The Maturation of Assyrtiko: Acclamation of a Stellar Greek Grape

By | 6 March 2024

A guide to the ancient grape variety that has set the standard for fine Greek white wine.


Panos Kakaviatos

Both on and (increasingly) off its original island home of Santorini, Assyrtiko merits attention as a hardy grape variety capable of producing white wines as exciting as top Burgundy and Riesling, says Panos Kakaviatos.

A longtime family friend, chef, and wine connoisseur recently told me that “an increasing problem with Assyrtiko is that too many Greek wineries are jumping on its bandwagon.” Indeed, much has been said about this star white grape from the volcanic Cycladic Island of Santorini. In his excellent book, The Wines of Santorini, Yiannis Karakasis MW observes that Assyrtiko is the flagship for all Greek wine and that it has “found itself in top restaurants worldwide” due to its “magnificent combination of ripeness and razor-sharp acidity.”

Santorini, long distinguished for its breathtaking summer sunsets overlooking the caldera, has been turned into a hub for wine enthusiasts by the grape variety. During my initial trip in 1987, wine was hardly a topic of conversation. Today, the island is speckled with more than 20 wineries. Armadas of shuttle boats market wine tours, and wine connoisseurs come to the island to understand how volcanic soils affect Assyrtiko and how different microclimates enhance various expressions of that ripeness and acidity. Assyrtiko, having tasted much success on Santorini, has spread to other parts of Greece and has recently been planted in California and Australia. Karakasis suggests Assyrtiko may become to Greece what Riesling is to Germany. Still, not all Assyrtiko wines are created equal.

After visiting “Assyrtiko” vineyards in Santorini over the past five years and organizing tastings in France, Germany, and the United States, I’m confident that the top “Assyrtiko” can rival other globally recognized dry white wines. But don’t be fooled by the name; not every wine labelled “Assyrtiko” is a great white. The best “Assyrtiko” can be likened to fine dry Alsace or German Riesling or top-tier Chardonnay, particularly those from Chablis. My gratitude is extended to Yiannis Karakasis MW, Stela Kasiola, Konstantinos Lazarakis MW, Nico Manessis, Ted Lelekas, Stavroula Liapi and many others for enlightening my grasp of Assyrtiko and Greek wines in general.

A recent single-blind wine tasting with wine professionals in Frankfurt revealed interesting results. We knew the wines being tested included Riesling, Chablis, and Santorini Assyrtiko, but not the sequence. A €70 bottle of Dr Bürklin-Wolf Langenmorgen Grand Cru Riesling 2018 was ranked lower by German judges than a Domaine Sigalas Santorini Assyrtiko 2009. Many tasters confused it for the Daniel-Etienne Defaix Chablis Premier Cru Côte de Lechet 2008. Frankfurt-based premium wine sales manager Christine Scharrer was convinced that it was the Chablis, while Barbara Fienhold, from German culinary magazine Biss, commended the impressive complexity and freshness of the Sigalas.

In Strasbourg, France, wine specialists were remarkably impressed by the Assyrtiko wine. According to Stéphan Maure, a notable sommelier in the region, the wine, especially the Gaia Thalassitis Assyrtiko 2017, has a striking resemblance to Grand Cru Chablis due to its bone-dry taste coupled with controlled mid-palate creaminess and a finish that carries a wet stone flair.

Among the tastings, the limited-edition “7” series of wine received exceptional praises. These wines are made from individual vineyards named after seven different Santorini villages and are crafted by legendary Paris Sigalas, an iconic figure in the winemaking scene of the island. Wine buyer Paulo Puel specifically mentions wines from this series to have an immaculate expression of fruit and salinity reminiscing of fine Burgundy. For instance, the Akrotiri Village 2016 vintage had a smooth and contoured finish, whereas the Imerovigli Village of the same year exhibited a rich profile with quince jelly and cooked pear hints. Assyrtiko has now become a common feature in several wine bars in Strasbourg.

