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  • Christina Pickard

Lunar Tunes: the wonders of Santorini

This article first appeared in the January/February issue of Imbibe Magazine UK. Read it here in its uncut form:

Few regions in the wine world manage to make the style of wine you actually want to drink while visiting that region. Cool climate regions produce wines perfect for sipping in hot climates. Hot climates…well, you get the gist. There’re a few exceptions, but nothing compares to Santorini, where no drink is more suited to the island’s scorching sun than its laser-sharp mineral-laden Assyrtiko. But if you had to count the ways that Santorini wine is unique, this fact wouldn’t even make top five.

Firstly, you would have to wrap your mind around the fact that the whole Greek island, a part of the Cyclades in the Aegean Sea, is the remnants of many former volcanoes. And that same ancient volcanic soil–red, black, and white (pumice)–goes 30 metres deep making the soil extremely rich in iron, copper, and magnesium, and resulting in some of the most mineral wines I’ve tasted. Combine that with naturally low PH levels, and the freshness-meter is off the charts.

Secondly, you’d have to get to grips with the native grape varieties. The shining star is Assyrtiko which is made in two different styles: young and unoaked (lean, metallic, wild flowers, sunshine in a glass), and full-bodied due to lees stirring and oak ageing (honey, acacia, herbs). At its best, Assyrtiko is a complex, textured expression of all that is wonderful about a Greek island. It’s exceptionally food friendly, if a bit high on the acid front for some. Another worthy white grape is Aidani, a muscat-like glass off flowery prettiness lacking in Assyrtiko’s complexities, but perfect for sipping by sea and sand.

Red wines take a back seat to whites on Santorini, but Mavrotragano, rediscovered 10 years ago after it was nearly extinct, shows the most potential. A rustic sun-baked combo of ripe red fruit, olives and herbs with barnyard undertones, it’s best drunk with the spiced lamb of Santorini.

After a plate of lamb, there’s nothing better than Vinsanto, made in the Italian tradition with late harvested grapes (mostly Assyrtiko) and dried on staw beds. Santorini’s version is mind-blowing. Thanks to Assyrtiko’s minerality and natural acidity combined with explosions of dried fruit, molasses, and Christmas spice, you get a stickie with great ageing potential that’s also delicious young.

Santorini’s grapes may be special, but it’s the vineyards themselves that are most unique. Gnarly vines with ancient roots plunging up to 20 metres deep in search of water on the parched island, they’re trained in a basket-shape coiled low to the ground to protect them from the ‘Meltemi’, the powerful northern winds that blow throughout summer. If the moon grew grapevines, this is what they’d look like.

This is just a surface-scratcher of why Santorini is one of the world’s most unique wine-growing countries. The island’s wines grace the lists of the best restaurants in the UK and deservedly so. On the rare days the sun comes out in Britain, these are the wines to crack open. And on the not-so-unrealistic chance the sun never arrives, book your next holiday to Santorini pronto.

What the Sommeliers are saying:

‘Assyrtiko is outstanding with sushi (nigiri) and most Asian influenced dishes as long as they’re not too spicy. The richness and minerality in the wine contrasts the clean and elegant flavours of the row fish as well as white meat, crispy chicken, even slow cooked lamb. It’s literally like feeling the sun in the glass. Close your eyes and you are there…’ 

–Arnaud Bardary, head sommelier at Maze by Gordon Ramsay.

(Maze lists Assyrtiko from two of the islands top producers, Hatzidakis and Gaia)

‘Gaia’s ‘Thalassitis’ Assyrtiko garners the superlatives, whether the ‘Rocky Balboa of white wines’, the ultimate ‘Vin de terroir’, or ‘Chablis on steroids’. It’s a great foil for seared scallops, and seafood starters, but the wine stands up to meatier fish such as tuna, swordfish or marlin.

Hatzidakis Assyrtiko is broad, rIch and honeyed, an altogether more oxidative style and is a sure fire match for main courses and bigger flavours, whether poultry, duck or white meats.’

–Mark Perlaki, head sommelier at Hotel du Vin Harrogate

‘I consider Assyrtiko from Santorini the perfect example of a ‘Vin de Terroir’: Really old ungrafted vines on a volcanic island in the middle of the Cyclades.

When you taste Cuvee 15 [Hatzidakis Assyrtiko] you get the heat and power from the place balanced by saltiness and an eruptive minerality! Beautiful fruit flavours with this typical smoky-rubbery side. An uncompromising wine made by a talented vigneron who respects his terroir and uses no chemicals whatsoever. His organic approach is combined with no-intervention winemaking in the cellar. The result is sense of place in a bottle!

I matched it recently with an hake poached in rose oil, apricot and orange sabayon, pickled carrots, fresh almonds–it worked pretty well!’

–Raphael Rodriguez, head sommelier at Tom Aikens restaurant

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