ASSYRTIKO IS GREECE’S most striking white grape. It hails from the Cyclades island of Santorini and covers 65% of its vineyard area, where many vines are ungrafted and vary in
age from 60 to 250 years. On this windswept volcanic isle, the roots of the Assyrtiko vine can reach up to 18m in the black, ash-rich soil, giving the resulting wines great minerality. The vines are uniquely trained in groundhugging, basket-weaved fashion to minimise wind damage during flowering, as well as grape sunburn. Maritime humidity and fog contribute to an annual rainfall of just 350mm in this improbable winemaking location. Different altitudes, latitudes and soils on this island result in varied styles. Wines classified as ‘Santorini’ are bone-dry, in-your-face, crisp, mineral-laden, high-acid wonders. Field blends of white grapes include the softer Athiri and the aromatic Aidani (it was only possible to produce a 100% Assyrtiko with the advent of sorting belts, where selection is done by hand).
Over the past 25 years, Assyrtiko has increasingly been planted on the Greek mainland, where it is trellised and yields are higher. Mainland wines are more aromatic, with an edgy character, and rounder with a more discreet minerality. Here, Assyrtiko has proved to be a real chameleon in a blend, able to partner a variety of grapes. Malagousiaand Semillonare the best, giving the resulting wines a fascinating flavour profile. One overdone, albeit commercially successful, formula has been to pair Assyrtiko with Sauvignon Blanc, but there are now more interesting options in a country not short of characterful indigenous white grapes (estimated at 150 varieties).
With or without oak
For wines classified as ‘Nykteri’, grapes are picked at night to avoid hot temperatures. They can be vinified in steel or oak but must be aged in oak for a minumum of three months. The result is still a bone-dry wine with high acidity but is fuller-bodied. However, the majority of the island’s producers still prefer unoaked Assyrtikos (mainly those under the Santorini classification) to preserve the grape’s mineral, flinty characters. In top vintages, wines from Santorini need two to three years to come round. In outstanding years, like 2009 and 2011, Assyrtikos can age well for a decade. Mainland examples seem to evolve a little faster, but vines are still relatively young there so comparisons are difficult. Assyrtiko’s qualities have not gone unnoticed even beyond its home frontiers. It has been planted in Australia and is being evaluated elsewhere, such as in Italy’s Alto Adige – viticulturists sense that there is still much more to coax from this adaptable, charismatic grape. Prized for its high acidity even in ripe years, Assyrtiko is consequently an excellent wine to pair with food, aided by its pronounced savoury profile, stony minerality and citrus freshness.
This unique Greek grape is rising from relative obscurity, with an insider cult following, to achieve a resonant new voice in the wine world. Recent vintages to look out for are the charming 2012 and stellar 2011.
Updated by Jeanne Thexton on the 12th of January 2016