The Greek Assyrtiko has been popular for years in Austria, writes NICO MANESSIS, but it's now gaining fans worldwide

The Greek Assyrtiko has been popular for years in Austria, writes NICO MANESSIS, but it’s now gaining fans worldwide

When I first tasted Assyrtiko on Santorini in the 1980s, it left a deep impression. It still does. It was an experience that opened my eyes to the potential of indigenous Greek grape varieties. The profile was reminiscent of a hypothetical Mediterranean Loire Valley Chenin Blanc – a bone-dry Savennières in a ripe vintage.

The thrill of my discovery was offset by the thought that this wine was still relatively unknown, its illustrious roots taking hold more in history books than in the vineyard. Sporadic research over the years put the number of grape varieties in Greece at more than 300 but, because of lack of exploitation, some died out. Of the estimated 150 white varieties that remain, Assyrtiko has now emerged as arguably Greece’s finest cultivar. Deservedly so. Its vines are impervious to drought, resistant to oidium and downy mildew and adapt easily to a wide range of soils and micro-climates.

Assyrtiko is the only known white variety in the Mediterranean that manages to achieve ripeness while maintaining high acidity. On the other hand, it is a tricky grape to vinify, because of its high phenol content and tendency to oxidise. Wherever it grows, its wines have an unmistakable presence: invariably severe profile, low-key citrus or honeysuckle aroma, full-flavoured, smoky, mineral-laden palate and long finish.

The best results from Assyrtiko and its blends come from two regions – the Cycladic island of Santorini (pictured), in the southern Aegean, and the more recently planted mainland vineyards of northern Greece. The grape flourishes on Santorini’s volcanic rock, where it either originated or was introduced following the volcanic eruptions between 1640 and 1620BC. It comes into its own here, gaining added depth and concentration – qualities unmatched by any other Greek white wine currently being produced. Assyrtiko has an average vine age of 80 years and grows on its own rootstock. A dearth of rain combines with the island’s volcano-grey topsoil – severely lacking in organic matter – to produce an average yield of 28hl/ha (hectolitres per hectare).

Santorini’s grey soils, scattered with white pumice stones, are a far cry from the more traditional rows of vineyard landscaping. It is an arid, desert-like environment. and yet, out of this unending struggle, Assyrtiko shines. An ingenious method of pruning was devised to help it survive the destructive Aegean winds and prolonged periods of drought: each vine is trained to grow round in a circle and upwards, eventually enveloping itself with a protective skein that is not unlike a woven basket.

In 1971, two Santorini appellations were introduced: a dry white and an amber-hued visanto. To make the visanto, sun-dried grapes of Assyrtiko – mixed with 10% of the more aromatic, rare Aidani – are laid on mats or terraces for up to 10 days. Following a slow, long fermentation, they are cask-aged. Assyrtiko’s searing acidity and high residual sugar (as much as 300g/l [grams per litre] for the older vintages like the 1982 Arghyros) produce more of an elixir than wine. Santorini visantos have remarkable staying power – analysis of an 1895 vintage showed 418g/l of residual sugar and also a towering acidity of 14.2g/l (in tartaric).

At the forefront of Assyrtiko mainland production is the Gerovassiliou estate at Epanomi, outside Thessaloniki. Soils contain sand and clay as well as patches of limestone. The latter gives lower yields, with maturation slower (4–5 days) and acidity higher. Evangelos Gerovassiliou, a believer in Assyrtiko, says: ‘Its aroma is higher, though there is less body. The smoky character is still there but not as pronounced, since our soils contain less pyrite than those on Santorini. Acidity comes in at 7–8g/l regardless of drought – and even after 12 hours of skin contact, the profile is intact.’

For his estate white, Gerovassiliou blends Assyrtiko with 15% Malagousia, a semi-aromatic variety whose apricot-like Viognier character achieves sensational results. As with most quality modern Greek wines, quantities are not enormous. Assyrtiko’s hectarage is estimated at around 11,500 stremmata (1,150ha), just more than 15% of the total wine-producing land in Greece. Most wine is sold in small lots by boutique estate wineries.

This lesser-known grape is a star in its own right. It makes a wine full of character that has impressed the palate of many an insider. Now it is enticing non-specialists who are in search of something different. Beth von Benz, sommelier at Manhattan’s Judson Grill, enthuses: ‘A plus with Greek wines is the romantic connection Americans have with the island of Santorini.’ She rates Assyrtiko as a ‘wonderful aperitif wine suggestion or an excellent match with hard-to-pair food dishes.’

At the trendy The Real Greek restaurant in London, Paloma Campbell thinks that Londoners are fed up with New World wine lists and are keen to try new tastes. ‘Our customers are very open-minded,’ she says. ‘They love the variety of flavours and character Greek wine has to offer.’

So broaden your horizons – think Greek and try Assyrtiko. You may be surprised!

Nico Manessis is an expert on Greek wine and author of The Greek Wine Guide