A rough, ancient carpet of volcanic rocks rolls toward an azure sea, dotted with twisted, knotted bird nests of vines. Like the weathered hands of an old man cradling a gem, these centuries-old spheres shelter Greece’s most prized grapes from the sweltering sun and ever-present blasts of Aegean wind. The landscape is both stunning and savage. This is Santorini, the storied birthplace of Assyrtiko.
Prized from the days of the ancient Greeks and widely exported throughout the Middle Ages, Santorini Assyrtiko is renowned for its bright flavors, bracing acidity and elegant, mineral character. These virtues give it wide modern appeal among terroir-driven sommeliers and wine lovers with a taste for refined whites. Chefs praise its food-pairing prowess, citing a Chablis-like dexterity. It’s no wonder that this sea-tinged elixir is the flagship pour of Greece in the international market.
Assyrtiko production has also established a foothold in other parts of Greece, showing its versatile character in the varied expressions found beyond its volcanic origins. In the northern regions of Drama, Sithonia and Chalkidiki, to Crete, Atalanti and the Aegean island of Paros, Assytriko’s laser focus takes on lush layers of tropical fruit and earthy herbs.
New approaches in blending the grape with both indigenous and international varieties have proven successful, as has aging in oak. A perfect communion of past and present, Assyrtiko is poised to take its place among the great whites of the world.
Ring of Fire
While its breathtaking vistas of sparkling sea and caldera-rimmed bay make Santorini a mandatory stop for tourists, this island is a taskmaster for vines. The challenge, dating back to the ancient Greeks, has always been protecting grapes from buffeting winds and intense sun exposure.
The ingenious solution—bush vines trained into basket-like coils low to the ground—results in vineyard scenes unlike most anywhere in the world. As time passes, the coils curl around themselves to create balls of thick vine that look more like an artistic installation than a working plant. Over 70 percent of the island’s vines are planted to the variety, creating a landscape both funky and fascinating.
Soil in Santorini is a reflection of its traumatic past. In essence, the island is what remains after a series of cataclysmic volcanic eruptions 180,000 years ago. Vines struggle through light, porous pumice soils that lack clay and organic matter.
“Santorini is the Jurassic Park of vineyards,” says Stefano Georgas, winemaker at Estate Argyros, among the top Assyrtiko producers on the island. “It was born from earth, wind, sea and fire. It’s unique because you have an exact reflection of what’s in the soil in the wine, with its pumice and sulfur from the volcano, among other elements. It’s a true terroir wine.”
Rainfall is scarce, and nutrients are packed deep in the earth, which results in small yields, intense fruit and terroir-driven minerality. Vines are periodically pruned at the trunk, but Santorini is home to vines often more than 50 years of age, and in some cases, centuries old.
“Santorini is the birthplace of Assyrtiko and is an ideal home for it,” says Georgas. “The lack of potassium in the soil gives the grape excellent natural acidity and protects vines from phylloxera.
“The soil’s pumice absorbs the moisture from the surrounding water of the sea and gives the plant its water. The wind lowers the average temperature. All of these elements combine together to create this grape with beautiful structure and personality.”
How does this affect what’s in your glass? Briny, lemon-rind briskness and a steely, stony, mineral finish are focused and pure, but still offer full-bodied complexity. Its ample alcohol levels and crisp acidity give it great aging potential.
Varied approaches by Santorini vintners have helped the wine gain popularity outside of Greece. Famed producers like Boutari, Sigalas and Argyros have balanced tradition and varietal branding with innovative approaches in single-vineyard plantings, oak aging and blending with harmonious indigenous varieties like Aidani, Athiri and Robola.
At Gai’a Wines, experiments with wild fermentation and a delicious Assyrtiko Vinsanto (a version of a naturally sweet wine made on the island since ancient times) show that the variety can be coaxed in many directions without losing its distinctive character.
The island has also attracted pioneers like Tselepos Winery, famed for its Moschofilero in the Peloponnese, to team with longtime island vintners like the Chryssou family and combine their expertise and differing perspectives. Santorini’s Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status, driven largely by Tselepos in the vein of his work in Mantinia and Nemea, has further elevated the island’s star.
