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What To Drink Now: New Wines of Greece…Assyrtico from Santorini

Santorini, Greece

Just when you think you know a little bit about wine you travel to Greece and you realize there is so much more to learn.  I recently returned from Greece, attending the 3rd annual New Wines of Greece Symposium and traveling throughout the country and the Aegean Islands as a guest of New Wines of Greece, traveling with All About Greek Wines founder Sofia Perpera and her husband George Athanas.  The duo started their wine and spirit consulting company almost 10 years ago to help promote the wines of Greece to the international market, partnering with some of the best wineries in the country, many of whom follow the classic traditions handed down for generations while embracing modern techniques and operations.

When you think about Greek wine the first thing that may come to mind is Retsina….the pine infused Assyrtico (A seer’ tee ko) that, through the years, has given Greek wines a bad name in many wine drinkers opinion, and though we did try a few that will take the enamel off your teeth and make you stay away from purchasing a Christmas tree again, we did try one that was surprising from the winery Kechris with their To Dakri tou Pefkou or “Pine’s Tear” that utilizes oak aging, making it manageable and even interesting.

Or, you may think of the mineral rich, steely and sometimes sulfuric Assyrtico varietal white wines of Santorini, filled with lots of acidity, fresh herbal and citrus notes that has done surprisingly well in the export market around the world, most likely due to the throngs of tourists that visit the island each year and want to taste the flavors of the island once they get home.

After traveling through the country, meeting winemakers and tasting their wines, it quickly became apparent that the wines of this country go far beyond the distinct Assyrtico, and are well above what the wines of the country have been known for in the past. My next few posts will dive into the flavors of some of these wines from throughout Greece, but first a look into the highlights of Santorini and why these wines have become the some of the most recognized from the country.

The island of Santorini dates its existence back to the time of the Bronze Age (around the 17th Century B.C,) but some think the shape of it could indicate it was at one time attached to the island of Crete, detaching from the island either during one of their destructive and ever-present earthquakes or volcanoes. Over the years archaeologists have found evidence to prove the first inhabitants of Santorini were quite civilized, engaging in trade activities with the Minoan culture in Crete, as well as Egypt, Asia and beyond and living peacefully and sustainably off products local to the area, capers, tomatoes and lots of wine.

Remnants of the city of Akrotiri

The pre-historic city of Akrotiri, or the “the Pompeii of the Aegean” was discovered by Greek archaeologists in 1967 proving the island had a vibrant and prosperous culture. The city had been covered in volcanic ash when a volcano eruption occurred on the island around 1650B.C., preserving the artifacts in pristine condition. It is believed that the volcano did not come unexpected, as evidence shows that there were no people in the city of Akrotiri when the volcano blew. Archaeologists don’t know where they went, but it is believed that this was the end of the Minoan civilization in Santorini and Crete.

What the volcanic eruption did leave was layers and layers of mineral rich, volcanic ash, lava and pumice stone that has become the foundation for the distinctive, intensely mineralic and highly acidic wines produced on the island. Breathtakingly beautiful, with white washed walled buildings and blue domed churches dot the countryside overlooking the sea where the colors of the water meld so closely to the colors of the sky you can’t see where one ends and the other begins, Santorini has built itself up in the cliffs above the Aegean Sea where powerful winds blow from morning through the night.

Basket vines of Assyrtico in Santorini

To battle these winds grape growers developed a system to train their vines in defense, wrapping vines in a basket type formation near the ground that allows grapes the ability to grow inside the vine blocked from the damaging winds. Additionally, the vines grown in this soil are naturally resistant to disease, specifically phylloxera that destroyed most of the other vines in Greece as in the rest of Europe, creating an almost completely organic means of farming. It would seem that every home and church throughout the country also has a few of these basket vines growing in their front yard, making personal consumption of home-grown and made wine a normal part of the Santorini lifestyle.

Cooperatives, like the Union of Santorini Cooperatives who bottle their wine under the label SantoWines, give local farmers a place to process their wines after harvest each year, as well as a place for the jarring and canning of local agricultural products that thrive on the island, like capers, tomatoes and fava beans.  Many of the wines they produce go straight back to the household for their personal use, however they do sell some of these wines for public consumption as well. One such is their award winning SantoWines Santorini Assyrtico. Subtle, in the grand scheme of Assyrtico, with aromas of white flowers, white grapefruit and herbs with pronounced minerality and balanced acidity. A delicious wine to pair with grilled white fish or octopus, and salad filled with briny capers and herbs.

Yiannis Paraskevopoulos, Co-Founder of Gaia Wines
Though many Grecians make their Assyrtico wine only for personal consumption, a handful of wineries in Santorini are now taking this wine to the public for consumption as well.  Many producers are small, making only a few hundred cases a year, their drive to produce exceptional wine representative of their country is high.
Of those that were exceptional, the Assyrtico from Gaia Wines was one that shone the brightest.  Founded in 1994 by Leon Karatsalos and Yiannis Paraskevopoulos, Gaia Wines has taken a leadership role in re-defining Greek wines and helping the international market understand the remarkable potential for the indigenous varieties of Greece, especially Assyrtico.
After the first sip of their steely, mineral filled wines I became a fan. Though they follow a similar flavor profile of many of the wines from the island, these had a little something more, with distinct character and personality.
Gaia Thalassitis is 100% Assyrtico made in the most traditional sense – stainless steel fermentation to create the food friendly white with bold notes of white grapefruit, lemon and lime.
The Gaia Wild Ferment Assyrtico elevates these flavors to a different level by utilizing only native yeasts for fermentation and combining the use of both oak and stainless steel for fermentation.  Some wineries in Greece struggle in understanding and utilizing oak with their wine; Gaia has a skilled hand in their use of oak, as well as utlizing native yeasts in fermentation, creating a wine with structure, depth and roundness without taking away the light freshness and acidity that makes Assyrtico special.
Flash fried prawns with Hatzidakis Nykteri and Hatzidakis Aidani-Assyrtico blend

Hatzidakis Winery
was started in 1996 by brothers Haridimos and Konstantina Hadzidakis on the vineyard site their parents had owned in the 1950′s and had been forced to abandon due to an earthquake on the island in 1956.  Though most vineyards in Santorini are farmed Organically, Hadzidakis is 100% certified oraganic, growing Assyrtico vines, along with other varieties like Aidani (dry white), Athiri (dry white) and Mavrotragano (dry red.)
The Hatzidakis Nykteri Assyrtico ages in oak barrels for 6 months after fermentation, adding depth, creaminess and a hint of spiciness to the bone-dry and high alcohol white wine (about 15%) and giving it the ability to pair nicely with hearty chicken, rich fish or even light beef dishes.

Domaine Sigalas
produces one of the most well known Assyrtico wines from Santorini, simply labeled Sigalas Santorini.  Stainless steel fermented, this crisp, fresh, acidic wine has a light tint of green to its straw yellowish color, helping understand the green, grassy notes of the wine, along with ripe grapefruit, green apple and mineral notes.  A consistent award winner, Sigalas has become known for making wine representative of the island with character and tradition, and ideally paired with freshly caught, grilled fish served with fresh lemon.

Estate Argyros
is one of the oldest wineries established in Santorini, founded in 1903 by George Agyros.  Today the still family owned winery combines tradition with modern technique to produce quality wines from the island.  The Argyros Assyrtico comes from low yielding, 50+ year old vines which create a wine with intense herbal, grassy and somewhat sulfuric notes and a lemon and lime citrus filled palate which pair well with fresh grilled fish, sauteed greens and simply sliced tomatoes with sea salt.
Many of these wines are available at various Spec’s locations throughout Dallas.

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