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.
Domaine Sigalas Barrel Santorini Assyrtiko
Sigalas, based on the Oia plain in the island’s north, is the name to know in Santorini. This choice is cheating a bit, in that the regular steel-fermented Sigalas assyrtiko is really the classic. But there’s even more depth here, thanks to barrel fermentation and six months aging—more precision and tension to the texture (which is, inverse to what many think, the result of good barrel fermentation) and an even more savory composure: less oiliness and more bay-leaf intensity.
See also: Domaine Sigalas Assyrtiko (steel version), Argyros, Tselepos
- Price: $41
- Vintage: 2016
- From: Diamond Importers
Gaia Thalassitis Santorini Assyrtiko
Gaia is arguably the most ambitious name in Greek wine, with two wineries—one in Santorini and a second in Nemea—and a range of standouts, including the 14-18h, which is consistently Greece’s best rosé. While their experiments with barrel fermentation are often cause for sad face, the Thalassitis, from 80-year-old vines, can be one of the most dramatic assyrtikos made. Admittedly, the name might be a tad confounding, in that “Thalassitis” means “from the sea,” a reference to the ancient habit of mixing water and wine. Their point is that this wine is very much of the sea, and you can’t miss it in the briny character, matched by a citrus-peel freshness and a weight that’s less oily than it is resiny—in a good way.
See also: Hatzidakis
- Price: $26
- Vintage: 2015
- From: Athenée Importers
THE MELTING POT
Santo Wines Aspa Santorini White
Santo is what remains of the original Santorini co-op union, which is located outside Pyrgos, near the island’s western shore. This is 75 percent assyrtiko (there’s athiri and aidani in the blend as well) aged in steel but left on the skins briefly to add depth and texture. There’s a remarkable minerality and brininess, but also a softer fruitiness that pulls the wine back just a bit from the razor’s edge that is assyrtiko.
See also: Sigalas Aa (Assyrtiko-Athiri)
- Price: $17
- Vintage: 2015
- From: Diamond Wine Selections
Moraitis Sillogi Cyclades White
Moraitis is one of the historic properties in Naoussa, on the island of Paros, farther north in the Cyclades. Their Sillogi combines assyrtiko with malagousia, a fragrant grape from the mainland, both grown in organic vineyards on Paros. If there’s a bit less of the volcanic intensity found on Santorini, but a minty herbal side and slightly leesy richness give this both complexity and freshness. It’s the sort of wine that telegraphs the success Greek island whites could have, if just a few more pinot grigio drinkers made the switch.
- Price: $17
- Vintage: 2016
- From: VOS Selections