Assyrtiko, the wine grape behind the hauntingly firm dry whites of the volcanic Greek island of Santorini, is a good example of a lesser-known grape that, once tasted, is never forgotten. It magically combines something saline and mineral with something citrus, as well as tension and a wondrous ability to develop even more complexity in the bottle. This despite the fact that growing seasons in its homeland are notoriously hot, almost impossibly dry and inhospitably windy.
Santorini, with its unforgettable sunsets and whitewashed towns that cling to cliffsides, is above all a holiday island. Each year, about half a million visitors arrive at the international airport apparently unfazed by the fact that the last eruption was barely 70 years ago. Vines have had to compete with developers to stay in the ground.
Australian winemaker Peter Barry of Jim Barry Wines in Clare Valley sipped his first Assyrtiko over a lunch on the island in 2006. He was not only taken by the taste but convinced that if the grape could produce such crisp, absorbing wine on Santorini, it would probably thrive back home in South Australia too. At the London Wine Fair the following year, he made it his business to taste as many Assyrtikos as possible. He was so impressed that the complicated business of getting the vine variety, completely new to Australia, through many years of quarantine before being planted there was no deterrent. The first commercial vintage of Jim Barry Assyrtiko was 2016, and the wine goes from strength to strength.
At more or less the same time, South Africa’s famous vine nurturer Rosa Kruger toured Europe with a view to identifying Mediterranean grape varieties that thrive in a hot, dry climate. She brought back bottles of wines made from a range of grapes, including Assyrtiko and the Spanish varieties Mencía and Viura, to taste with the team at Vititec, the official Cape vine nursery. They were sufficiently impressed by the Assyrtikos to import cuttings — better quality than the reference samples already in the national vine collection at Nietvoorbij in Stellenbosch — and, like Barry, to embark on a long quarantine process.
The eventual result is that South Africa’s first commercial Assyrtikos have just been released by Jordan winery, and by Chris and Andrea Mullineux. According to Chris, they planted the Assyrtiko along with Macabeo, Verdelho, Vermentino and a few other varieties, and it has been the Assyrtiko that has excited them most so far as a standalone variety. He says that the others have a lot of interest as components for blending; the Verdelho has an incredible acidity, for example. But “it’s the Assyrtiko which was just beautiful, complex and complete on its own — textured and fresh with lovely aromatics at normal ripeness”.
The Mullineuxs’ Swartland neighbour Eben Sadie, arguably an even more famous new-wave producer, has also planted many of these Mediterranean imports. Sadie reports that the Assyrtiko he planted in the Paardeberg and on the west coast in St Helena Bay is already “showing immense promise”.
Elsewhere, Alois Lageder in Alto Adige, northern Italy, and Dafermou winery in Cyprus have both produced an Assyrtiko. While in the US, Assyrtiko was added to the University of California’s vine variety collection as long ago as 1948 but it has taken decades for it to catch on. Last year was the first harvest for both the Paicines vineyard in San Benito county, south of San Francisco, and Perlegos, the Greek grape grower to the north in Lodi.
Perhaps the most surprising example of Assyrtiko being valued outside its homeland is that, according to French producer Charles Philipponnat, it has proved one of the most successful imported vine varieties to have been trialled by the authorities in Champagne. (When I spent a few days on the Greek island in September, I tasted evidence that Assyrtiko can indeed make very respectable sparkling wine.)
Assyrtiko is extremely good at hanging on to its high acidity, even in high-alcohol wines. So it’s not surprising that when a cohort of sophisticated and ambitious winemakers emerged in Greece at the end of the 20th century, many of them wanted to try their hands at it. Blends with international varieties, such as Biblia Chora’s Sauvignon Blanc/Assyrtiko, were seen as a way to introduce the stranger from Santorini.
In his rather mouth-watering book The Wines of Santorini, Yiannis Karakasis claims vines have grown on the island for 34 centuries. The exceptional age of so many vines here, or at least the roots on to which younger cuttings have been grafted, is presumably a major factor in its depth. Greek mainland Assyrtiko tends to be fruitier and less finely etched.
About 60 per cent of the nearly 2,000ha of Assyrtiko grown in Greece is either on Santorini or Therasia, the much smaller volcanic island off its north-west tip. Yields are tiny because of the age of the vines, not to mention the whipping winds and almost non-existent soils of pumice and lava, on a base of schist and limestone. Sometimes as little as 5hl/ha is produced. A year in which yields reach 20hl/ha is regarded as bounteous. Hence the prices.
I was on Santorini to witness the Vedema wine festival at Selene restaurant. It’s located in one of the many monasteries that have been converted into atmospheric hotels. On a Saturday afternoon, wine lovers assembled for a walk-round tasting of 68 Santorini wines in the arched white tunnel that had once been the monastery’s canava, the local word for a winery or wine cellar.
Although most of the wines were searingly pure, dry, unoaked Assyrtikos, there were also examples of the oaked style called Nykteri (not always as successful), and the dark, sweet, traditional Vinsanto made from sun-dried grapes. Some of the wines included small portions of the island’s other best-known pale-skinned grapes Athiri and Aidani, and there were quite a few reds made from the island’s characteristic dark-skinned grape Mavrotragano that were not bad at all but lacked the sheer class of Assyrtiko.
The day before there had been two extremely revealing masterclasses. In the morning German Master of Wine Caro Maurer showed a range of Rieslings alternating with Assyrtikos. Like Assyrtiko, Riesling is famous for its high acidity and ability to age. I have long held that it is the world’s greatest white wine grape (to little effect on Riesling sales). At the end of each presentation, Maurer — joined by Greek Master of Wine Karakasis — served one Assyrtiko and one Riesling blind and asked tasters to work out which was which. They deliberately chose very similar styles; it was next to impossible to be sure of the correct answer.
In the afternoon, Karakasis presented 10 very lively, older dry white Assyrtikos — from 2016 back to 2012 — and a couple of Vinsantos, one of which was made in 1947 and is still delicious. He even claims to have tasted a mid-19th century Assyrtiko that was alive and kicking. I believe him.
Thrilling dry white Assyrtikos
Anhydrous Icon 2021 14.2%
Argyros Assyrtiko 2020 14.5%
Mikra Thira 2020 13.5%
£42 Cava Spiliadis
Mikra Thira, Terrasea 2020 13.3%
£78 Cava Spiliadis
Gaia Ammonite 2020 14%
Oeno P, Tria Ampelia 2020 14.5%
Argyros, Cuvée Monsignori 2019 14.5%
£36.75 NY Wines, £39.95 Wine & Greene
Argyros, Cuvée Evdemon 2019 15%
Gavalas, Enalia 2019 14.6%
Volcanic Slopes, Pure 2018 13.5%
Hatzidakis, Skitali 2018 14%
£49.95 Wine & Greene
Sigalas 2017 14.5%
Argyros, Cuvée Monsignori 2017 14%
Argyros, Cuvée Evdemon 2017 14.5%
Venetsanos Nykteri 2016 14%
Dom Sigalas, Kavalieros 2015 14%
Canava Chrissou-Tselepos 2015 14%
Volcanic Slopes, Pure 2015 13.5%
Argyros regular bottling 2013 13.5%
T-Oinos, Clos Stegasta Rare (all vintages) Cyclades 14%
Jim Barry 2020 Clare Valley 12.5%
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Tasting notes on Purple Pages of JancisRobinson.com. More stockists from Wine-searcher.com
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