All hail King Assyrtiko, ruler of Mediterranean varieties!
After a lengthy month-long dive into Greek wines this past month [mainly shown on Instagram], it is vital to look at the variety associated with Greece and one of its proudest exports. Though this grape isn’t grown en masse in the land, it is the main varietal for quality and most prized by wine lovers and sommeliers (though there is also a bit of a Xinomavro renaissance as well among those in the know).
Admittedly, the initial dive into exploring this varietal began after discovering Perlegos wines, two brothers of Greek origin growing Assyrtiko in Lodi. Though unexpected, the discovery posed a question; can Assyrtiko become the “next big thing” in white wine? Can the King of Greece be a valuable tool for winemakers in the new world to adapt to our ever-heating planet? Indeed, this first attempt [and certainly not last] to understand this grape and its capabilities in Greece and worldwide.
The Story of Assyrtiko
Assyrtiko’s origins are traced to the Aegean islands, namely the Island of Santorini. However, the name suggests some connection to the ancient city-state of Assyria in what would be present-day Iraq. One can argue that it is on that island, on volcanic-black-ash soils the grape variety reaches the pinnacle of power and finesse.
Indeed, Assyrtiko seems tailor-made for Santorini. The grape’s thick skin makes it resistant to sunburn caused by the hot Greek sun, and it is naturally resistant to drought (especially as the vine gets on in age), so it is well suited to a dry and hot climate. The traditional method of training the vine in Santorini, is koulouri (basket trained), a method developed over the years to protect the vine’s shoots from the wind. The grape is also resistant to mold and mildew, and that resistance can be helpful in a region where a strong wind blows seawater into the vineyard. But most importantly, Assyrtiko seems capable of excellent acid retention, meaning it can ripen fully and develop a gamut of flavors while still being very fresh on the palate.
Certainly, Assyrtiko is a hearty grape. Few others can survive powerful winds (even wrapped in Koulouri baskets) and the unforgiving heat of the Greek Islands. And it is this toughness, ruggedness, and adaptability- in this author’s honest opinion- will facilitate an easy transplant of this grape anywhere where there is warmth, sun, and soil.
The Renaissance of the A- Grapes
Though the grape’s viticultural prowess is unparalleled, a grape’s success and acreage planted are usually proportional to its market recognition. Stylistically, Assyrtiko falls in with its similarly-named Galatian counterpart, Albariño. In many ways, the sea-side growing environment and the local cuisine of both Santorini and Rias Baixas encourage comparison and similar sea-side food pairings (so if you like Albariño, don’t keep Assyrtiko too far away). It is not a lousy comparison-even if Albariño is a bit more erratic in the vineyard and the Atlantic Ocean is far colder than the Mediterranean Sea- and brings up thoughts of minerality, fresh yet ripe fruit, and a zinging acid that just won’t quit.
Comparisons aside, the future of Assyrtiko is bright, and I believe- as the quality continues to rise- greater recognition is in store for this beautiful varietal.
With the increasingly global reach of this varietal, I managed to line up five wines in total; two quintessential growers in the motherland of Santorini, one in the northland of Macedonia (in Naoussa), and two pioneers from outside of Greece. So let the global exploration begin!
Note on the tasting: These wines were selected based on my understanding and research of Assyrtiko producers. While certain ones I find more interesting/complex/ flavorful than others, all wines featured are of very good to outstanding quality and should be experienced personally.
With that said, one wine didn’t particularly appeal to me, but I included it to spark discussion and possibly get more factual information on this wine. But, again, it is essential to remember that wine is subjective.
We will first acknowledge the producer, and then talk about the tasting notes on the wine(s) sampled, and then finish with a conclusion.
Santo Wines, Santorini [info]
Cooperatives must be given their due when talking about wines of Santorini [and Island wines in general]. On the Island of Santorini, the Santo cooperative- founded in 1911 as “The Santorini Wine and Vine Protection Fund”- unites 1,200 active growers, maintains ancient cultural traditions, works hard on research and development to continuously improve the quality of wines across the island, and promotes the local agricultural products (tomatoes, fava beans, capers, and others).
