The high-speed ferry from Athens cuts the time it takes to get to the Cycladic island of Santorini by over half, faster than when I first visited the sun-drenched volcanic island 30 years ago. Boats now have WiFi, too. Another major difference from the past is that Santorini includes Greece’s top white wines, which are sold increasingly in markets worldwide. And the star variety is Assyrtiko.
In the late 1980s, I recall one or two wineries. Today, the island has a wine route for 18 estates, says George Skopelitis, who lives and works on Santorini for the Greek Agriculture Ministry. Just five years ago, there were only thirteen.
Assyrtiko takes its roots from Santorini, encompassing well over half of its vineyard area. While the grape is planted in other parts of Greece -- and increasingly in wine regions outside the country -- the windswept island permits roots to dig deep into black ash-rich soil, lending distinctive wet stone aspects to the bone dry style which, at its best, is like fine white Burgundy.
Of course, much has been written about the koulouri vine training method: A basket-weaved shape to minimize wind damage (including pebbles hurled against the vines) during flowering. This sort of canopy also protects against sunburn.
One may think that the topography and soils on an island of approximately 28 square miles are similar, with maritime humidity and mists contributing to an annual rainfall of less than 14 inches (350mm). But different latitudes, altitudes and soils result in varied styles. Readers should appreciate the increased interest in understanding the island’s terroirs. Since 2015, Domaine Sigalas has been making no less than seven wines from different island sectors that stress terroir differences. Owner Paris Sigalas speaks fluent French and admires Burgundy, and it was great to have tasted all seven wines with him in 2016 at his winery, but perhaps even more interesting was a tasting of these seven wines in France earlier this month. Accustomed to trips to Burgundy and Alsace, and terroir-driven single cépages wines such as Chardonnay and Riesling, French wine merchants came away impressed with the purity of Santorini Assyrtiko.
“Such pristine expression of fruit and salinity remind me of Burgundy,” remarked Paulo Puel of Ill Vino wine bar in Strasbourg, after tasting all seven terroir wines. For example, the Akrotiri Village 2016, clocking in at 13% alcohol and about 7.4 grams of acidity per liter, was brisk yet also smooth and contoured on the palate, again very saline with aforementioned wet stone, leading to a fresh and lifting finish. It was interesting to compare with the Imerovigli Village 2016, which clocks in at 14.7% alcohol and nearly 7 grams of acidity (tartaric) per liter. Certainly this wine showed a richer profile, with quince jelly and cooked pear, the palate balanced even if the finish is a tad hot. “All seven of these villages brought something fine to drink,” remarked Puel.
In 2016, Sigalas produced 1,000 bottles for each of its seven villages, but produces typically over 100,000 of its Sigalas Santorini Assyrtiko, which is a blend of all seven -- and which is also excellent, agreed Stéphan Maure, a Strasbourg-based wine importer.
Another French merchant who works wine bar Black & Wine, also in Strasbourg, stresses how his clients appreciate the Gaia Wild Ferment Assyrtiko, tasted earlier this month. The 70- to 80-year-old vines lend depth to the wine, with is aged four months in stainless steel and wooden casks before bottling (50% stainless steel, 20% acacia, 20% French oak and 10% US oak). The 2017 is an excellent vintage with 13.5 per cent alcohol and about 6.5 grams of acidity per liter. Also compelling is the Gaia Thalassitis 2017, appropriately described on the back label as a “white bone dry wine,” yet it shows a reigned-in creaminess on the palate, marked by white pepper and wet stone. At about $20, this constitutes a bargain, especially considering the 80-year-old vines coming from the terroirs Episkopi, Akrotiri and Pyrgos.
An overall favorite was the Estate Argyros 2016 aged in 20% new French oak barrels, and one of the most successful Assyrtiko wines aged in some new oak, it was very well integrated. The vines are 150 years old, and the wine exudes fine balance, with licorice, pear, and touches of resin: one of the favorites tasted with French wine merchants in Strasbourg. At over $20, this is offers a superb price/quality ratio -- do not hesitate!
Look for the Quality Cooperative
A sign of quality for any wine region is if the cooperative makes good wines. At the cooperative Santo Winery, the wines can be excellent. Its Santo Wines Assyrtiko 2016 exudes fine salinity and a pleasingly tonic bitterness to the finish beckoning further sips. Grapes grow on vines ranging in age from 20 to 60 years. And anyone visiting the island must visit the cooperative for its amazing sunset views. Marriages are held there regularly because of its beauty. And the wine, at $16/€16 is an excellent deal, Puel says. “It has that lovely maritime freshness to it,” he says. It won recent awards at the Thessaloniki International Wine & Spirits Competition (Silver medal), the Berliner Wein Trophy in Germany (Gold) and at Mundus Vini (Silver medal).
But as Assyrtiko gets more popular, prices are going up. Yiannis Valambous of the recently established Vassaltis Winery says increasing prices are “a great concern.” His “main fear” is that someone in the market might say, “enough is enough”, such as a group of sommeliers or merchants. Indeed, when I spoke to John Fitter, buyer of Greek wines for the Washington D.C. based MacArthur Liquors, he said that when Sigalas breached the $30-per-bottle barrier, some customers started to looking at less expensive options, although the Sigalas remains a top seller (the Sigalas 2017 that we tasted in France sells at the Washington D.C. store for $32).
As Valambous remarked: “No one cares if a top French wine costs 70 Euros, or if a Napa Valley Cabernet is $100, but breaking the 30-Euro barrier for a Greek wine, well…people think it is too much.”
Demand and a limited quantity of wine are driving up cost. Consider the increasing average cost of the Assyrtiko grape: 3.30 Euros per kilo last year but a record average price of 4.50 Euros this year, approaching the cost of famous international brands. The average price of grapes in Champagne is 6 Euros, for example.
Even with prices increasing, however, Santorini Assyrtiko remains a bargain for lovers of high-quality dry whites, driven by terroir, even if the $30 price barrier has been breached in some quarters. And don’t take it just from me. Take it from the French.