Much ado about December

THE DELICIOUS RICHES OF THE SEASON means we’re  excited about seeing Vinsanto on the holiday table.

Long-maligned as unserious, sweet wines are reclaiming their rightful place as wines of elegance and style. This emerging movement comes at a time when consumers are increasingly exploring lesser-known regions and varieties, and becoming more sophisticated about food pairings.

Vinsanto’s challenge? Educating the public about its true origins. Vinsanto, as we know, hails from Santorini, made from at least 75 percent Assyrtiko (the remaining varieties can be Aidani and Athiri). But many consumers associate it with the Italian Vino Santo, also an ancient wine, but a distant cousin of the naturally sweet original from Santorini.

Called Passos by the ancient Greeks, Vinsanto has long hit the sweet spot with Greek wine lovers, who have traditionally drunk it during celebratory times. And it’s the original energy drink for native Santorinians who often take a nip before working in the vineyard. But now, it’s on the “must try” list as an aperitif, with a foie gras or cheese course, and of course with sweets, says Yiannis Karmanakis, sommelier/owner of Cucina Povera in Athens, Greece.

Made much like as it been since ancient times—with virtually no modern technology—the grapes for Vinsanto are picked near the end of the harvest and dried directly under the sun for approximately 8-14 days. Once de-stemmed, the raisin-like grapes go through a vigorous pressing (of up to 6 hours). The clarified must ferments in old oak barrels for a couple of months—the beginning of a long aging process. Says Gaia Estate’s winemaker Yiannis Paraskevopoulos, “Some say the fermentation never really stops.”

Appellation rules require at least two years of barrel aging although most wineries leave their Vinsanto to age much longer before release. As it ages, Vinsanto takes on a range of flavors and levels of complexity. Fresh Vinsanto begins with an orange-brown color with fresh citrus notes like bergamot. As it ages, those notes will include baking spices and dried fruits such as apricot, and raisins. It also becomes less translucent with gorgeous flavors evolving to chocolate, dried figs, coffee and caramel.

Vinsanto’s real beauty? Even though the wine has high sugar levels — ending up with 250-300 grams per liter— the very high acidity of Assyrtiko keeps it from being cloying. And, says Paraskevopoulos, the factors give the wine its ageability—a hundred years or more if kept under proper storage conditions.

2010 Harvest: bring it on

BLESSED WITH ENVIABLE WEATHER and a viticulture that’s adapted to the unique volcanic environment of the island, the vineyard of Santorini doesn’t experience a great deal of variation in harvest from year to year.

But that hasn’t stopped producers from saying this year’s harvest was considered one of the best of the last decade

“The harvests are usually classified as good or very good,” says Yiota Ioakimoglou of Estate Argyros.

The 2010 yields were similar to last year’s at around 2000-2500 kilos per hectare. Winter rains are especially crucial to the vineyards’ health: they collect in crevices deep inside the Santorini’s volcanic rock and remain there until the summer when the sun and heat draw the waters near the surface to nourish the vines. Rainfall was considered good this year and the vines came into spring and summer healthy, and well nourished with optimum stress conditions at harvest.

Though the summer lacked extreme heat, the mid-summer cooling winds, locally called Meltemia, never blew through. The resultant humidity—higher than normal— caused early ripening this year—earlier than most winemakers could ever remember. Harvest began on Aug. 4, at least a week ahead of schedule.

The absence of cooling winds effected native varieties such as Athiri, Katsano and Platani, which experienced some botrytis; Assyrtiko and Aidani were generally unaffected.

Most of the wineries indicated this year’s vintages would be about a half a degree higher in alcohol, or somewhere between 13.5°- 14°, which should add more body to the wines and increase their aging potential.

Assyrtiko—not considered an aromatic variety—was less aromatic this year, but the acidity and minerality, distinct features of this variety, should be intense. “The ph levels of Assyrtiko from Santorini can go as low as 2.9, and lower, which is unheard of from wines at this latitude,” says Nikos Varvarigos, oenologist at SantoWines.

With higher-than-usual sugar levels, many winemakers indicated that it should also be a very good year for Vinsanto.

Assyrtiko:  A rising star from coast to coast

Long a favorite of savvy sommeliers, Assyrtiko is now popping up by the glass at many of the nation’s top restaurants. In San Francisco, Paul Einbund, wine director at the Slanted Door Restaurant Group, says that he’s been tasting Greek wine for several years and recently “the quality in Greece has really gone through the roof.” On his program: 2009 Sigalas Assyrtiko by the glass at Frances restaurant. “It is by far and away the best vintage he has ever made—it is really spectacular,” Einbund says.

Drawn to its trademark intense minerality, Einbund regards Assyrtiko as an alternative to Sauvignon Blanc.

“It’s really a lot chalkier, a lot more mineral than Sauvignon Blanc,” he says.  For food paring, Einbund likes the “light, crisp and extremely versatile Sigalas” with a variety of items on his —from wood-fired calamari to a pear salad with spiced nuts and lemon confit. [Hear Paul here.]

In Palm Beach, master sommelier Virginia Philip features Estate Argyros Assyrtiko on the pairing menu at The Breakers Hotel with a tropical-flavored peekytoe crab dish using coconut powder and pineapple guava purée. At another local institution, Café Boulud, head sommelier Mariya Kovacheva is pouring Hatzidakis, a producer she discovered this summer on a trip to Santorini.  Kovacheva says, “The high acidity and minerality help tremendously in food and wine pairing,” and suggests it with seafood dishes such as smoked salmon, tuna tartare and octopus à la plancha.

In New York City’s at Bar Boulud wine director Michael Madrigale has the ’09 Sigalas on his wine by the glass program. Why? Madrigale says he looks for wines with unique character. “I think it’s more interesting having wines that have something to say. I look for wines that have a personality that could be only from their specific origins.”

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