True Greek Austerity: Assyrtiko

Paul Blow
Greek White Wine for the Summer Sigalas Asirtiko

This column will address Greek austerity measures. And by austerity, I mean restrained, uncompromisingly charged white wine: Assyrtiko from the island of Santorini.

While the Greek government is indeed struggling to get onto economic solid ground, Assyrtiko has been operating under its own austerity measures for some time. It's the Chablis of Southern Europe: as racy, brisk, and mineral as white wine gets, and thus the perfect white for summer.

It's also the distinctive product of one of the most unusual terroirs in the world. Santorini is one of those postcard places where perfectly boxy, whitewashed villages perch precariously atop steep cliffs overlooking the endless azure sea. While the culture there is ancient, the soils are extraordinarily young for wine soils, the product of one of the planet's greatest recorded volcanic eruptions, which, around 1600 BCE, blew the then-mountain island sky high, destroying the local Minoan civilization and leaving what remained of Santorini with a stunning circular bay dug out of the volcano's caldera, and soils of pumice, ash, and black volcanic rock.

Little grows in this barren soil, and things that do live in it grow little. Grapevines, in flat puddles of leaves on the ground, huddle against brutally battering winds that regularly sweep the island. Vintners twist the wood of the vines into circular baskets over the years, creating a hoop covered in leaves that protect the grape bunches from the wind and the relentless sun. The baskets are cut back every 75 to 80 years to regrow, and there are vineyards on this island where this has happened maybe five or six times per vine, making the root systems close to 500 years old, undoubtedly the oldest in the world.

The Assyrtiko variety has adapted to live in a sun-drenched climate that receives an annual average rainfall of only around 14 inches (Arizona gets about 13). Yet the vines are not irrigated (unthinkable in Arizona). Where do the plants get enough water to produce juicy grapes? Not only do they send their roots 30 to 40 feet down into the earth to scavenge for water, but the plants also absorb it from the sea mists. Phylloxera can't live in this environment either, so the vines are on their original roots, making them different from 99 percent of the rest of the planet's grapevines, which are grafted onto American rootstock. The plants' heightened interaction with the natural environment both above- and belowground results in extreme minerality: The wines have a briny, saline cast to them, as well as an exhilaratingly mineral texture.

Couple these flavors with high acidity and you get a powerful, rivetingly racy white with an almost supernatural energy. "It's a white wine you should propose as a red," says Yiannis Paraskevopoulos, winemaker and cofounder of Gaia Wines, which produces an extraordinary Assyrtiko called Thalassitis (a name that refers to an ancient Greek medicinal practice of adding seawater to white wine). "Decant it. Age it. Serve it with meat," Paraskevopoulos says.

While Assyrtiko has the backbone to pair with something like herb-crusted lamb or pork, it's also dynamite with fish and shellfish. And of course it pairs perfectly with the Greek fare that makes up many Americans' summer diet as well: tomato salads with cucumber and feta, eggplant, olives, capers, hummus, salad greens.

There are only 10 producers on the entire island, and it's pretty much impossible to find a bad Assyrtiko. But there are a few standouts worth seeking out. The wines from Sigalas have a lovely fleshiness to them, a little more fruit, and hints of honeysuckle. Hatzidakis is also wonderful: organic and made with indigenous fermentation. Gorgeously focused and complex.

The richness of summer is best complemented by bracing, uncompromising white wines, a vinous dunk in cold, refreshing water. It makes austerity a little easier to take.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.