assyrtiko, 25% Athiri. — 2 years ago

James, Bill and 13 others liked this

Santo Wines

Brut Methode Traditionnelle Santorini Assyrtiko

A featherweight sparkling Assyrtiko made in the Champagne method. A fine mousse with a slight leesy character - it tastes of sea foam, almond dust and white rose petal. Clean, fresh and very easy to drink. 100% Assyrtiko, Santo is the first Santorini producer to craft a sparkling rendition of this grape variety. — a year ago

Severn, Ron and 7 others liked this

Gaia (Gaia's Estate)

Vinsanto Santorini Assyrtiko 2005

Made from sun dried Assyrtiko grapes, aged in old French oak casks for over a decade. The wine is riddled with volatile acidity, not surprising considering the production methods - and while that overwhelms the nose, it adds so much ethereal brightness to the palate. Prunes, lemon extract, fig, molasses, sweet medicinal herbs, wintergreen, quinine, pine sap, and dried flowers. Viscous, yet focused and expansive. 90% Assyrtiko, 5% Aidani, 5% Athiri.
— 2 years ago

E, Anthony De and 13 others liked this