I first tried Assyrtiko at Pete Barry’s home in the Clare Valley, Australia. It was early November 2016. That day he launched Australia’s first Assyrtiko from vines he brought back from Santorini many years before.
I was struck by its vibrant, crisp, fresh, citric qualities, superbly made wine as you would expect from the Jim Barry wines.
Pete talked sentimentally about Santorini and it has been on my list of places to visit since.
It has taken a few years, with other priorities and of course Covid! Five years later I have made the trip and will review some of the best wines and wineries one the Island. Those who appreciate all things vinous also seek the best cuisine. So I have included restaurant tips and a few other general recommendations.
Firstly a bit of factual background –
Santorini is the southernmost Island out of the 33 Cyclades islands in the South Aegean Sea.
The vineyards are over 3,500 years old, among the most ancient viticultural regions in the world.
The volcanic soils have protected the vineyards from the phylloxera, so the vines survived the epidemic of the late 19th century.
Historically Santorini was renowned for its sweet dessert wine “Vinsanto”.
More recently, with modern winemaking techniques and preferences, Santorini is known for producing highly-regarded, complex quality wines. It is most famous for its dominant variety Assyrtiko– which which along with Athiri, Aidani , constitutes 80% of the vineyard area. The remaining 20% are red varieties Mandilaria and Mavrotragano
We arrived early October. On the drive from the airport to the Northern most tip Oia we passed through a harsh dry unforgiving landscape.
Harvest had well passed, being of the earliest in Europe. The vines appeared sad dry and dejected.
I wondered how anything could grow here given to dry arid heat and hard stony volcanic soils. This harsh environment creates a low yield, highly prized harvest which reflect the terroir.
They have developed a innovative pruning system the Kouloura. This is a basket-weaved shape close to the ground to minimise wind damage during flowering and to protect against sunburn. It also helps collect any moisture from the rocks on the ground.
Another method used is Kladeftiko (small ring). This method is slightly higher off the ground allowing more aeration.
What to expect from the Assyrtiko variety?
Previous wines I have tried displayed the characteristic citric, high acid, mineral salty notes with a distinct phenolic bitterness of the finish. Other elements were of a herbal smoky nose. Only one way to find out…
By chance, Kiran had chosen to visit the same week, on the same Island, in the same town! We chose five wineries to visit from recommendations and personal contacts. Tasting notes are a mixture of mine and Kiran’s.
Wine production at Arygyros dates back to 1903. I had been drinking their introductory Atlantis range red from Mavrotragano .Served slightly chilled as an aperitif. It was a lovely way to watch the sunset on our terrace at Oia Mare villas.
I was particularly looking forward to the Vinsanto, the longest aged in Santorini and one of the best sweet wines in Greece. Argyros have a stunning new modern winery. Very spacious clean and bright near the village of Pyrgos. They own some of the Island’s oldest vines two hundred or more years old The fourth generation of the family produces three Assyrtikos, an Aidani, a full-bodied red from the Mavrotragano grape. We were lucky enough to be hosted by the delightful and informed Elisavet Loukaki.
Estate Aidani 2020
Spends 3 months on lees in stainless steel from 40 year old vines. Retails at 25 eurFloral nose, peach and herbs, lovely.On the palate, stone fruit, lemon rind, medium body, medium plus acidity. Nice length.A nice aperitif wine to sit in the autumnal sunLess acidic and more aromatic than Assyrtiko .
Estate Assyrtiko 2020
A blend of vineyards with 100 year old vines, spends 3-4 months on lees.Stone fruit, sea air and an undertone of herb, tarragon or cut grass.Ripe stone fruit, cooked lemon with a salty tingling long finish in the mouth.Fuller body and high acidity.This wine is made for food especially Greek dips, fetta and grilled fish.
Estate Cuvee Monsignori 2018
From 200 year old vines and spends 11 months in stainless steel vats on lees with batonage. 14% alcohol retails at 30 eurA pleasant whiff of petrol, apricots and ground hazel nuts honeyAgain ripe fruit, concentrated, full bodied but balanced by high acid. Nice tension from a green note underneath, very long. Delicious. A lateral would be a minerally full bodied Austrian Smaragd from the Wachau.
Estate Cuvee Evdemon 2017
From two parcels 150 year old vines near Pyrgos biodynamically cultivated. Fermented in 25% in French oak barrels then blended and aged for 30 months in stainless steel vats on lees. 45 eurToasty smoky notes with apricot jam, baked fruits and a note of cream. Intense.Very concentrated with full body, high alcohol but balanced by high acidity. Again a salty finish Very long. Again a ripe Gruner Veltliner comes to mind as a lateral such as the oaked Brundelmayer Ried Lamm
Vin Santo 2013 13.5 %
Mostly Assyrtiko but some other grapes in the blend. Assyrtiko 80 Aida I 10 athiri 10Grapes are sun dried grapes for10 days. The wine spends 3 years in cement vats and 4 years in barrels.The nose is complex a mix of figs, nuts & dates and spices.Great balance sweet 220g/l but with great freshness.
Vin Santo late release 2001
For this wine the grapes are sun dried for 14 days. It spends 3 years cement vats but then 16 years in used barrels. Topped up in a kind of solera system Brown tinges are clearly visible showing the wines 20 years.The nose is rich with raisins, dates,hazel nuts and dried ginger.
The palate is complex with figs dates and nuts and a spicy gingery tang. The sweetness is perfectly balanced with the fresh acid zing and it is very long and delicious. Outstanding
This was an impressive introduction to the wines of Santorini. The Vin Santo 2001 clearly something very special. Wines available in the UK via Clark Foyster. We were keenly anticipating the rest of the week