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Articles December, 2008

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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).


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