Family wineries adopt new ways

THE WOMEN ARE DOING THE COOKING on Santorini—and it’s not just in the kitchen. At two family wineries, young women are cooking up new products and ideas. They’re part of the new generation of young wine professionals that combine tradition and trend.

At Gavalas, a 300-year-old winery, the big news is the introduction of IRIS, a line of eight wines. Enologist Margarita Karamolegou says she always wanted to make a bold red wine—and now she has: a blend of 80% Mandilaria and 10% Mavrotragano and 10% Voudomato.

IRIS also includes a white and rose, and for the first time, a blend of 50% Assyrtiko and 25% of each Aidani and Athiri. The rose is 90% Assyrtiko and 10% Mandilaria. The experimental production is limited to 2,000 bottles of each.

“It’s also an introduction to Assyrtiko for people who don’t know about acidity,” she said. The gateway wines, priced at 7.5 euros, should attract new wine explorers.

At Canava Roussos, Agape Roussos is exploring new ways to modernize the traditional winery without losing its essence.

“New technology is good as long as it doesn’t take away from what you have,” she told us on a recent visit.  The winery is repairing older portions of the 1836 structure with the help of an architect who’s knowledgeable about Aegean architecture and materials.

The renovation also gave Agape the chance to rethink some of their offerings. Combing old with the new, she’s creating a menu of small tasting plates of regional cheese from the Cyclades and local cured meats—the Greek version of charcuterie that’s all the rage in trendy places.

“We’ll also have board games to give people the idea that a winery is a place where you can come spend time.”

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Read all about it

THOUGH WE’RE APPROACHING the dog days of summer, media attention to Santorini wines is not on siesta.

At the top is an interview with Yiannis Paraskevopoulos, who speaks with Wine Spectator on Assyrtiko, the “Champion of Minerality.” You can view the video here.

Also of note: Mark Squires reviews Greek wines in the Wine Advocate (Robert Parker), and gives a special focus to Santorini, which he calls “a small and special wine region.” Of the wines, he says “Pure and steely, they have fine depth and hold up well to food. Santorini’s other signature wine is its fantastic and ageworthy sweet wine called Vinsanto, which is an ancient island trademark copied by many …”

Alder Yarrow who pens the popular blog, Vinography, wrote an extensive roundup of Santorini after his visit here last month. He gave careful review not only to to each winery, but drilled down to the details of scores of wines.  Part I details the island’s unique viticulture and Part II reviews what he tasted.

World Wine Guys Mike DeSimone and Jeff Jenssen are long-time fans and visitors to the island. They write about Santorini’s earthly delights in the “Vino Files” in Wine Enthusiast.

You’ve undoubtedly heard about the Greek austerity plan. Jordan Mackay writes about another kind of austerity—that which is found in our bracing island whites. He calls them “restrained, uncompromisingly charged … the distinctive product of one of the most unusual terroirs in the world …”

Other hits: HuffPo finds something of note in Thei Zervaki‘s post about the elegant minerality of the wines. She gives a call out to Sigalas Santorini 2010, GAIA Thalassitis 2010, Gavalas Santorini 2009, Hadzidakis Nykteri 2009 and the barrel-aged Estate Argyros 2009.

We didn’t escape the notice of lifestyle magazines that recommended Santorini as a great escape. Travel + Leisure named it Best Island (we knew that). And, they’ll be leaving the shores of Naples, Fla., after reading about our summer sippers.

