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A group of visiting indies seeks out the Assyrtiko grape in the Santorini PDO – an environment where almost everything else struggles


Everybody knows that grape vines thrive in inhospitable landscapes. But in the Santorini PDO, the resilience of vitis vinifera is tested to something approaching its limits.

This famous Greek island likes to extend a friendly welcome to holidaymakers, but there’s little here to make viticulture feel at home – despite the fact that people have been making wine on Santorini, in various forms, for 3,500 years.

It’s a harsh volcanic landscape of pumice stone and ash, baked by the scorching Aegean sun and blasted by wind. Trees and grass struggle to establish a foothold on Santorini, and so would most grape varieties. Assyrtiko is one of a handful of honourable exceptions, almost all of them white.

Assyrtiko from Santorini, the main variety of the PDO, has become a favourite among many UK independents, who seem to find a ready market for its ultra-zippy, full-bodied white wines, which typically come with a faintly salty tang on the finish.

When the opportunity arises to visit the island and get to understand not just classic Assyrtiko but the famous Vinsanto sweet wines too, there’s no shortage, unsurprisingly, of willing takers.

Old vines that dig deep

Anyone who says that vineyards everywhere look pretty much the same has never visited Santorini. Vines sprawl at ankle level across the volcanic debris, their precious grapes protected from the elements within a gobelet-like basket system called a kouloura. By encouraging the vines to grow this way, the fruit occupies its own microclimate, protected from wind damage, dehydration and sunburn. Put your hand inside this secret chamber and it’s immediately clear that the temperature is 1˚C to 2˚C cooler than the surrounding air. It’s why the pickers sometimes keep their lunch here while they set about their back-breaking work.

When wine growers on Santorini talk about old vines, they mean very old, often more than 200 years. Phylloxera can’t cope with the island’s clay-free conditions, so vines can rely on their own rootstock. Eventually, when yields become too low, growers graft on a new head to the vine, initially anchoring it into the ground to stop the winds whisking it away. The vines drive down deep into the black rock: one grower we encounter believes the roots on some of his plots extend 75 metres underground. It can take more than a decade for a new vine to become viable.

There is no natural source of fresh water on Santorini. So where are the vines sourcing theirs? Rain falls on just 65 days a year, on average, amounting to a mere 370mm (or an alarmingly meagre 119mm in 2021) that evaporates quickly. But there is a natural drip-irrigation system in the form of the morning dew, and evening sea mists, which supplies the plants with a welcome, and crucial, moisture boost.

We notice a few dried-out bunches here and there, outside the embrace of the kouloura. On healthy bunches, the grapes are packed tightly together, but there’s no chance of fungus taking hold in this dry heat. Vineyards on Santorini may or may not be officially classed as organic, but in reality only the most eccentric grower would feel the need to spray their crops.

The white grape that acts like a red

Although most of us on the trip think we have a fair idea of the Santorini Assyrtiko template, it soon becomes apparent that the spectrum of styles is broader than we realised.

Some winemakers remark that the tannic structure of the grape makes it behave more like a red wine than a classic white. Phenolics are “through the roof”, according to one producer, and some styles certainly benefit from a few years of bottle age before their flavour components properly meld together. But the consumer clamour for young, fresh wines is something producers are happy to indulge.

The PDO for Santorini Assyrtiko now stipulates that at least 85% of the blend is Assyrtiko. Some producers have gained a following for their genuinely single-varietal wines, but most also include some Aidani or Athiri, which complement the headline grape’s natural austerity with more aromatic characters.

Then there’s the question of oak. Although some producers we meet clearly enjoy expressing the purity of the fruit without any barrel influence, others insist that some judicious oak seasoning creates a more rounded – and arguably more gastronomic – wine.

A style we encounter almost everywhere we go is Nykteri. The word translates loosely as “working through the night” and is a reference to the traditional practice of harvesting the grapes during the cooler hours of darkness. The juice for Nykteri wines is usually drawn off without pressing before a minimum of three months of oak ageing. The wines can be strikingly complex, and long-lived.

After a number of tastings we start to appreciate how Assyrtiko can develop with age. The steely, citrus elements of its youth don’t disappear entirely – indeed we consistently remark on the surprising freshness of five or six-year-old wines. But as the colour darkens a little, it’s noticeable that the wines take on a satisfying richness, an additional stone-fruit sort of character and maybe a touch of honey. We also pick up a pleasant nutty sensation, and flashes of figs and mountain herbs. We begin to understand why many of our hosts choose to decant their older Assyrtiko wines.

We taste an impressive orange Assyrtiko at one winery, which helps confirm that experimentation is adding new dimensions to the island’s winemaking. Amphorae can be spotted lurking in some cellars, and occasionally eggs made from concrete, steel or clay.

“The results are very interesting,” one oenologist assures us. “It’s good to play; to use your imagination and be creative. Assyrtiko is a grape that never disappoints you.”


A full version of this article appears in the August 2022 edition of The Wine Merchant.

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