The Greeks were one of the first to make wine, so why have they fallen off the radar for so many years?
Their often limited availability has played its part. Add to that the hard to pronounce grape varieties and you’ve got a recipe for wine retail disaster. Why dare to order Agiorgitiko when Chardonnay is so much easier to say (and recognise)?
Despite difficulties in getting noticed, Greek wine is on the up. Modern winemaking attitudes (kickstarted in the 90s), mixed with a renewed focus on the potential of old vines, mean these old world wines are gaining attention and fast – and there is one white variety in particular that we are loving during the summer months.
Assyrtiko is a white grape originating from Santorini, an island that whilst usually famed for it’s bright white streets, produces fabulous wines from its volcanic soils. But it’s by no means an easy place to make wine: high winds and relentless sunshine, paired with limited rainfall, mean these vines need to be hardy, adaptable and heat-tolerant.
Luckily, Assyrtiko is! Due to the heat, the grapes are at risk of tasting overripe and too alcoholic, but with naturally high acidity levels, this clever grape was born to battle the hot conditions and make a perfectly balanced wine.
Santorini whites rose to the occasion as a demand for fresh and leaner wines grew. A typical Assyrtiko offers a citrusy, minerally (thanks to that volcanic soil) white that finishes off beautifully saline. A little taste of the sea, as you’d hope from an island situated in the Med.
What’s even better about this grape is its versatility. With a touch of oak, the wine is richer and rounder, and so in terms of food pairings, you are covered. Sommelier Elvis Ziakos likens its “focused nobility and elegance” to that of “great white Burgundies”, a top example showing “full body, with layers of minerals and complexity”. And for him, this grape really is leading the great Greek grape renaissance from the front: “undoubtedly, Assyrtiko is king.”
We also met with independent merchant The Vintner to find out their point of view on Greek, more specifically Santorini, wines. “In terms of quality, it’s so high at this point. The practices that are being implemented are focused on constantly improving quality and increasing sustainability”. Hamish Kirwan, head of operations, adds: “Over the past 18-24 months, we’ve definitely seen a piqued interest in Greek wine. Nowadays, people are looking for less heavy drinks, that offer body still, but mostly delicacy. Assyrtiko is perfect for that. It’s all about texture and freshness, which comes from that high acidity and sea-salt quality.”
We partly have the Santo Wines cooperative to thank for the ever-rising quality coming off this tiny island. The organisation represents the majority of growers in Santorini and ensures that each bottle of wine produced is up to standard, as well as ensuring that the winemaking here is as eco-forward as possible.
On our wine list, we proudly have the Santo Wines coop Assyrtiko. Hamish makes a valid point that these wines are not meant to become a new ‘cult’ thing. The land could never keep up the sort of production of Italian Pinot Grigio for example. But these wines offer “fantastic value, genuinely delicious wines that even can have great ageing potential”. Elvis agrees that “while the production of Greek wines is minuscule compared to other winemaking countries, they possess authenticity and a stylish uniqueness” that we at Rocket find quite irresistible.
So take a chance on this Greek gem. Because what isn’t there to like about a hot day and a bottle of something refreshingly delicious?