I’ve witnessed the challenge of translating Greek wine for an American audience at least since the 1990s, when I lived in the Greek enclave of Astoria, Queens. Back then, you could locate high-quality wines from Greece in the neighborhood’s fancier restaurants. But that’s not what we drank. We filled our glasses at places like Zenon Taverna with something cheap, usually poured from the wonderfully temperature-stable copper carafes that the wider wine world, inconceivably, has not appropriated. It’s not that we didn’t love Greek wine; we just didn’t think of it as more than a casual fling.
That has been Greece’s struggle for a while now: to overcome a reputation as an ancient drinking culture known more for the everyday than the epic. It hasn’t been alone, of course. Italian and Spanish wine spent decades being known more for their traditions of wine than for great quality, outside of a few famous spots like Rioja or Barolo. But starting in the 1980s, they each went through a period of fancification, convincing Americans of their innate quality.
Greece, somehow, continues to struggle to get in on that conversation. It’s not that Greek wine can’t be wonderfully complex, or that its winemakers aren’t in the process of that same conversion (new cellars, enologists) that defined Italian wine for much of the 1990s. But the U.S. market has remained cool to the idea, even as we’ve come to embrace everything from grüner veltliner to Argentine malbec. Wave upon wave of the presumptive Next Big Thing from Greece has appeared, including agiorgitiko (aka St. George, a red variously, and confusingly, compared to both cabernet and merlot) and xinomavro (same deal, with comparisons to everything from nebbiolo to pinot noir). A few years ago, the great white hope was moschofilero, a perfumed grape found primarily in the Peloponnese that brought comparisons to riesling—although most were cheap and came across as relatively simple.
In other words, Greece has long been seeking a crossover hit—a Shakira, if you will—to add it to the roster of important and widely embraced wine nations. And after a long wait, I’d argue it has found one in white assyrtiko, primarily from the arid island of Santorini. Assyrtiko is unabashedly and undeniably Greek in its origins, original to the islands of the Aegean Sea and, more than likely, to Santorini itself. This is doubly impressive because Santorini, the southernmost of the Cyclades group of islands, is a case study in starkness: a volcanic leftover with cliffs plunging to the sea, constant and unrelenting wind and a perennial lack of rain, enough that vines are often trained in the kouloura, a circular basket shape that staves off the wind and heat and allows them to retain what scant water there is.
Thus, assyrtiko is a survivor, prolific and relatively easy to grow in the tough conditions. It has two crucial characteristics: a savory and salty side and the ability to retain acidity in dramatic summer heat. It finds kinship in Mediterranean grapes like vermentino, although the conditions in the Greek islands allow it to ripen quite well, to the point that a Santorini assyrtiko can easily carry off 14 degrees alcohol, which provides a pleasantly oily texture that doesn’t sacrifice energy or freshness in the flavors.
Of course, Santorini is not merely about assyrtiko, and assyrtiko doesn’t limit itself to the island. It can be found throughout the Cyclades and on the mainland, and farmers on Santorini have added grapes like athiri and aidani to balance assyrtiko’s intensity with fragrance and more mellow fruit. But assyrtiko grown on Santorini is one of those combinations that has resonated far beyond Greek restaurants. It is something unique and distinctive, and it evokes its origins particularly well.
We weren’t immune to that effect during our latest PUNCH tasting of assyrtiko and assyrtiko-based wines, in that the phrase we kept returning to was “boat wine”—wine to drink on a boat, that is—which we meant in an appreciative way. The best assyrtiko has a briskness and a lemony aspect that is precisely what you want to drink on a summer day by the water, although its ample alcohol and weight give it a lot of potential for the rest of the year.
I wish we could say this latest tasting surprised us. But some perennial successes, namely the bottlings from Sigalas and Gaia Estate’s Thalassitis, again wound up on top. Paris Sigalas’ “Barrel” bottling was particularly impressive—a wine that takes all the great things about assyrtiko and amplifies, rather than masks, them with a deft use of oak. It was doubly noteworthy because similar winemaking intrusions, especially in the form of Gaia’s well-intentioned but oaky Wild Ferment, seem to tilt away from what makes these wines most pleasurable. And while we solicited a passel of lesser-known assyrtikos, we found too many that couldn’t demonstrate quality—which means that the most serious of the Santorini crowd is still a world away from the second tier.
There is no doubt that Greek wines will find that next crossover star one day soon. In the meantime, we have assyrtiko, which is worth coming to know—on a boat, or anywhere else.