Everyone seems to be going this summer to Greece and the ancient, idyllic, volcanic island of Santorini.
The GOAT – Tom Brady – went there recently to attend a very private VIP party.
Celebrities of every kind go there weekly to get their photos taken on fancy yachts and published in People magazine and the New York Post.
Even several of my neighbors have gone there over the summer, one family packing up the entire family of 12 and staying for at least three missed grass cuttings – yes, I counted.
I got a taste of Santorini too. In May, I attended a masterclass in Boston, at the City Winery, which featured the sun-splashed island’s noble white grape and wine, Assyrtiko. The seminar, titled “Santorini: Volcanic Terroir”, featured a 90-minute tasting of nine Assyrtiko wines led by sommelier and wine writer/podcaster Levi Dalton of New York and Sofia Perpera of Athens, a oenologist and spokesperson for the Greek Wine Federation.
It was fabulous.
Santorini is a small, sun-splashed island of 28 square miles and 15,000 residents.
It is located in the Aegean Sea and is part of a circular string of smaller islands, some uninhabited, that were formed by a tremendous volcanic explosion believed to have taken place 3,600 years ago during the Minoan civilization.
In the middle of the islands, which are composed of volcanic ash, pumice and limestone, sits a deep, large water-filled caldera left by the eruption.
On Santorini, a rugged, cliffside landscape prevails, leaving little serviceable land for agricultural and viticultural interests. Conditions are hot and arid. Strong winds blow constantly. And yet … the Greeks – and all who would-be Greeks – seemingly summon the gods to create stunning wines produced from old, surface-crawling bush vines that absorb moisture left by the daily fog.
Assyritko is the noble white grape. Thick-skinned and resistant to disease (phylloxera, fungus), Assyrtiko benefits from the soil’s volcanic and iron-rich minerals (red rocks dot the landscape), said Dalton. Deep-rooted vines survive for decades, he added.
Made in a traditional style using stainless steel vats for aging, Assyrtiko produces a clean, crisp, acidic (tartaric) and citrusy wine.
Add oak to the mix and Assyrtiko exhibits a “modernized”, softer textural style and richer fruit notes.
My top takeaway from the tasting is a highly positive one. Assyrtiko wines can be diverse and versatile depending on the style in which they are made.
The key is to maintain Assyrtiko’s food-friendly acidic balance and high quality without overpowering its true fruit and mineral expressions.
In my view, the following wines all brought out the best in Santorini’s Assyrtiko. (Suggested retail prices listed reflect the average online pricing available from an array of large U.S. dealers.)
Santo Santorini Assyrtiko 2022, SRP: $34, abv. 13.2% – Approximately 80,000 bottles are produced annually from vines that are between 60-to-80 years old. The wine is aged in stainless steel for up to four months. It’s noteworthy for a clean and lean body, mouthwatering acidity accentuating grapefruit and lemon, and dry finish.
Sigalas Santorini 2022, $45, abv. 14.5% – Soft and shiny on the palate, with lemon cream texture and character notes, this dry white Assyrtiko is a lovely favorite. Fermentation takes place in stainless steel tanks where the wine sits on the lees for three months, undergoing regular weekly stirring (battonage). Also boasts high-octane alcohol. Sigalas is one of Santorini’s most popular brands in the U.S.
Gaia Thalassitis 2021, SRP: $40, abv. 13.8% – Grapes originate from old vines (70-80 years) that are small and highly concentrated. Done in a reductive style (oxidation), this dry white shows its elegant features through intense citrusy flavors, bracing acidity and a big, mineral finish.
Estate Argyros Cuvee Monsignori 2020, SRP: $55, abv. 14.5% – The estate vineyard is the island’s largest with nearly 370 acres under management. And the vines can be described as classic and ancient – 200 years old and counting! Monsignori ages 11 months sur lie in stainless steel tanks and combines a smooth, clean body with highly charged acidity and steely minerality. The flavors are exotic and bit more complex. Nearly 23,000 bottles are produced yearly.
Santo Santorini Assyrtiko Selection Cuvee 2018, SRP: $30, abv. 13.3% – A mix of grapes from 60-to-80 year old vines go into the 100% varietal blend. The texture is silky gorgeous, the result of the wine aging on the lees for 13 months in stainless steel tanks. Flavors are rich and round; apple intermingling with lemon and grapefruit. The finish is dry, long, and pleasantly less acidic. Nearly 30,000 bottles were produced.
Gaia Assyrtiko Wild Ferment 2022, SRP: $35, abv. 14% – As the name states, there’s a breakout side to this luxuriously textured, dry white wine made from mature vines (70-80 years). It bucks tradition on nearly every level and comes through as a wonderful example of Assyrtiko’s versatility. First, it’s vegan. Second, the wine is fermented separately in a trio of different vessels before being assembled: 45% in stainless steel, 45% in oak barrels, and 10% in ceramic spheres. The result is a very elegant, graceful wine that appeals to New World palates seeking a plush mouthfeel. One panelist described it as “Americanized” and I couldn’t agree more.
Santo Nykteri 2021, SRP: $40, abv. 14.1% – Nykteri departs from the other wines tasted in that it is a blend of three native Santorini white grapes: Assyrtiko (85%), Athiri (10%) and Aidani (5%). Another that breaks from tradition, the wine spends six months in 500-liter French oak barrels. Enjoy a softer texture and rounder citrus flavors that stay true to the wine’s natural fruit and flinty expressions.
Sigalas Santorini Oak 2021, SRP: $30, abv. 14.5% – Aged (sue lie) entirely in French oak (10% new, 90% neutral) for up to eight months, Sigalas Oak is a beautifully balanced Assyrtiko wine that moves the needle further along in the stylish evolvement of this long-lived varietal. Everything meshes well – acidity, alcohol, tannins – and the flavors stay bright and natural on a slightly creamy frame.
Estate Argyros Cuvee Nykteri 2019, SRP: $40, abv. 15.2% – There’s nothing subtle about this 100% Assyrtiko that is aged for 24 months – half in a combination of new and neutral French oak barrels and half in stainless steel vats. An oaky presence emerges, but not to the point that it overpowers the lemon and grapefruit flavors. A touch of vanilla is refined and delightful, enhancing the complexity of this very appealing white that lingers well past the finish.