A blog devoted to exploring wines made from unusual grape varieties and/or grown in unfamiliar regions all over the world. All wines are purchased by me from shops in the Boston metro area or directly from wineries that I have visited. If a reviewed bottle is a free sample, that fact is acknowledged prior to the bottle's review. I do not receive any compensation from any of the wineries, wine shops or companies that I mention on the blog.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Assyrtiko Two Ways - Santorini, Greece

Santorini seems like kind of an awesome place. It's a little set of islands in the Aegean Sea that is the remnant of a massive volcanic explosion about 3,600 years ago which blew the top off of a volcano, leaving the Santorini caldera behind. There are some people that believe that this explosion and its aftermath were the inspiration for Plato's description of the lost city of Atlantis. On the inside of the curve, there are steep cliff faces that drop as much as 300 meters straight down towards the lagoon. The capital city, Fira, is scattered along a hill top and some of the towns have buildings that seem to be just hanging on the edge of the cliffs. The topsoil is made up of different layers of volcanic ash, which is not necessarily a good thing for agriculture but makes for some pretty stunning black-sanded beaches. The underlying soil is made up of chalk and shale. Miles Lambert-Gocs, in his The Wines of Greece, compares the landscape of Santorini to the surface of the moon with ashy greyness stretching in all directions.

Not only is the soil on Santorini inhospitable to agriculture, but the climate is as well. Santorini and another Greek island called Anafi are the only two areas in all of Europe whose climate can be categorized as "desert" according to the Köppen climate classification system. What this means is that these areas receive fewer than 10 inches of rainfall a year, which is considered too low to sustain any vegetation. In order to combat these arid conditions, the vines are spaced very far apart, in much the same way as in La Mancha, Spain. The distance between vines can be as far as 2.5 meters. The primary source of moisture for these vines is the morning dew and the air moisture captured by some of the clay in the soil. As a result of the spacing and the low moisture, yields here are incredibly small, amounting to 10-20% of the average yields found in France or Italy.

Santorini is very windy due to the fact that the island is basically a big hill in the middle of the ocean and because the land is too dry to support things like trees that might block some of the wind. In order to combat these fierce winds, the vines are trained in unique basket shapes where the stalks of the vines are trained into spirals which the grapes sit in the middle of, protecting both the stalks themselves and the grape clusters from the harsher elements of the weather with the major downside (from a producer's point of view) being that the grapes must all be hand-harvested since you can't get a mechanical harvester into one of those nests. One good outcome of the harsh climate and remote location of the island of Santorini is that phylloxera never made it to the island, or, if it did, it was unable to survive in the harsh conditions. The vines here are ungrafted and can live for over 70 years.

Assyrtiko (and its many synonyms made by substituting "y"s for "i"s and "k"s for "c"s) is the most widely planted grape varietal on the island of Santorini, accounting for 70-80% of vineyard area. It is thought to be native to Santorini, though it is also widely grown throughout the Greek island system and on the mainland. It is perhaps best known as a blending partner with the Savatiano grape in the production of Retsina. It is a hardy grape that is resistant to many diseases and adaptable to different climactic conditions. It is naturally very high in acid and tends to find itself in blends (though there are 100% varietal wines produced) with other grapes either to boost their acid content (such as in Retsina) or to temper its own high acid as in the 2009 Sigalas Assyrtiko/Athiri blend that I tried.

The Sigalas wine ($18 retail) has a mixture of 75% Assyrtiko with 25% Athiri. Athiri is a very old Greek varietal which is named for "Thira" or Thera, which is the name of the largest island comprising Santorini, indicating its historical ties to this region. In the glass, this wine was a very pale, light straw color. It had a moderately open nose with aromas of grapefruit and lemon peel and a kind of clean, rainwater smell. On the palate, the wine was full bodied and kind of oily-textured with high acid. There was a bit of white grapefruit fruit, but there was mostly this very steely minerality that lingered very nicely. This was bright, crisp and very clean that was a much larger mouthful than I was expecting. It cane be tough to balance an oily textured wine, but the acidity here is great and very refreshing, making this a very versatile food wine.

The other Assyrtiko wine I sampled is a bit more complicated. Anyone who has spent a good deal of time around Italian wine, especially Tuscan wine, has probably come across Vin Santo. Italian Vin Santo is made by drying grapes, typically Malvasia or Trebbiano, on straw mats before pressing them and then barrel aging them. The style can vary from a dry sherry-like drink to a syrupy, rich dessert wine depending on the region and the winemaker. Well, it turns out that Greece also has a Vin Santo. My wife was actually shopping for a bottle of the Italian stuff and came home with a 2004 bottling from Boutari ($30 for 500ml) made from Assyrtiko and Aidani grapes instead. She was disappointed in her honest mistake (until we drank the wine), but I was excited since this was something I had never heard of before.

Surely there must be some kind of connection between these two wines, one might think. Well, it doesn't appear so. In an impressive display of wine geekery and scholarship, Jeremy Parzen, over at Do Bianchi, has made a pretty good case for the wines only sharing homonymic resemblance. The name Vin Santo (I tend to see it more commonly printed as vinsanto) for the Greek version probably comes from a contraction of Vino Santorini, whereas in Italy, Vin Santo (or "holy wine") is so named because of its use in church services. In any case, it's fascinating reading for those of a certain geeky persuasion and I encourage you to follow his series of articles provided in the link above.

The Greek vinsanto is made from grapes that are sun-dried (as opposed to indoor mat-drying as is done in Italy). The blend that I picked up was made from 50% Assyrtiko and 50% Aidani, another native Greek varietal found only on the Cyclades islands in the Aegean which is used almost exclusively in blends due to its low acid content. This wine was aged for four years prior to release. In the glass, the wine had a tawny, dark amber/reddish brown coloring. The nose was full of roasted hazelnuts and almonds, raisins and maple syrup. On the palate, the wine was medium bodied with surprisingly high acidity. There were flavors of honey and maple, golden raisins and dried red fruits along with toasted almonds and a kind of spicy orange twist. This wine was sweet, it's definitely a dessert wine, but not syrupy thanks, I think, to the high acid provided by the Assyrtiko grapes. That acid really kept this lively and interesting in the mouth for me. I've had a lot of sweet wines that taste amazing at first but which get old really fast because your palate gets beaten into submission by the relentless sugar assault. The nice acid here keeps this interesting and alive in the glass. This is a wine I will not hesitate to purchase again and I would be very anxious to try it with my southern-style pecan pie.

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