The white wine that thinks it's a red

Santorini Assyrtiko vine

Santorini Assyrtiko vine

Greece has an enviable treasury of indigenous varieties. No one knows how many because so many take different names in different regions and have developed different characteristics, even when they share the same DNA. A conservative estimate would be about 180, perhaps 200. Either way it’s nothing like as many as there are in Italy. But Greece has a trump card: the white Assyrtiko grape. 

Assyrtiko has now spread through many of mainland Greece’s wine regions, but on the volcanic island of Santorini, where it most probably originated, it produces one of the world’s most distinctive and expressive wines, “a white wine that thinks it’s a red,” in the words of Yiannis Paraskevopoulos, co-founder and owner of Gaia Wines on Santorini (and in Nemea), Athens oenology professor and winemaker of one of my desert-island wines. Let it never come to this, but if I can have only one Santorini Assyrtiko (though many bottles of it) on my desert island, let it be Gaia’s Wild Ferment Assyrtiko, a wine of extraordinary depth and substance and mouth-watering mineral pungency and acidity – a rival to any Grand Cru Chablis and easily as long-lived. 

I’ll come back to Gaia Wild Ferment but, first, a look at what makes Santorini Assyrtiko unique (a rare instance of that much overused word being justified), a white wine that has a structure more akin to a red. The uniqueness comes from the soil, the age of the vines and the climate, although ultimately it all comes back to just one of these: soil. “The beauty of Santorini is that everything is soil-linked,” to quote Professor Paraskevopoulos again. 

I’m not exaggerating when I say that some of the island’s Assyrtiko vines are hundreds of years old – 400, 500, almost certainly more in some instances. Unlike almost all the rest of the world, Santorini’s vineyards weren’t wiped out by phylloxera at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. More significantly, the island will never succumb to it: phylloxera is an insect that feeds on vine roots, but it can’t survive unless there is at least five per cent clay in the soil. Santorini has no clay. It’s soil is essentially volcanic ash, pumice stone and lava – rich in minerals (except potassium) but with almost no organic matter. 

But that only partly explains the age of the vines. The other essential is the way the vines are trained and regenerated, and that owes much to the climate. Santorini is hot and extremely dry and windy. To combat this, each vine is trained in a circular, ground-hugging basket shape, called kouloura, a new cane being wound around each year (there are slight variations, but that’s the essence of it – see photograph). 

With time on your hands and patience, you could count the number of branches wound around to get the number years, but it wouldn’t necessarily tell you how old the vine was because, when a kouloura-trained vine starts to decline – often at around 80 years, but sometimes 120 – it’s cut off at ground level. It then starts to grow again from a dormant eye on the stump. This may be done five or six times. Given human life expectancy, you can understand why no one knows exactly how old Santorini’s vines are.  There is yet another twist (if that’s the word) to the vine age story: when growers see that a vine is going to die, they push a cane into the ground, from where it will start to root and grow again, thus regenerating and perpetuating the vine. 

Tiny yields are the inevitable corollary of all this: 25hl/ha in a good year, less than that in each of the last three years and sometimes as little as 8hl/hl. When I was on Santorini last week there was cautious – very cautious – hope that this year’s volumes might be better than 2015–2017. Understandably, with tiny yields and labour-intensive cultivation, grape prices are among the highest in the world, more or less on a par with Champagne. 

Santorini’s grape prices are among the highest in the world

The miracle is that the wine is not more expensive. My desert-island Santorini, Gaia Wild Ferment Assyrtiko, is around £25 (stockists include Noel Young Wines, £24.75 for the 2017) and this for a wine that has been fermented with the naturally present yeasts, half in 70% new wood without temperature control (a mix of French oak, American oak and acacia) and half at controlled temperatures in stainless steel. Fermenting with wild yeasts is risky, or “dangerous” as winemaker Yiannis Paraskevopoulos puts it. He should know: he did his PhD on microbes in wine. The 2017 has intense, smoky mineral power and quince-like fruit, rich texture and dazzling high acidity. Without wanting to get too technical, it has exceptionally low pH and is much higher in phenolics than most white wines. Hence the description: a white wine that thinks it's a red. Gaia Thalassitis Assyrtiko 2017, the unoaked standard-bearer that is fermented less nail-bitingly, is precise, persistent, salty and tangy with lime, grapefruit and a fragrant peachy note and a texture enriched by ageing on its lees. It costs a couple of pounds less. I drank a 2012 last week and it was splendid, its mineral flavour having taken on some of the richness and smokiness of the Wild Ferment. 

If the miracle is the price of these wines, the joke is that Steve Daniel, head of buying for Hallgarten, the importer of Gaia and several other top Greek estates, including Gerovassiliou and Biblia Chora in Macedonia, has recently been asked by a couple of supermarkets to source Assyrtiko for £2.50 a bottle. If Santorini Assyrtiko grapes cost €3.50 a kilo (a kilo is not enough to produce a bottle of wine) before they’ve even been picked, fermented, aged, bottled, dispatched, how on earth does anyone suppose they can have it at £2.50 a bottle to sell at £9.99. Do the math, as they say. And remember: £25 is not a lot for a bottle of great, long-lived and unique white wine.

by Joanna Simon