It’s no secret that I have fallen under the spell of the remarkable wines of Santorini, made from the assyrtiko variety. Santorini was in fact the first Greek wine that captured my attention several years ago, and set me on a journey of discovery to uncover more unusual Greek specialties with multi-millennial histories. Many
trips to Greece and her vineyards later, I’ve ended up as a sort of a Greek Wine expert in Canada by default, from a thin field to be sure, and, for the record, I have written articles and hosted many educational seminars on behalf of the Greek government [though this piece was not commissioned]. I am happy to report that I am still fascinated by the grapes, places and history of Greek viticulture, and look forward to further discoveries.
Well-known Santorini winemaker Paris Sigalas was in Toronto in May as part of the Greek Wine Road show, and the opportunity was taken to put together a fairly comprehensive vertical tasting of his remarkable wines for the first time in Canada. Following are a few quick notes on the region and the wines.
A Truly Unique Terroir
Few places in the world have the unusual grape growing conditions that exist on Santorini, giving rise to one of the world’s truly unique regional specialties. The intense sunlight and fierce winds dictate the vine trellising method: here grapes are not trained up posts and wires as is common, but are rather woven into baskets that literally sit on the ground so that the grape bunches can grow within, protected from the wind and wind blown stones, and from the sun by the canopy of leaves overtop.
The soil is pure volcanic pumice, very poor, with virtually no organic matter. Most vineyard pests, moulds and mildews are virtually unknown, making many vineyards de facto organic, whether certified or not. Such a hostile environment has the kept the island phylloxera-free, meaning that vines are grown on their own rootstocks; many vineyards are decades old and in some cases much older. It is speculated that the root systems of some vines may be 100 years or even older – nobody is really quite sure, as when the baskets become to large to manage, the vine trunk is cut off at the surface and new shoots are allowed to grown, renewing the weaving process.
Thus while on the surface the vines may appear young, the root systems may in fact be centuries old.
Yields fromold vines in these extreme conditions are not surprisingly absurdly low, in the range of 15-25 hectoliters per hectare. Rain rarely falls during the growing season. The only moisture the vines receive is from humidity born by sea breezes and deposited during cooler nights, absorbed and retained by the porous pumice stones. Assyrtiko, the principal whites grape on the island, is a variety of unquestionable class. Its unique feature is the ability to retain high acidity (and low pH) even when fully ripe; up to 14% alcohol is quite common. This is a particularly useful characteristic in the extreme conditions on Santorini. The variety is aromatically discreet, with vague citrus-grapefruit and occasionally riper orchard fruit aromas, but has a remarkable ability to transmit the intense minerality of the soils on the island. It often smells of freshly crushed volcanic rock. Assyrtiko from Santorini also often has a palpably astringent texture from very high levels of dry extract, a fact that, when coupled with high acidity-low pH and relatively high alcohol makes santorini an uncommonly age worthy white white.
Harvest on Santorini begins as early as the first week of August in some years. At Sigalas, grapes are hand sorted and refrigerated. A part of the harvest may then be cold macerated before vinification, the percentage of which is dependent on the vintage conditions and health of the grapes; the remainder is whole bunch pressed. Fermentation is kept around 15º-16º, using selected neutral yeast. Malolactic fermentation rarely occurs, given the already low malic acid content of the grapes. Sigalas also uses lees stirring to broaden the texture of the wine. Bottling takes place early in the new year following harvest, except for the barrel aged versions.
(note that the wines are not scored , though my preference is indicated by *-*****):
(wines with prices are available through The Kolonaki Group; contact: Steve Kriaris firstname.lastname@example.org, older vintages are very limited)
2010 Sigalas Assyrtiko/Athiri, $17.95
Athiri is blended in here to boost the discreet aromatics of assyrtiko, though this remains a subtle wine. The nose shows some light grapefruit and lemon-citrus; the principal feature is minerality. The palate is full and fleshy, with relatively generous alcohol. Solid length. **
2007 Assyrtiko/Athiri $N/A
Beginning to show some advanced aromas, leaning towards some blond caramel, bruised apple. Creamy, lower alcohol, decent length. Drink soon. *
2010 Santorini, $23.95 (14.2%, 3.14 pH)
Discreet, yet highly spicy, stone fruit and intense minerality, salty on the palate. Long finish. A fine vintage; reminiscent of classic dry German Riesling. ****
2009 Santorini $23.95 (13.3%, 2.91 pH),
Showing beautifully now, with a honeyed-peachy ripeness, with precise acidity, minerality, and hazelnut notes. A full, concentrated vintage, with great ageing potential. *****
2008 Santorini $24.95 (14.2%, 3.05 pH)
More evolved grapefruit peel, honey hazelnut, with full, rich body, lightly astringent texture, a more rustic version. (90% was cold soaked). ***
2007 Santorini $29.95 (13.5% alc, 3.05 pH)
Round and creamy, soft, starting to show some age – a quickly maturing vintage. ***
2006 Santorini $34.95 (13.7% 3.10 pH)
Still fresh, marked by pure minerality, with a rich, full, fleshy palate – A wine of great intensity and length – remarkable. *****
2005 Santorini $39.95 (13.7% alc, 3.04 pH)
A full, firm, fleshy, lightly astringent vintage, with tons of dry extract and extraordinary length. Well constructed. Honeyed, succulent peach, nutty, hazelnut. ****1/2
2003 Santorini $39.95 (13.6%, 3.00 pH)
Smells like old school champagne, quite advanced, and oxidative. Not a perfect bottle? Deferred judgment.
Barrel Fermented Santorini
2003 Santorini Barrel Fermented
Quite remarkably fresher than the 2003 non-barrel, in fact quite amazing. The palate is rich, full, creamy, almost sweet, with sweet baking spice, like top notch white Burgundy, with intense, underlying minerality. Though generally opposed to ageing these wines in wood, this wine could make a believer out of me. ****1/2
2009 Santorini Barrel Fermented
Quite discreet wood influence, striking acidity and minerality, the wine here dominates any barrel notes. Full, rich, concentrated and creamy, long finish. Very well managed wood. ****
2008 Santorini Barrel fermented
Slightly clumsy and oxidative, seems to be ageing quite quickly; wood is notable, more so than the 2009. Fruit is moving into the candied citrus spectrum, though underlying acidity keeps this in shape. This might surprise in time. **1/2