Night of the living red: How Assyrtiko made a comeback

Darren Smith

Darren Smith

29 July 2019

Wine styles drift in and out of fashion, and some varieties that looked down and out 20 years ago are starting to come back to life. Darren Smith presents five grape varieties that came back from the dead


Assyrtiko - Santorini, Greece

When it was famous

Paris Sigalas of Domaine Sigalas explains that the vineyards of Santorini have been in uninterrupted production for more than 3,000 years.

The Minoans had a sophisticated wine trade and it is most probable that the high-acid Assyrtiko was a field blend component of the predecessor of Santorini vinsanto, which would have been shipped from the Minoan settlement of Akrotiri. It has since become the signature Santorini variety, accounting for about 70% of plantings.

Why it declined

Life on an active stratovolcano is always precarious. The last major earthquake in 1956 caused immense damage and prompted many people to abandon the island.

Winegrowing recovered relatively quickly, but the rise of tourism on the island has had a dramatic effect. In the 35 years since the property developers have moved in, vineyard plantings have dropped from 4,000ha to just 1,200ha.

How it came back

Before the early 80s, wines were of inconsistent quality and prone to oxidation. With the introduction of modern cellar technology, they became more refined and precise.

The first modern varietal Assyrtiko, called Irini, was made in 1983 by oenologist Aggelos Rouvalis for the Santorini Wine Co-op (now Santo Wines). Around the same time, Boutari set up on the island, paving the way for growers like Paris Sigalas and the late Haridimos Hatzidakis.

Santorini is now one of the most expensive places in the world to make wine. In the past decade, grape prices have more than quadrupled. Possibilities for new plantings are very limited, which is why the new Ktima Mikra Thira winery was set up on the neighbouring island of Thirassia.

Why it’s good

The unique volcanic terroir of Santorini brings a saline, briny quality to the wines. The extremely low yields here (2,500kg/ha or even lower for the oldest vines) produce high levels of dry extract too. Combined with an amazingly low pH, this can produce super long-lived wines with an adamantine core.

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