Thursday, July 29, 2010

A Load of Santorini Assyrtiko Wines

The other night a few friends helped me to taste through a load of Santorini wines. I've discovered these wines only recently and am still just beginning to understand them. Here are the basics, as I understand them:

--Assyrtiko is the most important grape grown on Santorini. It is yellowish and fleshy, and it retains its vigorous acidity even when very ripe. The other grapes that commonly appear in Santorini wines are Aidani and Athiri.

--Santorini sees a lot of sun and a lot of heat. Vines are trained in coiled baskets in order to shield the grapes from the sun. Even still, alcohol levels tend to be high.

--Soils are primarily volcanic rock and pumice. The pictures I've seen make it seem as though there is little soil, as I understand soil to be, in the vineyards of Santorini.

--Vines are very old - supposedly the average age on the island is about 80 years old. And the vines are un-grafted, as Phylloxera seems not to have taken root, so to speak, on Santorini.

--The wines really do need a few years to settle, to show their graceful side, as they are intense and assertive early on.

I tasted some of these wines before and found them to be rather compelling. On this night I wanted to drink them with dinner. And that didn't happen. I had friends over, I made dinner and didn't get to focus as I would have liked. But there was wine left in all but two of the bottles and I sat down with them thoughtfully on day 3. I'll share some notes, but first a few thoughts.

There are some sulfur issues with these wines. It can be confusing - are those smokey volcanic rock aromas, or sulfur aromas? With some bottles it was clearly sulfur, with others I felt confused. Another thing - the alcohol can be a bit jerky, particularly with the barrel fermented wines. That said, the best wines show a truly unique character - there are elements of sea spray, legumes like lentils or peas, and the minerals really smell like pumice, like the rough stone your mom might have had in the shower. Lastly, the 2007 vintage seems to be my favorite, although it is not one that the wine makers said was particularly good. Here's what we drank, in order of drinking (all notes are based on day 3 drinking):

2009 Sigalas Santorini, $20, Diamond Importers. I've had this wine several times now (most recently with lunch on the day before this dinner) and it shows a little differently each time. This one was smokey and savory with vibrant citrus fruit. The acidity is strong and the wine feels energetic. The bottle we had on the previous day with lunch showed more fruit, this one was more savory. In the end, I think this will do well with a few years in bottle.

2009 Gaia Santorini Assyrtiko Wild Ferment, $24, Athenee Imports (This wine was received as a sample). As the name implies, this is fermented with naturally occurring yeasts. There is a strong floral element to the nose that I like. This is a powerful wine, very rich and heavy, intense on the finish. Although I recognize that there is quality here, it's just too weighty for me in the end.

2008 Gaia Thalassitis, $22, Athenee Imports. Even on day 3, the sulfur just obscures the wine for me. Actually, I thought it more difficult on day 3 than when we had it with dinner. I hear that this needs time in the bottle, but I'm just not convinced about this wine.

2007 Sigalas Santorini, price unknown, Diamond Importers (This wine was received as a sample). On day 3 this is without any question the best of all of the wines. It is perfectly integrated, graceful in its assertive power, pure, and clean. There is a top layer to the nose of white fruit, if that makes any sense. Under that there are stones, creamy lees, and sea spray. This is just a lovely wine, and if the 2009 is going to turn into this, then I'm in.

2007 Estate Argyros Santorini, $21, Athenee Imports. The nose was either very smokey or full of sulfur, and there was discussion about which was which at dinner. On day 3 there was no sulfur that I could detect. The nose was quite lovely with green peas or some sort of raw legume, and that smokey pumice sea spray thing that I get at the end of many of these wines. The palate, however, was not easy. The acids are so bright that it is literally like inhaling the spritz of a lemon, and it didn't feel balanced to me. Food helped, but not enough to make me go buy this again.

2007 Hatzidakis Santorini, $20, No import label (used to be Trireme Imports). This wine is 90% Assyrtiko, and then 5% Aidani and Athiri. I've had this wine several times now with different results each time. This bottle, sadly, was not the best one. There might be some botrytis, there is a lot of honey, some alcohol juts out. It shows on the palate too, the alcohol warmth, but it is basically a balanced wine. Other bottles have shown more of the sea foam and lentil thing that I find compelling.

2008 Sigalas Santorini Barrel Ferment, price unknown, Diamond Importers (This wine was received as a sample). At the big Santorini tasting in May I was bowled over by the barrel fermented wines. This time, I think I preferred the stainless wines. The alcohol here is 14% and the oak is still dominant. There is a kernel of something floral, but it's all about the oak right now. The palate shows intensity and something salty, but as much as I might like to, I just don't have the experience seeing these wines age and I can't tell you what's going on here.

2007 Sigalas Santorini Barrel Ferment, $33, Diamond Importers. Is it the vintage? The extra year of aging? Who knows, but on day 3 this shows much better than the 2008. There is oak still, but also smokey pumice and preserved lemon on the nose. It is balanced and energetic on the palate with a gentle touch of sea spray on the finish. The oak flirts in and out though. Will the oak integrate over time, allowing the other components to show themselves? If so, this could be really good wine.

2008 Hatzidakis Nykteri, price unknown, Trireme Imports (This wine was received as a sample). The back label says that this wine is made from grapes of perfect ripeness harvested at night. I like Hatzidakis, but none of the wines showed particularly well on day 3, and this one was the most difficult. The alcohol is 15% according to the label and honestly I wouldn't be surprised if it were higher. The aromas are floral and very heady, but also hot, and there is something soapy in there. The palate is ripe and rich and to my taste, a bit overdone.

2004 Hatzidakis Nykteri, price unknown, Trireme Imports (This wine was received as a sample). Also 15% on the label, and still a huge wine, although a bit easier than the 2004. Based on the way these Nykteri wines showed, I'm more interested in the stainless wines from Hatzidakis.


Anonymous said...

love how you're getting into the Santorini wines. I am fascinated by Greek wine in general - would love to see you start probing into the Northern and Central Greek/Macedonian appellations where Xynomavro is grown. I've tasted a few examples now and they have all been really impressive. They remind me of Brunello di Montalcino, but not as big or overly fruity as many Brunello's can be. I've drunk them from older vinages such as 2000 and 2001, and was really excited.

Dan said...

I think I remember once reading that Andrew Jefford referred to drinking the wines of Santorini as tasting "the fury of the earth." I like that idea, and it was certainly present on this night, especially in the younger wines that were raised in steel. Nice to see also, though, how, just like (hopefully) in humans, that fury can mellow with age (or wood), while still showing the most appealing traces of its former self.

As a side note, and I can't be sure about this, BG, but I think the basket-trained vines on Santorini are more of a tribute to the island's winds than to its heat.

It also bears mentioning - frankly, the food deserves a post of its own - that BG's inability to "focus as he would like" on the wines was because he was SHUCKING FRESH CLAMS TO ORDER. The Greeks should have it so good...

keithlevenberg said...

What a blast this was. Sigalas will be a culty name soon, I predict. Count me in for xinomavro-fest.

Brooklynguy said...

thanks dan, appreciate the kind words. the Greeks have it better, believe me.

and thanks to you too Keith.

my little expat kitchen said...

Love this presentation of the wines of Santorini. I am Greek and I have the pleasure of drinking these wines all the time. Just came across your site while searching for Asyrtiko wines.

Brooklynski said...

where can i purchase assyritko wines in nyc/bk/queens?