In a 2019 visit to Santorini, during a WSET course directed by Konstantinos Lazarakis MW, I learned how elegantly Assyrtiko ages. A tasting of 2003 vintage of the Sigalas flagship Santorini Assyrtiko affirmed its long-lasting freshness. The winery owner Paris Sigalas, a fluent French speaker, has a great admiration for Burgundy and was the first on the island to explore with single-vineyard wines.

As shared by local sources in Santorini, vineyard owners are often enticed to sell their lands for hotel development due to an ever-growing demand for the touristic appeal of the land. As of 2019, the Greek City Times labeled Santorini as the most Instagrammable location in the country, with more than 5.2 million #Santorini tagged posts. This led to a significant increase in the prices of grapes as demand for island wineries grew. The past decade has seen grape prices catapult from €0.85 per kilo in 2010 to over €5 in 2019. Nonetheless, since 2019, the prices have stabilized a bit, fluctuating between €4.50 and €5.50.

Concerns over the impact of increasing prices on sales are not uncommon. A few years ago, Yiannis Valambous of Vassaltis Winery on Santorini shared his worries about the rising costs, expressing apprehension that the market might eventually refuse to pay more. In a similar vein, John Fitter from MacArthur Liquors in Washington, DC, speculated that should Santorini cross the $30 per bottle threshold, he may choose not to continue stocking the wines. Nowadays, even though buyers are leaning towards less expensive alternatives, premium brands at higher prices have also found their niche. For instance, Vassaltis Assyrtiko Santorini 2021 retailing at $49.99 and Santorini’s Estate Argyros Assyrtiko 2021 at $36.99 are popular choices, with the $50 Estate Argyros Cuvée Monsignori being particularly in demand, according to Fitter.

In recent years, many Assyrtiko blends under the Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) of Cyclades have been selling at more affordable prices. It should be noted, however, that these wines may lack the depth and length of top-tier Santorini wines with the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO). The importance of denoting the appellation to indicate quality cannot be overstated.

Matthew Argyros of Estate Argyros is one such winemaker who has earned high praise with Yiannis Karakasis MW placing his wines in the ‘Champions League’ of Santorini producers. Argyros owns a substantial proportion of the 130ha of vines that his modern and spacious winery is equipped to process, thereby providing him an edge. Unlike most Santorini estates that rely heavily on growers, he has more control from picking to winemaking. The unoaked Argyros Assyrtiko, made from 80- to 100-year-old vines, is a favorite of mine. However, the Cuvée Monsignori crafted from 200-year-old vines is also a standout. After putting together this piece, I stumbled upon the 2019 vintage available in the United States for $42 a bottle, an absolute steal for its delicious pairing with Maryland crab cakes.

Argyros also established one of the newest wineries on the island called Volcanic Slopes Vineyards. He doesn’t look for an expression of specific island vineyards but instead seeks to reveal the ‘ultimate expression’ of Santorini through old-vine concentration. This vision is demonstrated in the Santorini Pure wine, which is produced from two parcels of vines, each over 200 years old and located in Pyrgos and Megalochori vineyards. I recall opening a bottle from the 2017 vintage during a dinner at Château Gazin in Pomerol last year, where it was commended for its ‘Burgundian quality’. Old vines do add an unmatched concentration and character to the wine. After the wine spends 14 months maturing in concrete tanks with regular stirring of lees for added depth, it is bottled and then aged for another year before being released.

When you visit Santorini, it’s a must to pay a visit to the numerous wine estates. One of these includes the Gaia Estate, located not far from the airport and beach. I greatly admire the charisma, passion, and talent of Yiannis Paraskevopoulos, the founder, who also produces excellent red wines in Nemea, on the Greek mainland. Among other innovative techniques, Paraskevopoulos has not only piloted wild fermentation on the island, but he also experiments with aging bottles under the sea. His inspiration for this came from a friend who had read about 19th-century Champagne recovered from a wreck off the coast of Finland in 2010 (see WFW 57, pp.78–81). I was able to try the 2015 vintage of Gaia Thalassitis Submerged that had aged for four years, 66ft (20m) deep in the Mediterranean, and I found it to be exceptionally fresh and dense.

Two other estates worth your attention are Hatzidakis, set up by the much-missed Haridimos Hatzidakis, and Artemis Karamolegos. I’ve visited Hatzidakis twice and convinced that the quality continues to be maintained by his eldest daughter and skilled staff. The Artemis Karamolegos winery, being the third-largest on Santorini and tracing its roots back to 1952, is particularly notable. After sampling their wines in the beautiful courtyard, take the time to have a meal at the Aroma Avlis Food & Wine restaurant next door. Their wines frequently win awards at both international and domestic competitions. Last year, the hardworking Paris Sigalas opened a new winery named Oeno P, located near Kolumbo volcano in Baxedes-Oia. He only produces up to 20,000 bottles annually, sourcing grapes from selected vineyards, aging the wines in separate amphorae.

Assyrtiko manages to radiate precision and freshness, giving it a cerebral appeal. It needs a year or two to adequately express itself. It’s not overly fruity nor akin to oaky Chardonnay or the relaxed Greek white Malagousia. To me, non-oak aged Assyrtiko seems purer, although fine wines can be aged with up to 30 percent new oak. Given its acidity and precision, it does well in quality blends.

During a rooftop dinner at the Athens Electra Palace Hotel in summer 2021, I selected Greek wines for Bordeaux château owners. The owners, Lilian Barton-Sartorius of châteaux Langoa and Léoville Barton, Ines de Bailliencourt of Château Gazin, and Marie-Hélène Lévêque of Château Chantegrive, were particularly delighted with a white wine from Ktima Biblia Chora, located not on Santorini but in northwestern Greece. The Ovilos, a blend of Assyrtiko and Semillon, so touched them that they took photos of the bottle. Made on Mount Pangaion where the diurnal temperature difference enables excellent ripeness and cool freshness, this blend has won the award of Best Dry White Wine in Europe at the Mundus Vini international wine competition in Neustadt, Germany. The Assyrtiko lends a crisp freshness to Ovilos while the Semillon adds a juicy fleshiness, both enhanced by well-integrated oak. As it costs less than $45 a bottle retail, every cent is worth it.

Assyrtiko should definitely not be confined to Santorini. One of the finest examples I have come across originates from Tinos, the notably windy Cyclades island situated nearby. At an elevation of 1,475ft (460m), T-Oinos winery has brought the island into the present epoch of wine production. On my visit, the bleak moonscape of the vineyard struck me; the poor soil causes roots to penetrate through the sand layer into the granite bedrock. It is not uncommon to see workers in sweaters during August. The Greek businessman Alexandros Avatangelos and Gérard Margeon, executive head sommelier for Alain Ducasse restaurants, founded the winery. Since 2016, the French influence has been on the rise, with Bordeaux-based consultant Stéphane Derenoncourt joining to supervise viticulture and winemaking. The exemplary flagship Clos Stegasta Asyrtiko (spelled with one “s” on the label) is sold at approximately $90 a bottle in the United States.

For excellent price-to-quality ratios, consider Assyrtiko from the cool-climate of the Greek mainland. It is a common belief that Assyrtiko from the mainland is not as refined or precise as those from Santorini, however, informed consumers can find high-quality Assyrtiko from top mainland producers, according to experts like Dmitri Walters MW. In fact, poor, stony soils coupled with cool climates can also result in high acidity. I participated in a blind tasting at the 2019 International Wine Challenge in Bordeaux, where the Plano Assyrtiko 2017 from the Wine Art estate in the northeastern region of Drama received top accolades for its cool, citrus-driven profile. The grapes are harvested from a single high-altitude vineyard with rocky soil in Kali Vrisi, located on the eastern slopes of Mount Menoikio. The fermentation in stainless-steel tanks with lees stirring contributes to its complexity and volume. For about $25 a bottle, you get a terroir-driven Assyrtiko—not from Santorini.

Returning to Santorini, a good wine-producing region is often characterized by its cooperative. As in Chablis, Santorini boasts a stellar cooperative in Santo Wines, which works on behalf of island grape growers and has 1,200 members. Its superb wines offered at consumer-friendly prices, paired with breathtaking views, make for unforgettable summer experiences in addition to smart wine buys. The cliffside winery overlooking the caldera is a popular location for weddings held throughout the year.

The main Santorini Assyrtiko from this cooperative, praised by Strasbourg sommeliers for its unique saltiness and freshness, has rightfully received recognition from international tastings—from a silver medal at last year’s Mundus Vini Summer Tasting to a bronze at the Decanter World Wine Awards in 2019. Most importantly, the price point is less than $23, making it an ideal start for anyone wanting to experience Santorini Assyrtiko.

One of my favorite drinks from Santorini is the cooperative’s sparkling wine. Santo Wines were the pioneers in creating wide distribution of traditional-method Assyrtiko sparkling wine from Santorini, rivaling the great Alsace crémant. The grapes are harvested early from Pyrgos vineyards, cooled to 41°F (5°C) and then pressed, leaving the juice to settle. The main fermentation develops a base wine with a neutral flavor profile, a high acidity level, and medium alcohol content. The base wines from several vats, shown to me by winemaker Nikos Varvarigos, impressed me. After stabilization and filtering, the liqueur de tirage incites secondary fermentation. The wine, left for at least 20 months on the lees in the bottle, displays a smooth texture with a fine bead, leading to a lively finish tinged with wet-stone-like freshness. Enjoy this wine with island appetizers available at the cooperative, such as the famous fava dip, while taking in the surrounding views.

Before purchasing any Assyrtiko, speak to your merchant regarding producers and appellations. Considering the high quality of Assyrtiko, $50 per bottle does not seem costly. In the Financial Times article last year titled “Once tasted, the wine grape Assyrtiko is never forgotten,” Jancis Robinson MW was surprised at how difficult it was to discern between a fine Riesling and a top Assyrtiko during a blind taste test.

In 1971, Santorini was awarded protected designation of origin (PDO) recognition for white wines made primarily with Assyrtiko. Santorini is immune to phylloxera as the pest cannot survive in the volcanic soil, so many of the vine roots on the island have been there for centuries. Assyrtiko, native to Santorini, has since spread throughout Greece, from other Aegean islands to Macedonia, central Greece, and the Peloponnese. Assyrtiko outside of Santorini retains a crisp wet-stone-like minerality, but typically has higher levels of primary fruit aromas and slightly less intense structure. The precision and laser focus of Santorini Assyrtiko is because of the potassium-deprived volcanic soil, resulting in high levels of total acidity, and very low pH levels—sometimes as low as 2.7. This wine pairs well with cheese, grilled fish, shellfish, seafood, and poultry due to its high acidity. Assyrtiko wines can age for at least five years in barrel, stainless steel, or concrete, developing flavors of ripe fruit, acacia, and intense wet stone tinged with sea salt. Although not covered in this article, sweet Assyrtiko wines, or Vinsanto, are made in a passito style from sun-dried grapes after harvest.

