It's flowering in Napa vineyards.

It's flowering in Napa vineyards.

Monday, February 22, 2016

The story behind Greece's best white wine.

In my May 3rd 2015 post, I mentioned the additional pleasure I occasionally experienced when I learned "the story behind the wine." That is, and the point being, while one can swirl, sniff, sip and marvel about the underlying qualities that a wine displays, the overall experience can be enhanced when, and if, one learns more about its provenance and history, as well as the unique terroir and winegrowing practices from which it springs.

For those with that frame of mind, wine then becomes something more than a mere beverage to slake the thirst or facilitate the swallowing of food.  It can become an experience (often a journey) that transcends and enriches the basic sensory aspects of drinking.

Today I will take such a brief journey, and I do hope you will join me. Our destination is 120 miles southeast of the Greek mainland toward the Aegean Sea’s archipelago known as The Cyclades.  More specifically, we are heading to the shamelessly picturesque Santorini, of one Greece’s most popular and romantic tourist destinations.  We will explore its fascinating history, as well as the unique winegrowing practices of its excellent, indigenous white grape and namesake wine—Assyrtiko (ah SEER tee koe). 

While often thought of as single island, Santorini is actually a small, crescent shaped, volcanic remnant comprised of five main islands. Originally a single island known as Strongili (STROWNG ghee lee), meaning “The round one,” it was somewhat circular in shape. Santorini’s current, jaw-dropping layout, however, is the result of the world’s most violent eruption in 1500 BC which collapsed the volcano’s central portion and left it with a scenic, crater-filled lagoon (aka caldera).  And as ancient history buffs know, that eruption may have triggered the demise (via a tsunami and/or volcanic ash fallout) of the Minoan culture on the nearby island of Crete.

Archeological excavations suggest wine was produced there eons prior to the cataclysm.  However, it was the eruption that created Santorini’s current, unique terroir. It’s otherworldly appearance, quite unlike the soil of conventional vineyards, is “a mixture of volcanic ash, pumice stone and pieces of solidified lava and sand.”

Add to that, the summer heat, minimal rainfall and the strong ocean winds, what results is one of the most intriguing vine systems for growing grapes—the ground hugging, “kouloura” method, which look like large nests or baskets.

The goal of this time-tested, labor intensive approach is to protect the inside-hanging grapes from the harshness of the wind and sun. Given the unforgiving soil and weather, the labor intensive winemaking routines, and the very low yields, it is a wonder that any wines are produced at all.

But despite the shortcomings of soil and site, Assyrtiko still emerges as an aromatic, flavorsome, solidly structured wine.  That’s the good news.  The bad news is it’s probably not available at your local retailer.  However, K & L Wine Merchants Internet web site lists several 90+ rated Assyrtikos, (in the $20+ price range) including some from other areas in Greece.

I have enjoyed three Santorini producers—Sigalas,  Hatzidakis, and the local cooperative known as Santo Wines. I found all to be very clean and focused, fresh and aromatic (melon, citrus) with a very crisp, mineral texture. It reminds me of an unoaked California Chardonnay from the cool coastal regions.  And for those who into aging white wines, this white wine, unlike many others, should repay the delayed gratification. Also, while I have not as yet encountered any, I understand that there are some oak-seasoned versions produced as well, which is good news for those seeking the buttery veneer of vanilla.

 As a final thought, the general history of Assyrtiko reminds me a bit of the particulars regarding Spain’s excellent white wine known as AlbariƱo.  It began as a relatively unknown, indigenous grape; it has its own, unique terroir and microclimate (an Ireland-like landscape and weather belt); it also has an unusual vine growing system (an above ground, trellised, canopy method). However, once it overcame those hurdles, AlbariƱo gradually achieved worldwide acceptance.  And in that sense, I believe it is only a matter of time before Assyrtiko reaches that same plateau. 


1 comment: