Coups de Coeur
Not just for the panoramas......
All photos mine
.........GO FOR THE WINE!
One of the most interesting wine regions in
Greece is Santorini, which has an appellation for both dry and sweet wines. Yes, Santorini.
The Santorini of picture postcard views and glistening blue water. The Santorini
of sunsets so beautiful
that people camp out on the cliffs to watch. The Santorini of picturesque
architecture, the white buildings contrasting with the deep blue
water, creating a feeling that you have been transported to some serene and
special place not quite of this world. That Santorini.
My advice? Go for the wine. Bet you didn't see
that one coming. Given that Santorini's vineyard area is shrinking even as it is
producing more and more lovely wines, neither did a lot of other folks,
apparently. Although the modern appellation dates back only to 1972, Santorini
has a winemaking tradition dating back at least to the Bronze Age, not quite
four millennia ago. Its soil is volcanic, its climate warm, very dry and sunny.
Its vineyards are old and have never been attacked by phylloxera. It is so dry
that much of the water that the vines get comes from what the ground absorbs
overnight from mists. To protect the grapes from sun and strong winds, the vines
typically grow in shapes that look like baskets and bushes, low to the ground
rather than in tall columns. All these factors, plus Assyrtiko, combine to make
Santorini a unique winegrowing region.
Greece has a large number of indigenous grape
varieties. One of the best is Assrytiko, a white grape grown in other Greek
regions, but probably at its zenith in Santorini's pre-phylloxera vineyards.
White Santorini appellation wine is dominated by Assyrtiko by law, with a little Athiri or Aidani
sometimes blended in. This is a reflection of the island's vineyards. Some
70-80% of the island's ancient vineyard area is planted with white grapes, most
of which is Assyrtiko.
Assyrtiko is a grape that should become an international star. It is not
particularly aromatic, nor even intensely flavorful. But it produces wines of
considerable density that can feel fuller in the mouth than many reds while
remaining racy, its high acid demeanor making it lively rather than ponderous.
In some incarnations, particularly on Santorini and for instance as made by
Gai'a, it is so steely that I felt compelled to decant it. When made by
producers who do not handle it properly it tends to oxidize rapidly, but the best
producers turn out Assyrtiko that ages well. You can drink a pristine Sigalas
Assyrtiko for a decade or more. And high quality wine is fairly cheap. You
can get wines that hit or approach 90 points for $20, give or take. Some of the
blends can be great deals. Sigalas, for instance, makes a fine blend with Athiri,
an ancient Greek grape, that can be had under $15.
The typical Assyrtiko is unoaked, steely and
pure. I called one from Gai'a a cross between Chablis and trocken Riesling.
Understandably, many are wary when producers start using oak. Prices rise and
the wine risks losing what many love about Assyrtiko. Yet, some of the barrel
fermented wines work very well. When they do, taking Gai'a and Sigalas as
examples, they have a certain class of their own, a little more intensity and
grip on the finish. They seem powerful and pointed, yet still balanced. They are
not as pure and steely, but they can be exceptional.
Then, there is Santorini's other treasure: the
Vinsanto (usually spelled as one word, but don't expect consistency in Greek
spellings). Not to be too obvious--"VinSanto" / "SANTOrini." This is another
incarnation of Assyrtiko as Santorini appellation rules require
at least 75% Assyrtiko. The grapes are dried outside and turned several times a
day for around ten days, before being aged for several years in oak. The result
is a wine that projects rich flavors and powerful aromas, while retaining its
acidity and being rather light on its feet. Many are very low in alcohol--although
many are not. One idiosyncratic producer, Argyros, has his own theory of how
Vinsanto should be made. This winery has made a name for itself by late
releasing its Vinsanto several times longer than Greece’s appellation rules
require. The wines are released some 20 years--YEARS--after their vintage date.
The 1974 has still not been released. The result of the long aging and a slow
vinification process is a somewhat higher alcohol Vinsanto (around 14%) with
great intensity of flavor. They are very different, often wonderful, but not
cheap. There are, however, some lovely, more typical Vinsantos that can be had
for $25 and under (for a 375ml).
There are some less well known wines and wine styles on the island as well,
ranging from Mezzo (half-sweet Vinsanto) to Vinsanto-style reds made from
Mandilaria, the island's principal red grape. There is also Nykteri, an old
traditional bottling that is made by harvesting near dawn and going to the
fermenter that evening.
Some producers to look for:
ARGYROS: Argyros makes fine table wine, too, but
the claim to fame here certainly has to be the Vinsanto, given the winery's
unusual practice of late releasing its wines. The only wines released thus far
have been the 1978-1984 and 1986-1989. Winemaker Matthew Argyros’ philosophy is
that “the more vinsanto [ages,] the more complex, exceptional and abundantly
flavoured it becomes, with the strong taste and flavour of chocolate, roasted
coffee beans and dried fruits.” His Vinsanto also has relatively high levels of
alcohol because, he says, “the fermentation is done very slowly in order to
achieve the optimum level of alcohol (13,5% - 14% Vol.) due to the high
percentage of sugar.”
BOUTARI: One of Greece's best know wineries,
Boutari was founded in 1879. If its trademark is more Naoussa than Santorini, it
nonetheless produces some very nice wines --and well priced wines--on the
island, including a fine Santorini and a lovely Vinsanto.
DOMAINE SIGALAS: Paris Sigalas is a master of
Assyrtiko, simply put. Whether the pure, steely ones; the barrel fermented
versions, or Vinsanto, it is hard to find a misstep here. The wines are
amazingly consistent from vintage to vintage and they age very well. This is one
of the few places where I thought the barrel fermented versions held up well to
the unoaked wines.
GAI'A: This highly regarded winery is famous for
Agiorgitiko in Nemea, but one of its trademark brands is also Thalassitis, a
remarkably austere Assyrtiko bottling. Decanting some of the young, just
released bottlings seemed like a good idea. The oak fermented Thalassitis is
rather good, too.
HATZIDAKIS: The hand with oak here is not as
assured as at places like Sigalas, but there is nice unoaked Assyrtiko and
excellent and well priced Vinsanto.
SANTO WINES: This well known co-op produces some
nice wines at good prices, including Assyrtiko and Vinsanto.
VOLCAN WINES: The KOUTSOYIANNOPOULOS Santorini
can be very good, as is the Vinsanto.
My full reviews of the wines and wineries mentioned herein are in Issue 180 of the
Wine Advocate (or linked online overflow).
Copyright Mark Squires, © 2008 all rights reserved.
is a registered trademark of Mark Squires