Precious medals

Santorini made an impressive showing at the recent Decanter World Wine Awards. North American wine lovers now have another standard by which to judge Santorini wines. The Decanter World Wine Awards medalled a number of wines, showing the world that though Santorini is the “stuff of myth,” its indigenous varieties are not. Ten medals were awarded across the categories, with two regional trophies recognizing Top 10 placements. Congratulations to these winners!
GOLD: Gaia Wines Assyrtiko Wild Ferment 2010
Argyros Estate 12 Year Barrel Aged Vin Santo 1998

SILVER: Estate Argyros Assyrtiko 2010
Argyros Estate 4 Year Barrel Aged Vin Santo 2006
Gaia Wines Thalassitis 2010
Domaine Sigalas Mavrotragano 2008

BRONZE: Estate Argyros Mavrotragano 2008
Volcan Wines Koutsoyiannopoulos Assyrtiko 2010

REGIONAL (recognizing “best in class”):

Top 10 Sweet Wines, Argyros Estate 20 Year Barrel Aged Vin Santo 1990
Estate Top 10 New Wave (indigenous) grape varieties:
Argyros French Oak Fermented Assyrtiko 2010

The power of 188

WHEN GARY VAYNERCHUK POLLED Facebook friends for the next wine to receive coverage in his new show, The Daily Grape, Wines of Santorini friends sprung into action. They crushed the competition, beating out California Pinot Noirs, Riesling or a vertical tasting of a TBD variety.

Garnering 188 votes‚ more than 50 percent of those cast, Assyrtiko took its rightful place in Episode #28. “Gary Vee” said the wine has tremendous potential to be a world player, with great pedigrees and the scores to match.

What he tasted: 2010 Gaia Estate Assyrtiko Wild Ferment and 2009 Argyros Assyrtiko

April’s news

OUR APRIL NEWSLETTER, released today, recapped our successful Santorini wine event in New York City last month. Several media outlets picked up on it: New Jersey Star Ledger columnist John Foy pegged 2010 Argyros Assyrtiko as but one wine that “speaks to the sea.” NY Wine Salon‘s Cynthia Sin Yi Cheng, loved Domaine Sigalas 2009 Asirtiko-Athiri. In Food Republic, the new man-friendly mag of celeb chef Marcus Samuelsson, wine editor Lisa McLaughlin says the wines’ “duality also opens them up to unusual food pairings.” We also heard man-about-town Roger Morris giving a call out to Santorini (and all Greek wines).

But we also offer you a chance to hear more about Santorini wines directly from our own man-about-islands, Yiannis Paraskevopoulos, who led the seminar—and has led a new generation of young winemakers into the future. Our Q&A with Greece’s unofficial ambassador-at-large for Greek wines says putting Santorini on the radar requires educating the public about the versatilty of the wines. Learning to pronounce “assyrtiko” will come in time.

4 questions for Yiannis Paraskevopoulos

WFS:  What’s your impression of guests’ engagement with the wines–do people
seem more knowledgeable or comfortable?
YP:   It goes without saying, some years ago these wines seemed alien to most non-Greeks. Most people that attended the New York Santorini wines event knew most of the wines and producers and the particulars.

WFS:    Compared to this time last year when you were in NYC, how far along have people come in their appreciation or interest in the wines?
YP:    Hard to say, but I think that Greek wines have been “promoted” to from oddities reliable wines with a specific style of their own (mineral, food-friendly etc).

WFS:    What’s the message that they understand about Santorini wines?
YP:   They are massive whites with big character and worth having on their table.

WFS:    What further education do we need to undertake to get people on board?
YP:     Expose more and more key wine people to the Santorini reality and particularity. This last event seems to be on the exact right track.

Tasting notes: Island to Island

Didn’t make it to our NYC tasting last month? We’re sorry. You [sadly] missed delicious food from the BLT Fish kitchen and fantastic wines from our 10 producers.

OK, we’ll quit the cruelty and let you in on what did you missed, all of which [happily] are imported.

