You Can’t Take the Santorini Out of the Assyrtiko

The modern and the traditional duke it out on the island of Santorini

The island of Santorini floats in the middle of the Sea of Crete, midway between Greece and Turkey. The small island, whose main industry is now tourism, is believed to be one of the oldest winegrowing regions in the world, with signs of grape fermentation dating back to 3500 BC. The grape Assyrtiko, a white grape, has been growing there since before anyone can figure — grapevines may have been the only survivor of a volcano that destroyed all other signs of life in 1600 BC . Many of the vines currently used for wine production were never affected by phylloxera, due to the loose soils, which means some of them are 150 years old (or older).

The thing about Santorini is it is hot. Quite hot. And it is basically a volcano. And it never rains. And it’s super windy. (The wind even has a name. They call it meltemia.)  So the Assyrtiko vines are trained in wreaths, or baskets, on the ground called kouloura to protect them from the wind. And the only moisture that they get is from what is referred to as a sea fog — a salty mist that settles on the island each evening. So basically the vines and grapes are being misted with salt water. You might expect the wines to taste like the ocean — and you would be right. The most remarkable thing about Assyrtiko is its ability to maintain its acidity even in such a hot climate. We recently tasted two different bottles of white wine from Santorini and we are excited to report that they were very exciting.

NikteriThe first was the  Hatzidakis Nikteri 2009. The bottle had no English on the label and the cork looked as though it had been pushed in by hand — we know because we’ve hand-corked wines ourselves and it can be pretty ugly. The color of the wine hinted at a very rustic, traditional style of winemaking. It was burnt yellow, Jura-like. Clearly the wine had seen some oxygen during its four years of life. Looking at it you imagine old foudres; dank cellars with healthy microbial populations. Everything about the way this wine looked was promising. The wine was intense — at 14.9 abv we knew it was anything but lightweight — but with incredible acidity. It smelled of butterscotch and cardamom and petrol. The minerality and acidity on the palate made it downright refreshing  even in its intensity. We drank it with whole sardines rubbed in harissa paste. Brilliant.

ArgyrosThe second bottle of Assyrtiko, the Estate Argyros 2011 Santorini informed us that it had been fermented in stainless steel and French oak. Oh dear, had the modern world gotten even to Santorini? The color was a bright filtered light straw yellow. It could be anything. Chilled too much, it smelled of oak. It could have been a white Bordeaux or a Napa Sauvignon Blanc or a lean Chardonnay. But give it a little time and the Assyrtiko began to assert itself. It opened into aromas of lemon curd and cucumber sweat — you know, that slightly bitter moisture that rises from a cucumber when you  leave it on the counter. On the palate the minerality we found with the Hatzidakas came through along with the acidity, the lime rind. It’s a modern wine, sure, but as they say… you can take the wine out of Santorini but you can’t take the Santorini out of the Assyrtiko. Oh, I guess we just said that.