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Unexpectedly impressive white wines from Santorini

Nov 12, 2023Nov 12, 2023

How things have changed! Many wines from Greece can comfortably stand alongside their peers from the better-known wine regions of southern Europe, led on the world stage largely by white wines which, given the hot climate of Greece, would appear somewhat contradictory.

The Greek Island of Santorini would appear to be an unlikely place to produce world class white wines, even though it has a viticultural history stretching back over 3000 years. An arid, windswept lump of volcanic lava, now overrun by tourists, Santorini astonishingly produces outstanding white wines from the native Assyrtiko grape. The vines are ungrafted since the Phylloxera pest cannot survive in the island’s terroir, and the concept of ‘old vines’ takes on a new meaning here, with many vines well over 200 years old. In fact, the island is reputed to have the oldest vines in the world, with some dating back several centuries.

The yield (grapes and thus wine produced) is tiny from vines existing in very little soil, grown in basket shapes to protect from the wind. This sea breeze does, however, moderate the temperature, thus maintaining good acidity in the wines and keeping pests and diseases at bay. The mineral rich soil is bereft of organic matter, being a mixture of ash, pumice, lava and sand, with the natural rooted vines sitting on top of this soil in their unique, woven, basket shape, another of the ‘secrets of success’ of these astonishing wines.

The Assyrtiko dry white wines from Santorini are truly magical, produced in the most unlikely and inhospitable of places, yet with beautifully balanced acidity and fruit, considerable complexity and combining minerality, salinity and citrus elements. They also have great charm and elegance – a great feat of achievement and unexpected delight. An up-and-coming grape variety from one of the oldest wine producing countries on the planet, whose wine industry is currently experiencing a long overdue rebirth.

Any Assyrtiko is normally good, but those from Santorini are on another level – outstanding – though not cheap. Grown in challenging conditions, with tiny yields and land prices going through the roof due to burgeoning tourism, production costs are high, but the resulting wines are worth every penny. Gaia Thalassitis 2022 from 70 – 80-year-old vines in Eposkopi is fermented in stainless steel and rested on the lees for 4 months with frequent battonage. A whiff of the Aegean on the nose and then a beguiling mix of lemon zest, grapefruit and minerality. Medium body with crisp acidity and a lingering finish. Thoroughly different. Thoroughly delicious. £32.99 from Fortnum and Mason.

Anhydrous Afoura 2021 is made with wild yeasts and matured for 12 months in 1,000 litre barrels called afoura. Aromas of confit lemon and honey, with great structure and wonderful complexity on the palate. The same crisp acidity and lingering finish. £38 from online merchants. Utterly gorgeous. Santo Santorini Assyrtyko 2022 is benchmark assyrtiko, vibrantly aromatic, with honey and lemon wafting on a sea breeze. Great stony minerality and fresh finish. Priced at £40 per bottle but offers online around £28. Sigalas Santorini Assyrtyko 2021 is different in character, having been fermented and aged in small oak barrels. Lemon and pineapple fruit but with tremendous underlying structure and body. A big, richer style with a long, dry finish. £36 from The Great Wine Co.