Feature Story

Seismic Shift
Assyrtiko Moves to the Mainland

It used to be that if it wasn’t from Santorini, assyrtiko simply didn’t rate. No mainland examples ever came close to the racy, chalky, searingly dry examples off that Aegean island. And why would they? Nowhere else do you have assyrtiko vines with roots some 300 years old, anchored in the soil-less remnants of an exploded volcano. Suddenly, great assyrtikos are turning up in other locales, from Crete to the winelands near Thessaloniki; there are even versions coming out of California and Australia. What’s changed?

Assyrtiko vines growing in clay-limestone soils at Papagiannakos in Attica. Assyrtiko vines growing in clay-limestone soils at Papagiannakos in Attica.
This past March, Kamal Kouiri, the beverage director at New York’s Molyvos, went on a vineyard crawl through Greece with the express goal of finding good mainland assyrtiko. “I thought, in Burgundy, you can get grand cru wines; and you can get declassified wines at a great price. Why not apply the same thought to assyrtiko?”

To be honest, his search was also out of necessity: “Santorini is making world-class wines right now, but there is so much demand, and so little vineyard,” he says. “Ten years ago, assyrtiko sold for 75 cents to a dollar a kilo; last summer it was $3.50 to $4 a kilo.” The glass that flew out the door at $12 a few years ago is now priced at $18—out of the comfort zone for many of his guests.

“I found a great one,” he says, with a combination of pride and relief. “Papagiannakos. It’s from a chalky vineyard in Attica, and you can see the water from it. I was looking for wines that reflected where they are grown, and when I tasted this one, I found that the wine really captured the sunshine of Attica and the breeze of the sea.”

“In Burgundy, you can get grand cru wines; and you can get declassified wines at a great price. Why not apply the same thought to assyrtiko?”
—Kamal Kouiri
Funny enough, it wasn’t easy to find, because Vassilis Papagiannakos has been hiding it for years. “We planted the vineyard in 1995 and, from 2001 until 2006, I used the grapes to produce a wine called Prive, which was a blend of savatiano and assyrtiko. It was a great wine, but I decided to give it up for the sake of my hundred-percent savatianos,” he says. “I didn’t want people to think that the wine was great because of the addition of assyrtiko.”

The assyrtiko grows, in fact, right next to his savatiano, on the plain of Mesogea, two miles northwest of his winery. The soil is different from Santorini’s—clay, with limestone bedrock 20 inches below—but the climate has similarities, with constant sea breezes and sunshine 320 days a year. “The vines—clones of the Santorini assyrtiko—adjusted to the microclimate of the region easily,” Papagiannakos says, “but they need a bit more ‘pampering’ than the savatiano, as they are newcomers in the area, especially with pruning and in the canopy.”

The youthful exuberance the vines show turns up in the character of the wine, too: Mainland assyrtiko tends to be soft and fruity on release. Kouiri and Papagiannakos advise giving the wines a little time. “Mainland assyrtiko needs one year to settle down,” says Kouiri. “I want the fruit to dissipate so I can get that minerality.” Papagiannakos, for his part, holds his back, so that the current vintage on the market now is 2016. While it’s rounder and softer than any Santorini example, it has assyrtiko’s mineral flavors rendered in a rich, sunny Attica sense.

“Assyrtiko, being a beast of a grape, has enough character to be widely planted and remain highly particular.”
—Konstantinos Lazarakis, MW
“I think assyrtiko, being a beast of a grape, has enough character to be widely planted and remain highly particular,” says Konstantinos Lazarakis, MW. Lazarakis made good on this belief back in the late 2000s, when he helped Australian vintner Peter Barry import some cuttings from Santorini to the Clare Valley. Barry’s 2017, off of vines just five years in the ground, was one of the most exciting wines we tasted out of Australia this year, a brisk, sunny white with the tension typical of great assyrtiko.

In Greece, assyrtiko is now the country’s fourth most planted white-wine grape—after the workhorse grapes savatiano, roditis and hamburg muscat. Asked if he worries that assyrtiko will lose its identity, as malagousia nearly did after a trend inspired growers to plant it without regard for site suitability, Lazarakis responds with a list of fine assyrtiko from all over Greece, from Tinos to Amyndeon. “However,” he adds, “if there is a region that is close to achieving a compact commercial presence coupled with a stylistic coherence, then it is the Drama-Kavala region. Think of a powerful yet less extracted Santorini, with higher primary fruit.”

This part of Eastern Macedonia, about an hour west of Thessaloniki by car, hadn’t had a significant wine tradition for several centuries, until the 1990s. With few historical precedents, vintners took free rein to plant whatever they chose. Assyrtiko went in right next to the chardonnay and sauvignon blanc that was popular at the time—and it came in handy to blend into those grapes, bolstering their acidity.

At Domaine Nerantzi in Serres, Evanthia Mitropoulou uses assyrtiko in the blend for Pentapolis, the estate’s flagship white, but began bottling a varietal version when she realized the fruit had enough character to stand on its own. In fact, even though her assyrtiko vines are just ten years old, they produced the most impressive mainland example we tasted this year. “They are planted on a hill and are very well adapted to the microclimate of our area,” she says, adding that her father, Nerantzis, who planted the vines, chose sites where there is limestone under the loam. A constant breeze from Amphipolis, where the Strymonas river meets the sea, also helps keep the vines refreshed in summer, and allows the family to farm organically. By treating the grapes gently, taking only the free-run juice by gravity and keeping it cool, Nerantzi turns out an assyrtiko that’s riper and rounder than Santorini versions, but shares a similar clarity and structure, as well as deep, thirst-provoking salinity.

