Santorini, the sun-kissed sweltering paradise island of Greece, is not only one with picturesque blue domed churches and whitewashed villas, but it is also a vinous paradise that Irish wine lovers should start to adore this summer. There are almost 60 grape varieties in Santorini, however to produce its most notable dry wine and sweet ‘Vin Santo’, one grape flourishes above the rest, Assyrtiko.
Assyrtiko is one of those white grapes, like Riesling or Chenin Blanc, that can allow the production of wine of various types from young and fresh, to sweet, sparkling and even can age gloriously for 20-25 years. It dominates the vineyards of the island, accounting for 75% of the total terroir. Assyrtiko produces a white wine with high acid and mineral nuances, that can often be made in oaked or unoaked styles.
Before I set off on my journey to Santorini to visit what many consider the best value wine in the world, I paid a visit to Stathis Tsokos, Head Sommelier of Athens’ most famed restaurant, Aleria, who told me, “I think here in Greece, Assyrtiko is the king of the white varieties. There is volcanic terroir within this small, wine region and there is no phylloxera ever, many of the vineyards are mostly 150-200 years old. Unoaked Assyrtikos have similarities to the best wine made from Sauvignon in Sancerre, and the great oaked driven Assyrtikos remind me of the elegant finesse of Meursaults”.
I naively hesitated to take heed on Stathis’ words when he mentioned Assyrtiko in the same breath as the great Chardonnays of Meursault in Burgundy until he presented me with a taste of something special, a glass of Domaine Sigalas Santorini Assyrtiko (barrel), which in Greece, was somewhere around €23 a bottle to buy. After the first drop I tasted, I knew this was something extraordinary. It was somewhat akin to the wine equivalent of super luxurious food, like caviar or truffle.
This Assyrtiko was a bright gold colour, with gorgeous fresh citrus, and a subtle essence of wood, which gave it a creamy, soft feel on the palate. What I didn’t know at the time, was that Domaine Sigalas was voted in the top 100 wineries in the world by the Wine and Spirits Magazine (US) in 2016, a wonderous accolade for such a small winery on a 30-square mile island.
So, I set off on my journey to Santorini to find out more about the fascinating Assyrtiko, wondering if this grape could have a similar rise in popularity and appreciation that the much-loved Spanish Albarino and Austrian Gruner Veltliner have had in recent years on many Irish restaurant wine lists and wine shop shelves.
My first stop was to the Santorini Wine Museum in the centre of the island, which is famous for its on-site winery, Koutsoyannopoulos. The museum itself, an underground labyrinth stretching over 300 metres, is the perfect place to familiarise oneself with the origins of wine in Santorini from the 1600’s to present day, with a focus on Assyrtiko, of course.
What I wanted to find out firstly was why Assyrtiko vines are shaped the way they are, the processes of common Santorini winemaking styles, and if the terroir in this Island is as beautiful as our own Emerald Isle. Assyrtiko vines across the windswept volcanic isle of Santorini are uniquely trained in a ground-hugging basket weaved technique to lessen wind damage throughout flowering, along with grape sunburn.
Variant soils, latitudes, and altitudes on this island can offer very diverse styles of wine. 100% Assyrtiko wines that are classified on the bottle as ‘Santorini’ are going to be high acid, bone dry, mineral-rich sensations – while other grapes that are seen in Assyrtiko blends are typically the very delicate ‘Athiri’, and the fragrant ‘Aidani’.
Wines classified as ‘Nykteri’ have their grapes harvested at night to avoid the hot Mediterranean temperatures. Though they can be vinified in oak or steel, they must be aged in oak for a minimum of 3 months. The Nykteri Assyrtikos will give serene freshness, minerality, high acid with a drying character that is fuller bodied than the ‘Santorini’ classified Assyrtikos which are always usually unoaked.
Further on in my Santorini expedition, I took a visit to the famous Domaine Sigalas on recommendation from my sommelier friend Stathis back in Athens, and to the exceptional Gaia Winery on the east of the Island. Gaia is one of the few wineries of Santorini that exports its wines into Ireland. Relatively young, only founded in 1994, Gaia is most well known for producing high quality expressions of Santorini’s flagship white grape Assyrtiko, and the island’s flagship red grape, Agiorgitiko.
The show stopping wine of Gaia is their Wild Ferment Assyrtiko, which uses new 225 French and American oak in its production – it may be the most gorgeous white wine you’ll taste this summer. Imagine, if you put together the acidity and minerality of Sauvignon Blanc, the freshness and aromatics of Albarino, and the weight and power of oaked Chardonnay, this is Assyrtiko by Gaia Wild Ferment. Simply sublime – this summer sipper is thankfully available now from O’Brien’s wine stores nationwide at €24.95.
While not only excellent to drink on its own, many styles of Assyrtiko are the perfect accompaniment to many popular food dishes. For me, Assyrtiko is best placed alongside seafood and shellfish, with acidic or creamy sauces and accompaniments. If the Assyrtiko is oaked and a little weightier, try it with richer, oiler fish like salmon or tuna. If it isn’t oaked, it may be more suited to lighter, flaky fish such as cod or hake.
It does seem fitting I feel, that one of the most enchanting places in the world, Santorini, can call home to one of the most stunning and exciting wines to vino lovers right now, Assyrtiko.
Originally from Celbridge, Kildare, Philip Dunne has worked in the Irish hospitality industry since he was 15. After experiences in fine and casual dinning, he started to work at Ashford Castle in 2015 and after working his way up, he became Ashford Castle’s Head Sommelier at the age of 25. Since March 2018, Philip is the Restaurant & Wine Director at Old Street Restaurant in Malahide.
Philip’s passion for wine goes beyond the service at the luxurious five star as he also writes about the topic and he’s an enthusiastic and active presence in the Irish wine scene.