Expert’s choice: Greek Assyrtiko
Some of the wines from mainland Greece are very good, says Joanna Simon, although there really isn Õt anything quite like Santorini Assyrtiko
Flying the flag for quality, and a fine illustration of minerality in wine. Joanna SImon’s top 18
ASSYRTIKO IS TO Greece what Albariño is to Spain or Grüner Veltliner is to Austria. Although Greece has many other high-quality indigenous white grape varieties, it is Assyrtiko that is the flagship. What sets it apart from other countries’ equivalent varieties is that Assyrtiko has barely travelled. The wine has been (and is increasingly) exported and appreciated, but the vine has not. Only Australia has broken the mould – and only recently – with the first commercial release of a home-grown Assyrtiko this year (from Jim Barry in Clare Valley, which I can recommend). In California, where you might expect experimentation, plantings are negligible and I know of no commercial bottlings.
At home it’s a different story: Assyrtiko has spread from the Aegean islands, where it probably originated on Santorini, to many parts of the mainland, including Attica, the Peloponnese and Macedonia. Some of the mainland wines are very good (I’ve chosen six), but they tend to be softer, less wild and distinctive than Santorini.
There really isn’t anything like Santorini Assyrtiko. If ever a wine justified the description ‘mineral’, it’s the dry white made on this volcanic island. It’s hard to describe Gai’a, Wild Ferment, Santorini 2016 92 £22.15–£23.49 Noel Young, The Halifax Wine Co Wild ferment, 35% new French and American oak barrels. Powerful, savoury, smoke and oak nose. Dense, rich-textured, dry; deep core of oak-wrapped, spicy, honeyed-lemon fruit; deft acidity. Drink 2017–2023 Alc 13%
the intense, sometimes pungent, smoky, volcanic smell and taste in any other way. It isn’t the only flavour of course: penetrating citrus, especially lemon, is the other signature flavour, sometimes with quince or a floral note. There can be a salty edge, too. And then there’s the trademark high acidity. Assyrtiko has the ability to hold its tartaric acid in a hot climate. On the downside, it has a tendency to oxidise, but winemakers are more adept at handling it these days.
Along with acidity, the other feature that makes Assyrtiko peculiarly well suited to Santorini is its hardiness, specifically its resistance to drought (annual rainfall averages 360mm, though nocturnal summer fogs supplement it) and strong winds. Mind you, winddamage limitation comes with a price: the ingenious but labour-intensive practice of training each vine like a woven basket ( kouloura) close to the ground. The bonus is that koulourai also protect the grapes from sunburn. Another quirk is the age of the vines: because phylloxera gives volcanic deposits a miss, the vines are ungrafted and many are old and exceptionally deep-rooted. Low yields are a given, but vintages are not too variable. 2016, 2015 and especially 2014 were all successful.
Going back to the wines: with the natural acidity and intense mineral and lemon flavours, Assyrtiko is a candidate for oak – fermention and/or ageing adding the usual potential for flavour and texture (toast, butter, spice, creaminess, honey). Sometimes I could wish for a little less but, compared to five years ago, oak has become a more subtle seasoning in Greece. Hurray for that!
‘Along with acidity, the other feature that make Assyrtiko suited to Santorini is its hardiness’
Hatzidakis, Louros Vignes Centenaires, Santorini 2014 92 £58 Theatre of Wine 24 months in French oak. Dark, almost amber. Floral, honeyed, dried-apricot aromas. Intense, weighty palate: oak, lemon, dried apricot and spice; creaminess pierced by acidity. Slightly hot on the finish. Drink 2017–2025 Alc 15%
Hatzidakis, Cuvée No. 15, Santorini 2015 92 £29–£29.60 AG Wines, Buon Vino, Hedonism Organic vines, 12 hours’ skin contact, wild yeasts, 8 months on lees, unfiltered. Has an oxidative sherry hint. Dried-apricot flavour, lemon-oil texture, tangy acidity and citruspeel bitter twist. Drink 2017–2024 Alc 14.5%
Domaine Papagiannakos, Attiki 2015 92 £15 Amps Fine Wines, Cheers Wine Merchants, D Byrne & Co, WoodWinters Open, round nose. Honeyed nuttiness offset by lime-juice steeliness, apple and apricot fruit; supple texture with pithy acidity and crisp white pepper. Drink 2017–2023 Alc 12.5%
Biblia Chora, Areti, Pangeon 2015 91 £19.15 Cava Spiliadis Delicate, fresh, citrus-accented nose. Trades Santorini’s smoky pungency for a more delicate spicy, peppery, mineral freshness, lemon-and-pear fruit and quiet intensity. Drink 2017–2023 Alc 13.5%
Argyros Estate, Santorini 2015 93 £19.80–£19.95 Bottle Apostle, Philglas & Swiggot Ripe citrus fruit, plus a spicy lime intensity, with 20% French oak softening the raw volcanic pungency and adding a subtle bitter-chocolate note. Racy, taut acidity; a complex, layered and flowing style.
Drink 2017–2023 Alc 14%
Domaine Sigalas, Santorini 2015 95 £17.95 Berry Bros & Rudd Aromatic with smoke and mineral pungency and fresh lime juice. Richly fruity with a touch of sweet apple and peach before the limecitrus depth; high acidity, but nothing abrasive or tart. Drink 22017–2024 Alc 14%
Hatzidakis, Mylos Vieilles Vignes, Santorini 2015 95 £29–£34 Theatre of Wine, The Wine Society 100-year-old organic vines. Pungent, smoky, almost funky intensity to the nose. Rich texture, concentrated apple and citrus fruit, intense minerality, rigorous acidity. Very exciting. Drink 2017–2024 Alc 14.5%
Argyros Estate, Santorini 2016 93 £22.29 Noel Young Appetisingly fresh, zippy nose: lime juice, pears and salty sea-spray. Beautifully fresh, dry and intense with incisive but modulated acidity and an elegantly textural feel. Fruit in the citrus spectrum. Palate goes on and on.
Drink 2017–2024 Alc 13%