But success comes with a caveat: On an island with limited (and expensive) land, production in Santorini can only grow so much, despite an increasingly thirsty fan base. Necessity, alongside the spirit of experiment, has meant more plantings around other areas of Greece, especially in the last five years.
Going Further Afield
“Assyrtiko has huge potential outside Santorini,” says Gerasimos Lazaridi, whose Chateau Julia Assyrtiko is grown in the northern mainland region of Drama. “Its character in our region is more fruity and aromatic, with a delicate style that’s friendly to the international palate.”
While the austerity of Santorini’s soils brings out Assyrtiko’s edge, the cooler, gentler climates and less stressed vines of the mainland and Crete inspire exotic fruit flavors, herbal notes and a softer taste profile.
That generosity, which Cretan producer Bart Lyrarakis says is a hallmark of his Assyrtiko, is a result of the soil and the longer ripening season in climates cooler than Santorini.
“That means a wine that’s fruity and less sharp, but regardless of the lower acidity, should still be balanced,” he says. Assyrtiko has also lent its distinctive personality to a category Americans have been slow to embrace: retsina. That pine resin-flavored, viscous dram favored by the Romans baffles most non-Greek palates.
However, in Tear of the Pine, a modern take on the traditional wine, Thessaloniki’s Kechris Winery has eschewed Savatiano for Assyrtiko. It’s aged in oak, which produces a more delicate, finely balanced retsina that plays to the flintiness and full-bodied fruit of the variety.
The Greek poet Homer declared that “Bacchus opens the gates of the heart.” For wine adventurers with a taste for the elegant and exotic, Assyrtiko is clearly a love match.
Domaine Sigalas 2014 Kavalieros Single Vineyard Assyrtiko (Santorini); $35, 93 points. Brisk lemon and lime peel aromas are followed by delicate flavors of grapefruit, white peach and sea salt in this sophisticated white. Elegant and exotic, it has an ageable character and a versatile, food-friendly style. Beautifully rendered and a testament to Santorini terroir. Diamond Importers Inc. Editors’ Choice.
Tselepos 2015 Canava Chrissou Assyrtiko (Santorini); $25, 92 points. With its sea salt, lemon peel and fresh-fruit aromas, this wine offers focus and finesse from the beginning. On the palate, bright lemon and lime peel flavors and a pronounced mineral edge are beautifully integrated. This is a terroir-driven white that’s made for fresh fish and vegetarian dishes. Cava Spiliadis.
Ktima Pavlidis 2015 Thema (Drama); $20, 92 points. This blend starts with panache, offering aromas of vanilla cream, lemon, banana and crushed herbs. On the palate, it balances brisk acidity with alluring citrus and melon fruit flavors. The wine has a spicy spin that gives it extra spunk. Athenee Imports.
Kechris 2015 The Tear of the Pine (Retsina); $20, 92 points. This 100% Assyrtiko Retsina shows the versatility of this variety and will challenge the modern wine drinker’s perception of the traditional pour. Intense aromas of lime and lemon mingle with a spin of crushed thyme, honey and vanilla. On the palate, vibrant fruit and a flinty minerality prevail. The wine finishes long and clean. Pair with fatty fish like lobster or fried sardines. Mina Foods Inc.
Porto Carras 2014 Assyrtiko (Sithonia); $19, 91 points. This distinctive white starts with an aromatic, almost Riesling-like nose of flowers, with a touch of citrus focus. On the palate, vanilla spice and pronounced fruit mingles with the bracing edge of lemon peel and mineral. An elegant white with unique regional flair. Old World Vines.
Greek Wine Cellars 2015 Assyrtiko (Santorini); $20, 89 points. Grapefruit, lemon and star anise aromas lead this refined but friendly wine. On the palate, lush, rounded flavors of melon and tropical fruit are supported by brisk acidity. Great combination with richer poultry or pork dishes. Nestor Imports.