WINE & SPIRITS CONSULTANT Steve Raye traveled with us to Santorini this month along with others in the wine trade. His Santorini travelogue reports on visits, tastings and the island’s unique viticulture. You can see images on our flikrstream.
Wines from Santorini hosted a contingent of guests on a trip in June/July and we came away with some interesting perspectives to add to the incredible vistas. Attending the trip was Christie Dufault, an educator at Napa’s Culinary Institute of America and a sommelier at San Francisco’s RN47 restaurant; Jordan Mackay, author of “Secrets of the Sommeliers,” Gregory Dal Piaz editor in chief of Snooth; Alder Yarrow of vinography.com; and Jon Troutman from Gary Vaynerchuk’s the Daily Grape.
Santorini’s novel name games were not lost on the group. Mackay noted, “There’s just no way to shorten the name of Assyrtiko in my notes. Three letters don’t work and a fourth isn’t much better, so you might as well go with the whole name.”
And at Karamolegos Winery, Yarrow commented “it may be an American perspective, but how cool is it to have a tasting at a winery run by a guy named Artemis, with wines poured by Antigone.” Here, at one of the family-run wineries on the island, we came away with yet another perspective of the intense minerality of Assyrtiko as well as a bag of some homegrown fava beans.
The group rested from the intense sun under the thatched patio at Canava Roussos, founded in 1836. The scenic winery is popular with tourists but particularly nice is that it’s a working winery. The way they make the wine hasn’t changed much, still using the traditional rooms for grape crushing by foot, wicker baskets for transferring the grapes from the vineyards, and fermenting in barrels of Russian oak over 100 years old are still in use.
At Gaia, Bordeaux-trained Yiannis Paraskevopoulos, professor of oenology at University of Athens, presented wines that are the expression of terroir itself. He takes grapes from vineyards located on the southeastern slopes of Episkopi, composed entirely of 70-80 year old, ungrafted vines with a dramatically low yield. His Thalassitis, derived from “Thalassitis Inos,” or more poetically, sea-originated wine, is the subject of an experiment. Paraskevopoulos has submerged a number of cases to see how the wine ages in an oxygen-free environment. An ardent scuba diver, retrieving the bottles presumably will be no problem for him.
The group visited Hadzidakis, Santorini’s own garagiste. In this case, though, the wine is made in a tiny converted old cave-house outside Pyrgos at 350 meters above the sea, at the altitude limits of growing Assyrtiko. His shed supports a net covered with discarded dried grape stems, serving as a roof. Hadzidakis, who farms organically, boasts soft soils in his vineyards—the norm in some wine regions, but an anomaly in Santorini’s hardscrabble volcanic turf. His wife and daughter stop by the tasting to drop off some traditional breads and fritters that allow us to really appreciate the qualities of his wines to pair with indigenous food.
We watched the sun set at Sigalas while tasting steel- and barrel-fermented Assyrtikos. It was here that Dal Piaz came up with “spiky” to describe the acidic backbone to the whites that tannins provide in a red wine. Ever the tinkerer, Sigalas is on a mission to unlock the mystery of the potential of Assyrtiko. The winery is full of barrels with permutations of vineyard source, vinification variations, aging differences. All being rested and tested periodically to understand exactly what his land, and his vision, is capable of producing.
George Gavalas let his winemaker, Margarita Karamolegou, make the presentation of their wines to us. Like many of the winemakers on Santorini, she’s young, trained in oenology at the University of Athens, and immersed in bringing a 3,000-year tradition of island winemaking into an age of modern technology. They produce high quality wines of intensity, austerity and typicity that helped provide a reference for our visit to the island. New to their fold: the Iris label, a series of well-priced “gateway” wines that introduce wine drinkers to the varieties, as well as provide easy drinking at an affordable price.
We had a brief stop at Koutsoyiannopoulos to pick up some wines for our afternoon tasting. The Volcan Wine Museum there is usually a “must see,” but with the affable George Koutsoyiannopoulos not feeling well, sadly our tour was cancelled. The portfolio showed well, however, against a panoply of typical Greek dishes including tomato fritters, classic Greek and Santorini salads, followed by grilled octopus, calamari, and barbecued lamb—which showed off the great strength of Assyrtiko with hearty meats.
Another must see, Estate Argyros, which lies below the village of Pyrgos, is one of the oldest wineries on the island. Now in its fourth generation of ownership with Matthew Argyros at the helm, the winery is producing wines that are consistent award winners. We toured three vineyards demonstrating how the vines are grown—from newly planted Aidani and 10-year-old Assyrtiko to the typical Kouloura basket on very old rootstock. Here, we had barrel samples of Vinsantos aged from 10 to 30 years old, as well as the newer vintage still wines. Giotta Ioakimoglou says, the wine is more “honest” served less cold, revealing all the characteristics that define it: acidity, structure, freshness, fruits and, most importantly, food-friendliness.
By the time we visited the Boutari winery, we had all become believers of the aging potential of this marvelous grape. So, we were ready for a tasting of young and old vintages of Assyrtiko. Boutari revolutionized the Santorini harvest by moving it from September, the month of the traditional harvest, to August. Boutari also helped make barrel-aged Assyrtiko fashionable again, with its well-done Kallisti and Kallisti Reserve wines.
Our final stop and last sunset of the trip was at SantoWines, the island cooperative and winery with a view. Santo has more than 1000 growers, most with vineyards of less than a hectare. And dispelling the myth of coops, this large producer makes great examples of Assyrtiko. Santo growers also produce traditional products including native cherry tomatoes, fava beans and caper bushes found throughout the island. At our final dinner at Selene Restaurant, owner George Hatziyannakis spread out artisanal cheeses from throughout the Cycladic Islands, perfectly paired with the wines.