ANCIENT ASSYRTIKO

By Rose Murray Brown MW    Published in The Scotsman 3 February 2017

If you like your dry white wine with honeysuckle scents, citric fruit flavours and a touch of smoke and minerals, try Assyrtiko.  

This ancient Greek grape (pronounced ay-seer-tee-ko) reminds me of a cross between a very rich Loire Chenin Blanc and a crisp sleek northeast Italian Friuli white.  It has that classic combination of ripeness of fruit, good natural acidity and an ability to reflect the soil in which it is grown.

Over seventy per cent of the world’s Assyrtiko plantings are grown on volcanic soils on the Cyclades island of Santorini in the Aegean.  Back in 1646 BC, the entire island of Thera (as Santorini was then known) had an eruption 100 times more powerful than Vesuvius.  The entire island was covered in lava and ash and the whole population destroyed.

Today, Santorini’s light porous Aspa basalt volcanic soils are immune to phylloxera and create very characterful white wines.  With no rivers on the island, they rely on the sea mist and morning dew so vines are cleverly woven into basket shapes about a foot high and grapes trained to grow into the baskets to protect from the fierce winds and retain moisture.

Assyrtiko thrives on Santorini as it is such a drought resistant vine, it is also highly resistant to diseases like oidium and mildew; its hard wood also protects it from the winds.  However, it can pose problems for winemakers as the grape can oxidise easily during vinification and it has high phenol content. 

Most examples are bone dry whites, often unoaked.  In Santorini they tend to be varietal Assyrtiko made from 100% of the grape, but on the Greek mainland at Epanomi near Thessaloniki producers blend it with Malagousia making a softer less minerally style.  There are also wonderful examples of Vin Santo dessert wines produced on Santorini from dried Assyrtiko available on the island from the twelve producers.

My favourite producer on the island is Haridimos and Konstantina Hatzidakis who make stunning wines based in Pyrgos, Santorini’s highest village on the road to the Ilias monastery, with an underground cellar dug into the tufa soil.  His parents originally had vineyards here, but in 1956 an earthquake forced them to leave the island; their son Haridimos returned to resurrect the vines in 1997.

Another interesting producer is Gaia Wines run by Leon Karatsalos and Yiannia Paraskeropoulos who have taken over an abandoned tomato processing factory where they make their Santorini wines.  Domaine Sigalas in Oia village north of the island also make fine oaked Assyrtiko and delicious Vin Santo.

There is no better time to try dry white Assyrtiko, as many on our shelves come from the highly rated 2015 vintage.  All Assyrtikos in our tasting were from Santorini – and all were high quality examples, but there are sporadic examples of this grape elsewhere in the world.

The most notable is in Clare Valley, Australia.  Peter Barry of Jim Barry Wines was holidaying on Santorini back in 2006 when he discovered Assyrtiko.  So convinced that it would make a suitable variety to grow back home in South Australia, he imported vines – and this vintage, 2016, he produced his first Assyrtiko.  I was not able to include his Australia Assyrtiko in our tasting as the wines are in short supply, but I asked Barry to tell us how the wines differ from the Greek versions.

“I love Assyrtiko as it gives such a true expression of terroir”, says Barry.  “In Clare Valley in Australia we find it tends to give a richer wine than on Santorini, but it still has a minerally salty finish”, he says.

 


TASTE TEST:


Santorini: ATLANTIS ASSYRTIKO 2015
(£11.50 Marks & Spencer)
Alc: 13%      
Limey gooseberry flavours and its sleek minerality reminded tasters of Sauvignon Blanc with a slightly herby twist.  It also has a nutty and saline undertone – with a little Athiri and Aidani grapes in the blend to add texture.  Serve as aperitif or grilled fish.


Santorini:  ASSYRTIKO 2015 Hatzidakis   ***STAR VALUE BUY***
(£12.99 Waitrose; £13.50 www.thewinesociety.com)
Alc: 13.5%
Crisp clean sleek version from Santorini’s top producer.  Bone dry, white flower scents, tangy citric fruit, minerally with a long distinct aftertaste – very popular with our tasters.


Santorini:  WILD FERMENT ASSYRTIKO 2015 Gaia Wines
(£19 www.winetrust100.co.uk)
Alc: 13%
Impressive Assyrtiko made with wild yeasts with a slightly smokier, savoury note with a salty edge – beautifully balanced with crisp clean palate and a rich characterful finish.


Santorini, Aegean:  SANTO NYKTERI 2014 Santo Wines 
(£16.99/£15.29 Laithwaites www.laithwaites.co.uk)
Alc: 14%
This dry white blend with Athiri and Aidani was popular with tasters who loved its jasmine & citrus fruit aromas, rich weighty honeyed palate with a hint of spice & good length; very subtle oak notes from 3 months maturation.  Nykteri means ‘staying up all night’, as vintners pick grapes in the early morning and press the grapes during the night.


Santorini:  ASSYRTIKO DE MYLOS VIEILLES VIGNES SANTORINI 2015 Hatzidakis   ***STAR BUY***
(£29 www.thewinesociety.com)
Alc: 14.5%
Fabulous rich off-dry version from 100 year old ungrafted vines in Mylos single vineyard.  Intense minerally style with rich guava and citrus fruits and leesy undertones: a piece of Santorini history to match with grilled bream.  Very good.


Join Rose’s The Big Bang: Volcanic Wine tasting at The Scores Hotel, St Andrews on Friday 17 February £35 www.rosemurraybrown.com


 

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