Their land stewardship and tourism initiatives extend far beyond wine to bring the world to Santorini and Santorini to the world.
2021 Santo Assyrtiko, Santorini [info]
Price: $28 [WineSearcher]
A genuine producer signature and a benchmark Santorini if there ever was one. Sourced from three vineyards, all trained in the classic Kouloura style, aged classically for white wine, without any oak.
If you envision what Assyrtiko tastes like at its best, you might imagine this wine. It stood out clearly for its outrageous minerality and salinity, complemented by melon, apple, and peach fruit. In addition, you get some of the phenolic quality on the palate (like tannins for white wines), which raises the textural quality of the wine on the palate without being too bitter or weighty—a nicely rich and long finish, highlighted by acidity.
This wine, to me, is quintessentially Santorini. Or at least this is what I look for in the Santorini style. Santo Assyrtiko checks all boxes with such authority that you may wonder why you haven’t tried Assyrtiko before.
Jim Barry Wines, Claire Valley, Australia [info]
One of the pioneers of Clare Valley Wines, Jim Barry, is a name many an Aussie winemaker knows and holds in high regard. His benchmark Clare Valley Riesling, among other varieties, has cemented the region’s quality in Australia and globally. Yet it was Peter Barry, Jim’s progeny, who had a revolutionary idea of planting the variety “down under” while vacationing in Santorini in 2006. Fast forward eight years [or don’t, and read this article], and the first vines of Australian Assyrtiko bear fruit. It is fair to say that the pioneering spirit is hereditary in the Barry family.
2018 Jim Barry Assyrtiko [info]
Price: $35 [WineSearcher]
This Assyrtiko, at five years of age, is a unique stand-out representative of Claire Valley, but maybe less so of Assyrtiko.
If you have ever had Clare Valley Riesling, you may note that these wines exhibit some of the purest petrol (the smell of pumping gas or a rubber tire) presence of any Riesling in the world (even besting some German wines). Interestingly, this Assyrtiko also shows an incredible profundity of petrol character. But there is an astonishing purity underneath that synthetic quality (which many adore). The wine is perfectly balanced and lifted without hinting at Assyrtiko’s phenolic bitterness (which shows a bit in the Santo and ATMA wines). The fruits, taught and green-like limes, and apples- were complemented by the faint white florals and a slight saline character.
This wine was representative but different, and it was exciting to experience it with such depth. Of course, a purist may argue that it was missing the truth of Assyrtiko. Nonetheless, an incredible wine [not even mentioning QPR].
Atma Wines (Apostolos Thymioupoulos), Macedonia [info]
ATMA, the Greek word for soul, is a [mostly]white wine project from Apostolos Thymioupoulos, the vigneron whose Xinomavro is carving a name for Greece in the hearts of trendy wine drinkers and experts alike. His Alta Naoussa Xinomavro affirmed my desire to explore more Greek varietals.
2020 Atma Assyrtiko, Macedonia [info]
Price: $18 [WineSearcher]
The grapes are grown in the high-altitude plots of Macedonia, in the North of Greece’s mainland, on schist and granite soils. The elevation helps mitigate the heat and allows for a softer expression of Assyrtiko. Fermented in stainless steel at low temperatures and aged on lees for two months.
Simply speaking, this wine is very pretty. Maybe not the most revolutionary character, but indeed a phenomenal supporting actor. White flowers on the nose, ripe citrus, herbs on the palate, some pleasant weight on midpalate and finish. As the label describes, sans pretension, light, and mineral.
It is fresh, reminiscent of a ripe-ish Albariño, and is just a joy to drink. What else can one ask from their Thursday night taster?
Perlegos Wines (Jeff and John Perlegos), Lodi, USA [info]
To read the full Perlegos Wines Profile, click here.