FLIGHT 1

1. SIGALAS SANTORINI 2010, Assyrtiko 100%, Alcohol: 14.2% pH: 3.1

2. GAIA THALASSITIS 2010, Assyrtiko 100%, Alcohol: 13.0% pH: 3.0

3. GAVALAS SANTORINI 2009, Assyrtiko 100%, Alcohol: 13.1% pH 3.2

4. KOUTSOYIANNOPOULOS SANTORINI 2009 , Assyrtiko 100%, Alcohol: 13.13% pH: 3.0

5. SIGALAS SANTORINI 2006, Assyrtiko 100%, Alcohol: 13.7% pH: 3.1

FLIGHT 2

1. GAIA ASSYRTIKO WILD FERMENT 2010, Assyrtiko 100%, Alcohol: 13.0% pH: 3.03. Fermented using wild yeast (Part Inox 1000lt & Part Barrel). Aged 5 months with all new wood: 70% Fr, 20% US, 10% Acacia

2. HADZIDAKIS NYKTERI 2009, Assyrtiko 100%, Alcohol: 15.0 % pH: 3.11. 8-9 months French oak (2nd/3rd/4th Use)

3. ESTATE ARGYROS  2009, Assyrtiko 100%, Alcohol: 13.0% pH: 2.92. 20% fermentation new French oak

4. SANTO WINES NYTERI RESERVE 2008 , Assyrtiko 100%, Alcohol: 14.0% pH: 2.83. 9 months French oak

5. BOUTARI KALISSTI RESERVE 2007, Assyrtiko 100%, Alcohol: 14.0% pH: 3.12. 7 months French oak

FLIGHT 3

1. ROUSSOS VINSANTO 2006, Assyrtiko 75%, Aidani 15% Athiri 15%. Res. Sugar: 180 g/l Alcohol: 11.5%

2. KARAMOLEGOS VINSANTO 2005, Assyrtiko 75%, Aidani 25%. Res. Sugar: 225 g/l Alcohol: 10.9%

3. SANTO WINES VINSANTO 2004, Assyrtiko 80%, Aidani 20%. Res. Sugar: 238 g/l Alcohol: 10.9%

4. HADZIDAKIS VINSANTO 2003, Assyrtiko 60%, Aidani 40%. Res. Sugar: 286 g/l Alcohol: 13.0%

5. ARGYROS VINSANTO 1989, Assyrtiko 80%, Aidani 10%, Athiri 10%. Res. Sugar: 240 g/l Alcohol: 14.0%

IMPORTERS: Aretemis Karamolegos; Hellas Imports // Boutari: Terlato Wines International // Canava Roussos: Petropoulos Imports // Domaine Sigalas: Diamond Wine Importers // Estate Argyros: Athenee Importers // Gaia: Athenee Importers // Gavalas Winery: Dionysos Imports // Hatzidakis: Trireme Imports // Koutsoyannopoulos Winery: Athena Imports // SantoWines: Stellar Importing

From Island to Island

LAST WEEK’S SUCCESSFUL and delicious Wines from Santorini tasting highlighted not only the wines, but their rising popularity.

“Ten years ago if you were having a Greek wine, you were probably in a Greek restaurant. Now, if you’re in a restaurant without a Greek wine on the list, you’ll know that they just don’t get it,” said Steve Olson, Greek wine ambassador, in his opening remarks.

Not even competition from another large importer portfolio tasting could keep away those who wanted to sample Santorini wines and meet the winemakers.

Some 125 members of the wine trade tasted their way through 10 producers, six of whom traveled to New York City for the event. The walk-around tasting was introduced by a seminar lead by Yiannis Paraskevopoulos of Gaia wines, who Olsen described as “cerebral and passionate.” He holds a PhD in oenology from Bordeaux and has mentored many young winemakers, is himself the new face of Greek wines, serving as an unofficial international ambassador.

Paraskevopoulos introduced the unique conditions under which Assyrtiko vines grow, emphasizing the elements that make this truly a wine of place: the “very strange soil,” climate, salinity from the Aegean Sea, and the iconic basket vines that protect the grapes from heat and wind.

Yiannis Paraskevopoulos (L) and Steve Olson compare notes

He also emphasized that what is challenging about the wind, is also beneficial as the strong gusts, known locally as meltemi (the Etesians) blows away viruses and pests, “making Santorini naturally an organic vineyard.” Phylloxera, he noted, has never been an issue here.

