The Grape Glossary: a guide to hip varietals
Had Charles Darwin been a sommelier, I imagine he would have enjoyed regaling his restaurant patrons with a discourse on the survival fitness of assyrtiko, the signature white grape of Santorini.
It's steamy on Greece's famous island paradise, the sort of weather that can make a string-bikini-clad tourist feel overdressed. A dot in the middle of the Aegean Sea, the place is also windier than a politician's filibuster, with maistros blowing from the northwest and ostrias from the south. It all adds up to a pretty inhospitable environment for most tender wine vines, which can boil and totter to the point of collapse. White varieties can be an especially tough proposition because the scorching sun will accelerate ripening to the point of robbing fruit of its precious acidity and freshness.
Then there's assyrtiko, which keeps chugging along like the ferry to Mykonos. Resistant to mould and mildew, it's got a tough, wind-strong trunk and retains bright acidity all the way to autumn's harvest. The hardy vine also thrives in the dry volcanic soils, its roots probing deep into the ground for precious nutrients, a virtue some say accounts for the wine's prized minerality. (I'm sometimes as inclined to describe that essence as briny, like the juice of a raw oyster, which, coincidentally, would make a terrific pairing with assyrtiko.)
The vine dominates Santorini's vineyard landscape, accounting for almost three-quarters of the planted area. Sadly, some assyrtiko is still reserved for blends along with other Greek grapes savatiano and rhoditis to make retsina, the famous – and infamously hard to love – wine flavoured with pine resin. Note to holiday-goers: Don't leave the villa until you've recovered from your retsina hangover and enjoyed your fair share of pure, unspoiled assyrtiko.
When carefully grown and vinified on its own, particularly on Santorini, assyrtiko yields medium-bodied wines with marvelous intensity and balance, rounded in texture yet simultaneously crisp and lively even when subjected to the mellowing influence of oak-barrel aging. They're splendid with all manner of seafood.
Though it's grown elsewhere in Greece, assyrtiko seldom performs as well as on the sultry island famous for tourist romances. One reason is vine age. Many Santorini vineyards rank as ancient by wine standards, with gnarly, thick, parsimonious vines that yield exceptionally concentrated fruit. To help shelter against the winds and absorb moisture from the dew, many growers weave the canes together, low to the parched earth, in a circular, bird's-nest pattern. It's a bizarre sight: An old vineyard will give the impression of thousands of Easter baskets left on the ground – with grape clusters lying inside instead of eggs.
Great assyrtiko rarely sells for more than $20, which is a steal, with notable producers that include Santo, Sigalas, Gaia and Argyros. The best can improve with up to five years in the cellar, so it's worth buying a case when you chance upon a good one.
Better still, pack a bikini and fly to Santorini. And avoid the retsina.
The Flavour Principle by Lucy Waverman and Beppi Crosariol (HarperCollins) took home top prize for best general English cookbook at the 2014 Taste Canada Food Writing Awards.