I was, for a long time, dismissive of Lodi wines. It was easy to do, as I worked in Napa and Sonoma, the regions touted for quality, and Lodi was just a place where “the Gallos” and other massive wine conglomerates get their bulk grapes. Admittedly, I was naïve and easily swayed. Yet, with developing my palate, I decided to give the wine region closest to home (I was raised mainly in Sacramento) a shot. So, after Assyrtiko first piqued my interest (in an almost entirely educational nature. I had never had Assyrtiko and was very curious), I discovered Perlegos Wines. John and Jeff were kind and courteous and invited me in to chat, and I learned so much about Lodi and Assyrtiko. After all, with the right level of care in the vineyard and the winery, there can be potential for quality wines –provided the right grape is used- in any region.
2022 Perlegos “Mera Block” Stampede Vineyard, Assyrtiko, Clements Hills, Lodi [info]
Price: $28 [K&L Wines]
The first ever vintage from young vines planted in Clements Hills. Perlegos Family Assyrtiko ferments using ambient yeast (which is atypical, at least compared to most Greek wineries). The wine is neutral barrel fermented [which would be called nykteri in Greece] partially (down to 10 Brix, for you wine nerds) and then moved into stainless steel tanks to finish fermentation.
“Since the grapes were picked early (and the vines are young), the barrel ferment adds a bit of weight to the palate.” -Jeff Perlegos.
The wines finish aging in stainless steel. Sulfur is added to maintain the integrity of the wine.
With the first-ever vintage of Assyrtiko in Lodi, I already find incredible levels of quality. But it’s nearly impossible to nail it on the first try, and I have to comment on that too.
But let’s start with the pros;
This wine is one of the weightiest, most decadent, dense, and complex from the fruit flavor profile. It beautifully showcases ripe tropical fruits, a depth of spices, and the best of spontaneous yeast fermentation. The wine can be a little funky, like Greek yogurt with fruit from your childhood fruit cup. All the flavors sit on your palate and expand; the wine has incredible length and presence. It is also very drinkable, even at 14.2% ABV. I was initially shocked by it, as it was unlike the classic Assyrtikos. If I had to make comparisons, I would equate it to a ripe-styled Alsatian Pinot Gris.
Now the cons
I desired a bit more acidity from Assyrtiko. There was enough to make the wine enjoyable but not enough to tantalize the palate. The bitter phenolic character was also present and not as integrated as I would like.
Sure, there may be some minor blemishes. But as the vines age and understanding of winemaking increases, the quality (which is already high) will only go up. So, honestly, the sky is the limit for the Perlegos brothers.
Domaine Sigalas, Santorini [info]
It almost feels like “Sigalas” is synonymous with “Santorini,” if not nearly eponymous. Indeed one can not long read about the island without hearing of this iconic producer. And indeed, since the first vintage of visionary Paris Sigalas in 1991, the winery has commanded high praise from wine lovers and critics worldwide. Though not as ancient as Santo, Sigalas represents the effortless fusion of ancient Santorini traditions and the modern winemaking expertise
2020 Sigalas “Epta”, Santorini [info]
Price: $78 [WineSearcher]
Epta, or “Seven” in Greek, represents a high-end blend from the top seven villages of Sigalas estate. Aged 12 months on the lees (at least for the 2021 vintage)
Undoubtedly the most expensive of this line-up, nearly 2x the price of Santo, but unfortunately fell short of the mark regarding enjoyment. Robust but lacking in aromatic quality. Full-bodied and powerful on the palate but fell short on the finish due to a very perceptible alcohol content. Maybe the vintage wasn’t ideal. After all, 2020 was a challenging year for all of us. Perhaps this wine will develop better with age. Nonetheless, my expectations were dashed mercilessly, and I am yet to recover.
I am breaking my ” only saying only nice things” rule, but I am sure Sigalas won’t mind. After all, their 2021 Epta scored 95 points with Robert Parker. And I am indeed still looking forward to tasting more of the Sigalas portfolio.
What we learned
Assyrtiko can and will defy stereotypes. There are stunning, beautiful classic examples in Santorini, some diverse but still classic wines of the mainland, and some incredible divergence in the new world. But therein lies the magic of all great grapes. The wines made may have classic typicity but also can dazzle and shock you if they come from different lands with different soils and climates. The undefinable magic true in all great varieties is palpable in Assyrtiko.