As Greek wine aficionados know, Assyrtiko from Santorini is a study in contrast: elegant wines from harsh conditions; aromas of low intensity yet bracing acid that pops on the palate. It’s almost a wine designed not to succeed: the yields are low, it’s labor-intensive and scarce land on the small island is under constant threat by developers. But endurance—however you slice it—is one of the wine’s characteristics.

To illustrate that another way, Paraskevopoulos shared what he called “one of the most exciting moments of my career”: the sampling of an 1847 Assyrtiko.

“We thought it would be tasting a dead wine but were surprised to taste how alive it was,” he said, “I wouldn’t say it was young, but it was alive. We were ecstatic.”

Paraskevopoulos concluded his presentation with tips for enjoying the wines, a few of which we share here:

  • Treat Santorini whites as red wines without the color
  • Decant one hour before serving
  • Combine with food in “unusual and courageous ways”

Olson, Michael Weiss, professor of wine studies at the Culinary Institute of America and Ray Isle, executive wine editor, Food & Wine magazine.

February newsletter

From island to island: Santorini returns to New York City

Save the date for Wednesday, March 23rd

(rsvp: santorini@allaboutgreekwine.com)

The vineyard of Santorini will be the focus on an invitation-only special seminar and tasting in New York City on March 23. Dr. Yiannis Paraskevopoulos of GAIA wines, one of Greece’s top oenologists, will lead a presentation with fellow winemakers from Santorini for members of the trade and media. The special tasting event will feature the 2010 harvest, projected to be one of the best of the last decade.

Attendees will taste the current and older vintages of the dry white PDO Santorini wines featuring the Assyrtiko grape with other native varieties such as Athiri and Aidani. The tasting will also include barrel-fermented Assyrtikos and of course the island’s “original” Vinsanto wines. A reception will held at BLT Fish after the seminar.

Sweet History: Vinsanto

Greek wine ambassador Doug Frost set the record straight on Vinsanto at a seminar on sweet wines at UC-Davis. by Doug Frost MS, MW

It’s almost impossible to imagine today, but a half-century ago sweet and dessert wines in the United States accounted for the majority of wines consumed. Fully two-thirds of all wines were dessert-styled wines, including sweet wines made without fortification (the addition of alcohol), as well as Ports and Sherries (albeit of the domestic persuasion), and other fortified wines.

It’s easy to sneer at those times because clearly America’s passion for wine was fuelled by its sweet tooth, and it’s not a pretty world where MD 2020 and Thunderbird far outsell Cabernet. Yes, we are a far more sophisticated bunch today. But while America has learned to love dry wines, it has somehow forgotten that sweet wines can be pretty wonderful too.

Moreover, one of the unfortunate tendencies of the wine industry is to pretend that, because many wine professionals prefer dry wines over sweet ones, everyone else does too. But that’s not true at all. One of the reasons that wine sales historically linger behind cocktail and beer sales is that wine sellers haven’t bothered to listen to the people who don’t drink wine. For most non-wine drinkers, wine is too bitter, too dry, too tart and, well, just not sweet enough.

But of course plenty of wines are sweet enough; we just don’t talk about them enough. The UC Davis Sweet Symposium, which took place on Jan. 12, was created to offer historical background as well as technical tips to winemakers interested in making sweet wines, but it also took on the issue of sweet wine sales, or lack thereof. Legendary wine expert Darrell Corti began the day with a discourse on sweet wine’s once prominent place throughout wine culture, focusing upon its stability in comparison to other styles of wine in a pre-refrigerated world.

“Historically, sweet wines have been considered to be among the finest wines in the world because they were stable, had good longevity, they often required more processing and aging, and they were produced in locations with a history of tradition and practices in place,” Corti said.

In my presentation, I offered a similar perspective. Vinsanto from Santorini is an ancient wine, and is extraordinarily long-lived. Its virtues of deliciousness and stability made its fame throughout the world, though it was in northern Italy that the wine earned the ultimate flattery of imitation. Italian Vin Santo utilized the same grape-drying methodology that the producers on Santorini had proven effective—and eventually stole the name as well. But because Santorini is such a dry and windy place, the process can proceed without the massive amounts of sulfur that the Italians utilize.

