Assyrtiko and the intriguing wines of Santorini
By Marco Giovanetti –mtltimes.ca
Santorini has always seem to me a mysterious place. It’s a little set of islands in the Aegean Sea that is the remaining of a massive volcanic explosion about 3,600 years ago which blew the top off of a volcano, leaving the Santorini caldera behind. There are some people that believe that this explosion and its aftermath were the inspiration for Plato’s description of the lost city of Atlantis. On the inside of the curve, there are steep cliff faces that drop as much as 300 meters straight down towards the lagoon. The capital city, Fira, is located along a hill top and some of the towns have buildings that seem to be just hanging on the edge of the cliffs. The topsoil is made up of different layers of volcanic ash, which is not necessarily a good thing for agriculture but makes for some eye provoking black-sanded beaches. The underlying soil is made up of chalk and shale.
Not only is the soil on Santorini inhospitable to agriculture, but the climate is as well. Santorini and another Greek island called Anafi are the only two areas in all of Europe whose climate can be categorized as “desert” according to the Köppen climate classification system. What this means is that these areas receive fewer than 10 inches of rainfall a year, which is considered too low to sustain any vegetation. In order to combat these arid conditions, the vines are spaced very far apart, in much the same way as in La Mancha, Spain. The distance between vines can be as far as 2.5 meters. The primary source of moisture for these vines is the morning dew and the air moisture captured by some of the clay in the soil. As a result of the spacing and the low moisture, yields here are incredibly small, amounting to 10-20% of the average yields found in France or Italy
Santorini is very windy due to the fact that the island is basically a big hill in the middle of the ocean and because the land is too dry to support things like trees that might block some of the wind. In order to combat these fierce winds, the vines are trained in unique basket shapes where the stalks of the vines are trained into spirals which the grapes sit in the middle of, protecting both the stalks themselves and the grape clusters from the harsher elements of the weather with the major downside (from a producer’s point of view) being that the grapes must all be hand-harvested since you can’t get a mechanical harvester into one of those nests. One good outcome of the harsh climate and remote location of the island of Santorini is that phylloxera never made it to the island, or, if it did, it was unable to survive in the harsh conditions. The vines here are ungrafted and can live for over 70 years
Assyrtiko (and its many synonyms made by substituting “y”s for “i”s and “k”s for “c”s) is the most widely planted grape varietal on the island of Santorini, accounting for 70-80% of vineyard area. It is thought to be native to Santorini, though it is also widely grown throughout the Greek island system and on the mainland. It is perhaps best known as a blending partner with the Savatiano grape in the production of Retsina. It is a survivor grape that is resistant to many diseases and adaptable to different climactic conditions.
Domaine Sigalas Assyrtiko Athiri 2013. Price: $19.90. SAQ Code: 11607377.
An open nose with aromas of grapefruit and lemon peel and a kind of clean, rainwater smell. On the palate, the wine is full body with a kind of oily-texture and high acidity. Flavors remind of a bit of white grapefruit fruit, but mostly a very steely minerality that lingers very nicely. The finale is bright, crisp and very clean. 92\100
Domaine Sigalas Santorini 2013. Price: $24.80. SAQ Code: 11034302.
On the nose, aromas of beewax, dried citric fruits, with a majestic white flower infusion. On the mouth, full body with a great tension and structure. Flavors are consistent with the nose. Great expression of volcanic minerality. A very long aftertaste. 95\100
Hatzidakis Santorini Assyrtiko 2013. Price; $25.20. SAQ Code: 11901171.
On the nose, very complex aromas that bring to mind pineapple peel, almonds with candied citrus peel and a pleasant note of oxidation. In the mouth, full body, medium to high acidity. Intense mineral notes that bring to mind seaweed. A finale with a great aromatic depth. 95\100.