For many wine lovers, this white wine of Greece, principally from the volcanic island of Santorini, is a mainstream varietal, one they’ve been enjoying for years. That’s all well and good, but for the purpose of today’s lesson I’m not interested in those folks. It’s the rest of you who need to listen up.
Summertime is coming. The weather is getting warmer. Meals will get lighter, and people will spend more time in the fresh air. Patios and backyards will shrug off winter’s detritus and become, once again, the places to be. This is where assyrtiko comes in.
Looking ahead to summer meals, do you think you might be grilling some fish, maybe vegetables? How about putting together some hearty salads? If your summer wines don’t venture much past chardonnay, pinot grigio, and sauvignon blanc, you owe it to yourself to open a bottle of assyrtiko. Here’s a tasting note from a few months back on one of my favorite labels, Sigalas (above), one of Greece’s finest producers: “What’s there not to like? Brilliant pale lemon yellow, almost clear. Whiffs of cool ocean breezes, with lemon and honey on the nose. Medium-plus body with some earthy minerality and mouth watering acidity. Medium to long finish. I hear this wine can age. Maybe. Just not in our house.”
But don’t take my word for it. In his authoritative and popular Pocket Wine Book, British wine writer and critic Hugh Johnson has this to say about assyrtiko: “One of the best grapes of the Mediterranean, balancing power, minerality, extract, and high acid. Built to age. Could rule the world…” Not your run-of-the-mill white wine.
Assyrtiko offers a great example of what the French call “terroir.” It tastes like the place it comes from. It has a bit of brininess like the sea that surrounds Santorini. It conjures feelings of warm sunshine and the flavors of fresh seafood grilled over a crackling fire. Its citrus flavors, bright acidity, and earthy minerality combine to let you know that this is not some simple white quaffer, but a varietal that stands among the best the wine world can offer.
Like all of the world’s great wines, assyrtiko has elements all its own, things that make it unique. While this grape does grow in other places in Greece, Santorini is its home, and where it thrives. On that island it accounts for a dominant 70% of the land under vine. It’s a vine that can reach remarkable ages, for two significant reasons. One, the vines are ungrafted, meaning they grow on their own roots, which contributes to longevity. And, two, the vines are trained often into basket shape and grow very close to the ground, which protects the foliage and fruit from the constant island winds. Some reports allege that many vines (roots) are at least 500 years old.
A good teacher should never ask students to do something he’s not willing or able to do, so this afternoon I headed over to Craft Beer & Wine, formerly Du Vin Fine Wines, in Alameda to do some shopping. The general manager, Dan Marshall, oversees one of the best Greek wine inventories in the Bay Area, if not all of California (which really means the entire west coast). He had six assyrtikos in stock and I grabbed them all, and not just for research. These wines are for drinking. Do you think I’m kidding about this being a great summer wine? I’ve had a few of the labels many times before, but a couple of the wines are new to me and I can’t wait to dive into them. I’m especially eager to try the Nikteri from Hatzidakis, which is made from late-harvest assyrtiko and aged in oak. From what I hear it’s a unique throwback to a more traditional style, with fascinating complexities of flavor and texture.
So, do your homework. Get on Wine-Searcher.com and see what shops in your area carry assyrtiko. Then hustle over to grab a couple (best to start small), all the while planning the menus for your summer cookouts. Assyrtiko is a special wine from a special place, and it’s time you found out for yourself just what you’ve been missing.
(sources: Wine Grapes, Robinson, Harding, Vouillamoz; Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book 2014; WinesofSantorini.com; Chasingthevine.com)