Greece: Assyrtiko, the rising star

Some grape varieties that are representative of an entire wine country. Shiraz and Australia, Sauvignon Blanc and New Zealand, of course, Riesling and Germany. As a contender for the title of Greece's best-known grape variety, one variety in particular has become the talk of the town in recent years: Assyrtiko. Alexandra Wrann reports.

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Santorini's volcanic soil. Image: Ana Tramont, Stockadobe.com
Santorini's volcanic soil. Image: Ana Tramont, Stockadobe.com

 

  • Greek wines have underperformed in export markets. Assyrtiko is a premium variety that is helping to rectify this.
  • The main area for Assyrtiko is Santorini, which was granted PDO status in 1971.
  • Since then, the grape variety has found its way to the Greek mainland and even to the New World.
  • Its resistance to heat and drought and ability to deliver fresh wine gives Assyrtiko potential in a time of climate change.
  • It is becoming increasingly popular among sommeliers and enthusiasts, but it is not an entry-level wine.

 

"Assyrtiko is also the most important white grape variety in Greece because it has managed to build up an image as a premium variety abroad," says Anastasios Liolidis of B2B and B2C web retailer and wholesaler mygreekwine, which he runs together with his partner Petros Velitsianos. They have 24 single-varietal Assyrtikos in their range.

In terms of quantity and area, the grape variety is nowhere near as important as its sisters Savatiano and Roditis, which together account for almost 30 percent of Greece's cultivated area of around 63,000 hectares. Only a little more than 3 percent - 2,000 hectares - is planted with Assyrtiko. The trend, however, is upwards.

A native of the hot, dry island of Santorini 

The variety is native to the island of Santorini, located in the middle of the Aegean Sea, about 120 kilometres north of the island of Crete. Over 40 percent of the total Greek Assyrtiko area is on Santorini where it covers around 800 hectares.

On volcanic soil with slate and limestone inclusions, which stores water well, mostly ungrafted vines grow here, because phylloxera struggles to survive in Santorini's volcanic conditions.

The climate is hot and dry, with annual rainfall of only 350 millimetres of rain. The strong wind brings moist sea air to the land - but also forces the winegrowers to train their vines in a special basket shape, the ‘Kouloura’. Which protects the grapes from the sometimes fierce north winds and the intense sunlight. Competition for the limited quantities of water is fierce, so the planting density is very low at around 2,000-2,500 vines per hectare. This results in yields that are lower than anywhere else in the world: for example, only 9 hl/ha were harvested in the very dry and hot 2019 vintage, a year in which many grapes simply burnt on the vine.

Santorini was granted PDO status in 1971. The wines of this appellation must be made from at least 75 percent Assyrtico, with the two white varieties Aidani and Athiri being permitted as blending partners. They add softness to the blend with the strong, acidic and alcohol-rich Assyrtiko, providing acidity and floral notes. Indeed, Assyrtiko as a solo player is certainly not an entry-level wine. "Assyrtiko is definitely not everybody's darling," Liolidis from mygreekwine agrees. "The variety is rather something for wine connoisseurs and has its place in upscale restaurants, but it is not for the masses.”

Estate Argyros

2 million tourists as brand ambassadors

Nevertheless, its fame is also due to a mass phenomenon: tourism. In pre-pandemic times, up to 2 million tourists were attracted to Santorini every year. "The holiday island is one of the top destinations in the world and everyone who has visited the island is in contact with the Assyrtiko” says Jannis Simeonidis, export manager of Tsantali, Greece's third-largest wine company, with €22.5 million turnover in 2020.

However, it might be difficult to stock up on a few bottles of holiday memories at a reasonable price. The generally limited quantities and the low yields, especially in recent years, coupled with the high demand, have, according to Simeonidis, led to prices tripling in some cases. Added to this is the tourism boom, which has caused land prices to rise dizzyingly. For investors, the question today is whether to build hotels or make wine.

"Yes, the wines are not cheap, the yields are very small and often fluctuate depending on the vintage, and demand has increased worldwide. But it is worth it," says Haris Papapostolou, who runs his company The Winehouse together with his partner Anestis Haitidis.

"Assyrtiko is slowly catching on with consumers, the wines are winning international prizes and the variety can be found on the best wine lists in the world."

Grigoris Skopelitis and Babis Bekris from the Akrathos Newlands winery in Chalkidiki

Moving to the mainland

Not only, but also because of this, the grape variety has found its way to the Greek mainland. Producers all over Greece have recognised its potential, and so the variety has found a new home in many regions, for example in Drama in the very east of the country, in Thessaloniki, in Florina in the north, in Attica and Chalkidiki. "Here in Chalkidiki, Assyrtiko retains its fresh and mineral notes, but has more intensive primary fruit aromas and a less dense structure than in Santorini," Simeonidis reports.

The Akrathos Newlands Winery is also located in Chalkidiki. Founded in 2008, the first vineyards were planted in 2009 on slate soil with sandy loam. Vineyards mostly planted with Assyrtiko are planted at an altitude of up to 750 metres, and the winery has been working organically since its launch. Today, about 40,000 bottles are produced annually.