Master of Wine Tim Hanni’s presentation echoed our comments about the past importance of sweet wines. And Tim believes too that the vast majority of people would happily consume sweet wines if only the industry would support those wines, instead of treating sweet wine consumers as somehow uneducated.

“Sweet wine drinkers are not dead, they are alive and well and sipping sweet cocktails,” Hanni said, adding, “There are people out there who would love to drink wine, but we won’t let them.” He suggested “a massive re-education.”

The world’s greatest wines for centuries: Tokaji, Madeira, Malaga, Port, Sherry, Constantia, Yquem and other Sauternes, and of course, Vinsanto, are just as compelling today and would be just as universally loved, if only people were given a chance to try them. Their rarity and difficulty of production mean that most are too expensive for average folk, though Vinsanto and others can be perfectly affordable as a restaurant available, wine by the glass feature.

Strangely, restaurants don’t bother offering the kinds of dessert wine lists that draw sufficient attention, either from customers or servers. Most restaurants list most of their dessert wines by the bottle only, but few customers want more than a small glass of dessert wine, especially at the end of a long meal. Those restaurateurs evince interest in selling dessert wines, but insist that sales are insufficient to justify opening a bottle of wine. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: nobody orders it because it’s not available by the glass, so the restaurateur has “proof” that customers aren’t interested.

Worse still, restaurant staff are wholly ignorant of the stability of dessert wines. Sure, your average Chardonnay goes south within a few days of opening, but Vinsanto can last for weeks after being opened, as long as it is refrigerated. And there is nothing quite as magical as the dulcet, honeyed character of Vinsanto, with notes of raisin, fig, cocoa, coffee bean (and dozens more flavors) all with the remarkable racy cleanliness of citrus in the finish. There’s really nothing like it, though dessert wines throughout history have emulated and even imitated its character. Now if we can just get restaurants to let people try it

Life of the party in Boston

Boston Wine Expo

Technology met tastebuds at the 20th annual Boston Wine Expo in January. Thanks to a mobile app from Second Glass (www.secondglass.com), attendees were able to taste and vote immediately on their favorite wines. Thumbs were flying and fingers tapping as voters entered their picks on their smartphones.

What got their thumbs up? 2009 Domaine Sigalas Assyrtiko, which garnered the popular vote of consumers—trumping all others to land in first place.

2011: full steam ahead

A new year calls for resolutions. Looking back on 2010—our first year of launching our U.S. and Canada promotion campaigns—we are pleased to note that Santorini became known to consumers as more than just a beautiful vacation spot. The wines became the “media darling” of the year, garnering praise from critics, connoisseurs and consumers alike. People who couldn’t say “assyrtiko” in 2009, had it in the glass in 2010. And our recent presence at the Boston Wine Expo, where Sigalas Assyrtiko was voted #1 by consumers using the Second Glass mobile app, has us believing that 2011 will be the year consumers ask for it by name. Our resolution: Make sure “assyrtiko” and “obscure” aren’t uttered in the same sentence.

We launched a gorgeous web site, winesfromsantorini.com, which has tons of information about our grape varieties, the 10 producers that proudly make wines from indigeous grapes, and a photo gallery that shows the island’s beauty, the unusual viticulture that makes up the vineyard of Santorini. Our resolution: keep our site a relevant source of information.

Our Facebook page features reviews, story and video links, and features such as “Mystery Wine of the Week” and “Foto Friday.” In January we had 44,632 views! So we know you like us! We’re working on photo galleries with the goal of featuring all the wineries. Our resolution: providing lots more content that helps you get to know our producers.

We’re growing out Twitter audience slowly but surely. We heard Alder Yarrow recently say it’s not the quantity as much as the quality of your followers. Our resolution: build an audience of qualified wine lovers who hang on our every cyber word. Follow us!

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.”