Stefan Neumann attended The Sommelier Collective tasting of P.D.O. Santorini* wines at City Social. Here he gives us his top tips on the island, its wines and the best matches.
I could start this article by naming all the great producers of this wind-swept, sun-scorched, and utterly beautiful Greek island, but firstly we would need double the word count and secondly it doesn’t seem to be that fair.
Take the group of Marvel’s Avengers, they all have super-natural powers, and one isn’t better than the other, so regardless of whether you have Thor, Ironman or the Black Widow on your team, by simply buying and tasting wines from Santorini you are, like them, on the winning team.
The island & its influences
There are several factors influencing the island, so perhaps it is best to go back in time a little. Santorini currently has 1200ha of vines planted, which is down from 1500ha in 1997 and 4500ha at the beginning of the 20th century.
Wine on the island has been produced for thousands of years and historians still argue to this day about when vines were first planted. Over the centuries major volcanic eruptions, the latest in February 1950, have undeniably shaped the island’s topography. The combination of basalt, volcanic ash, sand and pumice stone is known as ‘Aspa’. The white, black and red beaches are just minutes apart by boat and offer a glimpse into the diversity of soils found on Santorini.
The strong winds are one man’s treasure another man’s burden. Yes, on the one hand it reduces risk of disease but on the other hand its destructive nature (especially in 2019) can cause more than just a headache.
The incredible number of hours spent in the vineyards alone is mind-boggling and the resulting yield even more. As low as 5hl/ha (2002) to an average of 25hl/ha results in wines with marvellous intensity and concentration. Unmatched not only in Greece but the world.
The perfect variety for the perfect place: Assyrtiko
Of 1900ha nationwide, a solid 1098ha are planted in Santorini, which means that every sixth bottle of Greek Assyrtiko is from Santorini which represents 90% of the total plantings on the island.
Known for its natural high acidity and sugar content, which can be rare in the world of grapes, its uniqueness really lies in the variety’s capacity to balance these two elements so perfectly.
It is precisely this balance and the grape’s ability to produce an array of different styles that makes it an absolute dream to partner with different cuisines. From unoaked to lees-aged and some oak-aged styles, it is nothing if not versatile and today you can even find amphora-aged wines. Regardless of the style Assyrtiko always carries its trademark freshness with an accompanying salinity and precision.
The native Nykteri varietal (meaning ‘product of the night’) makes big, bold and concentrated wines, often with a minimum of 13.5% abv and a minimum of three months oak ageing.
What other varieties are worth seeking out?
Mandilaria and Mavrotragano are some of the few red grape varieties found on the island. They are quite hard to find as they are only made by a handful of producers.
Aidani and Athiri are also minor players in terms of total plantings but have a vital role on the island. Aidani shines when vinified as a single varietal; Athiri is often used for the most precious and time-consuming style of all wine – Vinsanto.
God’s (Zeus) gift – Vinsanto
Vinsanto is made from sun-dried grapes (dried for 8 to 15 days) to concentrate sugars and total acidity (even more). This process, and the following oxidative ageing, yields wines so robust in nature yet so charming and luscious that time becomes secondary.
Often decades in the making, these liquid treasures are bound to no-one except good taste-buds and wine professionals seeking to explore perfect food and wine pairings.
Depending on the sweetness level and aromatic profile Vinsanto can comfortably be paired with honey and white chocolate desserts to nutty, coffee-infused or very chocolatey sweet treats. Personally, I find them so delicious on their own that all I need is a fireplace and a good book.
Just seafood, or more?
You assume correctly that Assyrtiko is delicious with seafood, of any kind, although I like to encourage looking a little bit beyond the horizon. Maybe it’s BBQ pork or slowly roasted chicken thighs, Assyrtiko is often a delightful accompanying partner.
Regardless of whether you are a global food trotter and like your ceviche from Peru, classic British fish & chips or an authentic Cantonese dim sum, this variety is a chameleon like no other.
What do I need to do to get the best out of my Assyrtiko?
Patience is a virtue, and by this I am not only referring to opening these wines when they are too young, but by giving them some tender loving care when serving them you will achieve great results.
Decanting is recommended as often the wines can have a reductive nature and larger glassware only helps to fully reveal their unadorned beauty.
My favourite expert comment!
Jancis Robinson was once asked what she would choose if she could drink wine from only one grape variety. Without a moment’s hesitation, she said: ‘Assyrtiko’.
Last, but not least, there is only one thing left to say: “Avengers assemble”… sorry “Assyrtiko assemble”.