Assyrtiko is an indigenous, low yielding Greek white wine grape variety. It reaches its apogee on the beautiful island of Santorini, where it is trained close to the barren soils in unique basket-like weaves. While this method looks unkempt, it serves to protect the grapes from incessant winds while allowing them to ripen sufficiently. Assyrtiko is also planted in Attica and other viticultural zones where the variety's robustness and subsequent capacity to withstand the arid conditions throughout much of the Greek archipelago, are prized.
On Santorini, the Mediterranean climate imbues Assyrtiko with a saline minerality and a far higher pH than the febrile acidity of many wines produced from the variety, allude to. This textural dichotomy allows for both freshness and a warm palate weight of considerable complexity, persistence and punchy length.
Indeed, Assyrtiko is capable of exceptional wine, across a range of styles. It is largely vinified dry as a brisk, eminently drinkable wine to parry with local seafood dishes and the nonjudgmental palates of tourists throughout the summer. However, ambitious producers such as Gaia and Sigalas, both on Santorini, apply sensitive oak handling for additional complexity. Wines such as these fill out with age, giving flavours of lemon oil and a waxy softness, not dissimilar to older Hunter Valley Semillon.
Assyrtiko is also made from grapes that have been picked late, before further drying on mats. This serves to concentrate sugar levels. Pressing yields little juice and the wines are rare. However these local versions of Vin Santo can be riveting and are well worth the search. Long, slow fermentations, often in large wooden barrels with no topping up, serve to liberate high levels of volatile acidity on one hand, but intoxicating aromas of marmalade, truffle and honey, on the other.
Clearly, Assyrtiko is one of the very finest of all Mediterranean white wine grapes. Given patches of experimental plantings throughout Australia's engine room regions and at Jim Barry, in the Clare Valley, we are likely to see more of it coming our way.