I’ve noticed that dry assyrtico, an aromatic white wine made from the indigenous grape of Santorini, often comes up in discussions about minerality in wine. This relatively unfamiliar Greek wine is mentioned alongside the legendary chardonnays of Chablis and the renowned rieslings of Mosel as a wonderful example of a wine that truly reflects the character of its unique terroir.
In fact The New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov noted that during a blind tasting reviewers frequently compared Santorini assyrtico with Chablis:
These wines in particular show pure briny, mineral flavors, as if they were the concentrated essence of millions of tiny seashells. Not once but several times during the blind tasting a comparison was made to Chablis, which cuts a similarly saline profile. (As Greek as the Sea by Eric Asimov, The New York Times 23 May 2013)
Assyrtico is Greece’s most iconic grape variety
Assyrtico is Greece’s most iconic grape variety. It thrives in the nutrient depleted, wind-swept volcanic soils of Santorini, an island southeast of mainland Greece in the Agean Sea.
Santorini is an unusual place to grow grapes. It’s actually dry enough to be classified as a desert and very windy. Over the centuries vineyard proprietors have developed novel methods to cope with the problematic conditions. The vines, for example, are trained to weave themselves into ground-hugging, basket-like shapes which act as a protective balls around the fruit. Interestingly, some of the best vintages occur in years when the weather is particularly windy. The wind brings much needed moisture from the sea to the grapes.
Greece is host to some of the oldest vines in Europe
Some assyrtico vines are up to 70 years of age and are grown on original root stocks that are more than 300 years old. Santorini’s sulphur-rich, porous soils are a mixture of volcanic ash, pumice stone, solidified lava and sand. Fortunately they proved hostile hosts to the dreaded phylloxera, a bug that wiped out most of Europe’s vineyards at the beginning of the 20th century. Greece is now home to some of Europe’s oldest vines.
Assyrtico’s high natural acidity makes these white wines great candidates for ageing
Dry assyrtico is yellow-gold in colour, creamy in texture and generally displays mineral, pear, apple and citrus-blossom aromas and flavours. The wines have a racy acidity and are good candidates for ageing. Top winemakers often leave the wine on lees for extended periods or use a judicious amount of French oak during fermentation and barrel ageing to enhance the assyrtico’s austere texture.
Assyrtico wines can be enjoyed young. With cellaring the wines take on more golden hues and nutty flavours.
Next: A look at Santorini’s top wineries
by Merrill Witt, Editor
Assyrtico is starting to appear on the menus of some of Australia’s top restaurants. The Gaia Thalassitis Assyrtiko Santorini White 2013, shown above, is imported into Australia by Douglas Lamb Wines.