That same sense of power and richness comes through in the assyrtiko from Biblia Chora, a winery run by Vassilis Tsaktarli with Evangelos Gerovassiliou. This one grows in Mount Pangeon’s foothills, a moonscape of sunburned dry scrub where the vines root in limestone and clay. Vinified in stainless steel, it’s as savory and chalky as a Santorini, only the structure is different—broader, richer, more mouthfilling.

“Santorini is saturated with producers, and prices are getting higher year by year. This worries me,” says Yiannis Karakasis, an MW based in Athens. But, he adds, “I am not worried so much about the widespread plantings in general, at least at this point. Assyrtiko should be our national variety and we need plantings to support that. Moreover, we need more terroir-driven wines to prove that assyrtiko produces one-of-a-kind wines.”

Windmills line the mountain range behind Lyrarakis’s Vóila vineyard, on a high plateau in Crete. Windmills line the mountain range behind Lyrarakis’s Vóila vineyard, on a high plateau in Crete.
Karakasis suggests looking for assyrtiko grown in rocky soils, calling out the rocky soils of Pangeon as well as Sitía in Crete. When I ask Bart Lyrarakis how assyrtiko came to be planted on Crete, he tells me that, in the 1990s, the local cooperative used to bring in cuttings from Santorini, and encouraged growers to plant them. “So, the end result was a Santorini vineyard planted at high altitude—higher than 2,000 feet—with probably more wind (the place is full of windmills in the surrounding mountaintops), a much more fertile soil and, because of all this, a much longer ripening season.”

Lyrarakis has, over the years, produced several assyrtikos from different parts of the island, narrowing it down to just one: Vóila (accent on the o, unlike the French voilá), grown in the region of that name on the eastern end of the island. A parcel of low bush vines planted in loamy soils, the vineyard channels the nonstop sun in its waxy lemon flavors as well as the sea-salt breeze the vines feel at such high altitudes. Although the Lyrarakis family has prided itself on the work they’ve done to resurrect native varieties like plytó, vidiano and dafní, the Vóila assyrtiko feels right at home among the natives.

Western Macedonia
In addition to vineyards challenged by heat and aridity—similar to Santorini—there is another place to look for good assyrtiko, and that’s in cold areas of Greece, like Amyndeon.

Haroula Spinthiropoulou, who grows assyrtiko at Argatia, her estate in Naoussa, is also an acclaimed vine researcher who’s spent years studying assyrtiko in various climates. “I believe that it expresses the mineral part of its character when it is stressed from various reasons—heavy soils, water stress, high temperature during veraison and such,” she says. “In hot Attika and Crete, if the producer doesn’t irrigate or irrigates with small quantities of water, his assyrtiko has the Santorini character: more mineral, less fresh fruit, more honey and straw.”

The other way to get dry, racy assyrtiko, she says, is to grow it in a cool place, like the high plateau of Amyndeon, where both Laurens Hartman at Karanika and Angelos Iatridis at Alpha Estate have recently introduced varietal bottlings. Hartman admits he hadn’t intended to make a varietal assyrtiko when he planted the grapes; he was simply experimenting with alternatives to the local xinomavro for his sparkling wines, the focus of his winery. The first bottling, in 2010, was a more successful experiment than he’d anticipated. Now part of his regular production, his 2016 Terra Levea is just as vibrant, with peach and pink grapefruit flavors and herbal notes.

Angelos Iatridis goes even higher to grow assyrtiko, farming a 3.7-acre vineyard, Aghia Kiriaki, planted in sandy clay at 1,755 feet. Between the cool temperatures and the poor soil, the grapes don’t ripen until October—two months later than in Santorini, where picking typically begins mid-August. He ferments the wine in stainless steel with ambient yeasts, producing a pale, savory white, a little like the vinous equivalent of an Agnes Martin painting: layered in shades of white, in this case, salt and stone, apple blossoms and lemon pith.

“As the reputation of the grape grows, it will be only a matter of time before there is real interest in non-Santorini assyrtikos.”
—Yiannis Karakasis, MW
Expanding Options
“I remember being shocked when I tasted the first Koutsi Assyrtiko vintage back in 2008,” says Yannis Paraskevopoulos, who has the unique advantage of making assyrtiko wines in both Santorini and Nemea under the Gaia brand. “My point of reference being Santorini assyrtiko (we jokingly call this Santorini autism), you may imagine my face tasting the wine! Assyrtiko, when grown under non-arid conditions, has a very nice citrus fruit combined with a bit of pear, fig leaves and hints of green tea. You don’t get much of these in Santorini,” he says.

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Santorini assyrtiko isn’t for everyone, says Kamal Kouiri, who’s seen glasses refused at Molyvos. “The Old World crowd tends to like mainland assyrtiko; it’s not as aggressive as Santorini,” he says. “The entry-level consumer tends to like it, too.” If you want to be bowled over by a tidal wave of chalky, salty, searingly dry flavor, only Santorini will do—so far. But if you’re looking for a fresh, fruity white wine with good acidity and some mineral aspects, a number of the new mainland assyrtikos can fit the bill.

And in a warming world, assyrtiko’s ability to weather extremes can’t be overlooked. Campos de Cima in Brazil has recently planted the variety, as has Eben Sadie in South Africa and Alois Lageder in Italy’s Alto Adige. “Just got a note from Peter Barry re: 2018 vintage,” Lazarakis wrote to me recently. “The drought and the heat wave of the season brought almost every single grape variety he is working with down on its knees. Assyrtiko was like, What’s the big deal, chaps???”

This feature appears in the print edition of August 2018.
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