“It was 1998, my first trip,” Kouiri remembers. “It was a vacation. My wife is Greek, we traveled all over Greece. Someone offered me Santorini. It was fresh, just made. And it was hot and the wine was racy. I was like, ‘Wow!’”
After that trip, Kouiri returned to NYC and began searching out Greek wines. In 2000, he started at Molyvos and by 2001 he was running the wine program, making two to three wine-research trips a year. “Every trip, I go to Santorini,” he says. “It’s that important. And even my last trip, two months ago, it still feels magical for me. To drink the wine is almost like a déjà vu: with every sip, it brings back the food, the people.”
While the island’s winemakers are only beginning to explore their terroir via single-vineyard wines, there’s plenty of diversity among the offerings: “A lot of people love wines made in stainless steel; they got tired of wines with oak,” Kouiri says, referring to the style of Santorini that’s become popular in the last 20 years. “But assyrtiko is a noble grape; it can handle any techniques.”
1. Gaia Santorini Thalassitis
“This is the style that people in the US understand to be classic Santorini: a lot of minerality and acidity; nothing else,” says Kouiri. Winemaker Yiannis Paraskevopoulos relies on vineyards in Pyrgos, the highest and coolest point of the island, to attain this lean profile, and vinifies the wine entirely in stainless steel. “It’s not easy-going but it can work with a lot of foods; you can even drink it with lamb.” Take a tip from Kouiri, however, and decant it before serving.
2. Domaine Sigalas Santorini Oia
“In forty-five minutes, you can go from one end of the island to the other, and you can feel the terroir differences,” Kouiri says. Paris Sigalas’s vineyards are in Oia, in the north of the island, lower and warmer than Pyrgos. “In Oia, the vines look completely di erent,” says Kouiri, explaining that the koulouri—the basket-like rings the vines are trained in—are not as thick as they are in Pyrgos. He finds that the wine reflects the gentler landscape: “Thalassitis is more in-your-face. Sigalas is more refi ned, with finer characteristics.”
3. Ktima Argyros Santorini Estate
“This introduces another element: the age of the vines,” Kouiri says. “If the vines were around sixty to eighty years old on the last two wines, this is like one hundred twenty.” Kouiri finds the age of the vines translates into structure—“very focused, concentrated”—something that Argyros builds on by putting about 15 to 20 percent of the wine into oak barrels. “It gives it longevity, structure, power. I love it as it ages; it gains length, and the color holds very well.”
4. Gaia Wines Santorini Wild Ferment
“I was in love with this wine from the first vintage, even though the oak was stronger,” Kouiri admits. “I’d thought, ‘Okay, I understand Santorini, love the stainless steel expression,’ but then I tasted this—now we’re talking about techniques, knowledge, experiments. It was exciting.” First released in 2008, this was the first commercial wine on the island to be fermented spontaneously. While the oak is palpable in scent and flavor, Kouiri doesn’t find it to get in the way of expressing Santorini. “If you understand Santorini terroir, you still feel it in your glass: The minerality is there, the acidity. It’s just more fi nesse, more elegance,” he says. Plus, he adds, “It’s more approachable for someone who’s never had Santorini. I pour it when people ask for Chablis.”
5. Boutari Santorini Kallisti Reserve
“How can you talk about Santorini without talking about Boutari? He was a visionary; he saw the potential in the 1980s and invested a lot of money and heart in it,” Kouiri says about Yiannis Boutari, who was then working for his family’s company. “Kallisti means ‘the best’—this represents him,” Kouiri says, explaining that this was the first modern barrel-fermented wine on the island. “Early vintages were over-oaked, but in the last few vintages, especially 2013, the oak has settled. It’s a more traditional style, with pressings and extraction, but it’s refi ned. It retains Santorini minerality and acidity—just boosted with the oak, the flavors moving from citrus to white peach, hazelnut, apricot.”
6. Hatzidakis Santorini Nykteri
“You cannot consider Santorini without Nykteri,” Kouiri asserts. “It’s been made for thousands of years.” It used to indicate a wine made from very ripe grapes picked at night (nykta) and aged in barrels, creating a powerful, golden wine with lots of mature fruit and spice flavors, but today, Kouiri points out, every winemaker has his own interpretation. “Now, some people keep it in barrel three months, others two years. I like Hatzidakis’s style: he’s the middle ground. He does 12 to 18 months. This gives all the nuances I look for: caramelized flavors, but still salinity—salted almonds, grilled peaches; it’s lush, lots of spice,” he says. The barrels are an important part of the style: “It’s all aged in old barrels—maybe vinsanto barrels, or red wine: They call them ‘spice racks,’ and everyone uses their own special recipe.” The Hatzidakis is big enough, Kouiri says, that he’d pair it with lamb or even beef. “Also, I like to have some age on it; right now, the 2013 is great but I’m selling the ’12. Bottle-aging lets it settle down, so the oak is not in your face.”
This article first appeared in W&S Fall 2016.