Winemaker Efthymis Apostolidis learned his trade at other wineries, including Aldinger in Baden-Württemberg, Germany. Back in Greece, he took over his parents' winery in Kavala in the north-east of the country and now manages it together with his sister Vasiliki. Together they have converted their 13-hectare farm to biodynamic agriculture. Besides autochthonous varieties, they also grow international ones such as Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Syrah.

Greece's larger and better-known wineries, such as Alpha Estates or Kir-Yianni, also jumped on the Assyrtiko bandwagon years ago. Without the ’white queen’, as it is often called, it is hardly possible to be taken seriously as a Greek wine producer now.

Top producers helping to build prestige

However, above all, the variety owes its fame to the island producers such as Argyros Estate. Founded in 1903, it is now run by the fourth generation and has devoted itself exclusively to Assyrtiko. The wines are made from ungrafted vines that are up to 200 years old.

With an annual production of about 300,000 bottles, Domaine Sigalas is one of the larger producers on the island. The winery was founded in 1991, and there has been constant investment in modernisation and distribution so that today the wines are exported to more than 15 countries.

One of the most important names when it comes to Assyrtiko from Santorini is the winemaker Haridimos Hatzidakis. Born in Crete, he worked as a winemaker at the Boutari estate, and was looking for his own project when he arrived in Santorini. In 1996, he replanted his first vineyard with Aidani grapes, before selling his first Assyrtiko in 1999. Hatzidakis always relied on organic, close-to-nature cultivation of the vineyards, a lot of manual work and minimal intervention in the cellar. He was one of the first to use Assyrtiko from single vineyards and helped to launch that as a trend. Hatzidakis died in 2017, and his family has continued to run the winery ever since.

Gaia Wines was founded in 1994 by Yiannis Paraskevopoulos and Leon Karatsalos. In the same year they produced their first Assyrtiko - since when they have concentrated entirely on this grape variety on Santorini. Today, their initial production of 9,800 bottles has grown to 360,000 - including some from their second location in Nemea, where they exclusively grow one variety: Agiorgitiko. 40 percent of their wines go abroad.

Efthymis Apostolidis and his sister Vasiliki at their family vineyard in Kavala

Traveling to the New World

The variety can also play an important role in the fight against climate change. Not only the wines from Assyrtiko, but also the grape variety itself have recently found their way into the wider wine world. "In my opinion, the variety will play an important role internationally in the future. It is very well adapted to heat and still delivers powerful acidity and freshness," says Papapostolou.

In 2012, for example, the pioneering winemaker Jim Barry planted the first Assyrtiko vines in the Clare Valley in South Australia. The South Tyrolean winery Alois Lageder was also an early adopter of Assyrtiko, introducing the variety in Margreid in the 1980s. The ‘TIK. XVlll Dolomiti Bianco’ is now part of his limited edition Comet series. In South Africa, another leading pioneer, Eben Sadie has discovered the potential Assyrtiko for warmer sites. The South African winegrowers' association VinPro is also conducting trials with it in the Western Cape.

It is also becoming an alternative in the Old World: since 2015, the variety has been listed in the A-list of the French Catalogue national officiel des variétés, the official register in which all legally permitted grape varieties are listed.

Style game

In addition to its ability to produce wines with freshness and structure even in hot climates, Assyrtikois also convinces many producers and merchants because of its versatility. It is suitable for ageing in stainless steel as well as in oak. "In Santorini, too, there is a growing trend away from barriques and more towards larger older wood. In recent years, there has also been a lot of experimentation with cement or concrete eggs, for example," explains Papapostolou.

Assyrtiko not only produces still wines, but also sparkling. SantoWines, for example makes a Santo Sparkling Brut that is matured on its lees for 19 months.

There is growing interest in high quality Retsina and Tear of the Pine is probably one of the best-known at least among Greece lovers. It is produced by the Kechris winery in Goumenissa in Macedonia. The pure Assyrtiko is blended with high-quality resin from the Aleppo pine and then matures for 6 months in barrique barrels on the lees. Around 30,000 bottles of this wine are exported globally every year.

Connoisseurs have long known that Assyrtiko, with its acid structure and higher alcohol levels can also age excellently, and top restaurants around the world sometimes only put the wine on the menu when it has reached a certain bottle maturity. It can also be used to produce long-lived sweet Vinsanto.

Interesting blends

Costa Lazaridis focused on the export market early on with his wine business, after gaining global trading experience in the marble business. This has helped him to sell his Amethystos blend of Assyrtiko and Sauvignon Blanc, all over the world. Assyrtiko provides the body and power, Sauvignon Blanc the fragrant exoticism. Other wineries, such as Biblia Chora, have also profited from the success of this blend and exploited the benefits of combining of local and international varieties.

Among professionals, Assyrtiko has long since become an established part of the wine scene - not just as a product, but as an authentic representative of Greek wine culture with a strong character of its own that is well on its way to representing its country in the same way as some of those other grape varieties.

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