Alpha Estate Assyrtiko Ecosystem Aghia Kiriaki 2020

Lemon zest, yellow kiwi, and Indian tonic unfold a tantalizing acidity. Grapes for this exquisite beverage come from a highly efficient estate in northwestern Greece’s cool, high altitude single vineyard. Lees stirring contributes to the wine’s richness, while the persistent finish manages to stay fresh and crisp. The wine, which is unoaked, has just over 13% ABV. It pairs well with smoked salmon or stuffed vegetables and costs roughly €25 retail. 91

Estate Argyros Cuvée Monsignori 2017

Having been enjoyed at the winery immediately after release and then again at a friend’s home last summer, this holds a place as one of the best Assyrtiko known to us. The equilibrium of 14.15% ABV and an extraordinary low pH of 2.87—which equals nearly 7.5g of tartaric acid per liter—is breathtaking. The full-bodied palate reveals lively lime and wet-stone characteristics, reflecting the concentration derived from 200-year-old vines. Such freshness, dry extract, and a lengthy finish make for an additional 10+ years of maturation. Preserving its freshness, it is fermented in stainless-steel vats at low temperatures and aged approximately 11 months in stainless steel before bottling, with moderate lees stirring for an added splash of richness. It retails for €50. 96

Gaia Wild Ferment 2017

The wine is crafted from 80-year-old vineyards. Approximately half of it was matured in stainless steel, the remaining in a blend of French, American, and acacia barrels. The integration of oak is exceptional, bestowing an almost Meursault-like trait to the wine. However, it retains its freshness, exhibiting the characteristic wit-stone saltiness of Assyrtiko. It pairs well with shrimp saganaki. The alcohol content is 13.5%. The estimated market price is around €35. 93

Gavalas Santorini 2021

The 14.5% ABV sparked debate among some of my acquaintances, some believing it to be a bit high. However, balance trumps raw numbers. The wine exhibits a slightly full-bodied yet taut nature, with a youthful vibrance. As Jancis Robinson MW mentioned in the Financial Times last year, “Assyrtiko is extremely good at hanging on to its high acidity, even in high-alcohol wines.” The low pH value of 3.14 (and 6.25g/l of tartaric acid) lends vivaciousness to the wine. The salinity, ripe pear, and apricot notes make it a perfect match for shrimp and seared-scallop pasta. The iconic blue bottle is a standout feature. It’s approximately priced at €28 in the market. 92

Hatzidakis Assyrtiko de Mylos Vieilles Vignes 2011

Amber color. Aromas of sweet herb, dried almond, incense, toffee, and Riesling-like gunflint (bordering on kerosene). A wine of impressive body. Assessed blind in Frankfurt, this was a high-scoring wine, with some calling it “sensational.” The 15% ABV was balanced by soaring acidity and wonderful freshness on the long finish. Sold out. 95

Ktima Pavlidi Emphasis Assyrtiko 2021

Floral, lemon zest, and wet stone lead to refreshing acidity with a chalky palate texture. Worthy of the silver medal at the Mundus Vini summer tastings last year. With night harvesting, maximum freshness is assured from this celebrated estate in the northwestern Drama region of Greece. For the price, this is an excellent choice to pair with grilled fish, taramosalata, or cheeses. A steal at €15 retail. 90

Sigalas Kavalieros 2016

Harvested from almost seven-decade-old vines located in the single vineyard of Kavalieros around Imerovigli village, this bottle demonstrates a superior breed and refinement compared to the standard Sigalas Assyrtiko. Both wines have aged graciously, but Kavalieros stands out with more depth and length. Having matured for 18 months on its lees in stainless-steel tanks, this bottle has now reached its plateau, so there’s no hurry to finish it. Alcohol volume is 14.5%. You might find it for around €45, provided you can locate it. More recent vintages should be easier to source. 95

Sigalas Santorini 2016

This used to be the primary Assyrtiko of Paris Sigalas when he still managed his namesake winery. The wine carries Acacia, white-flower, and white-peach notes. Its youthful light straw color mirrors a fresh palate characterized by wet stone and gunflint—similar to Riesling, yet with a smoother palate recalling a cool-climate Pinot Blanc. Blind tasted alongside friends earlier this year, we agreed that it reminded us of a Chablis from a warmer vintage. The finale is a refreshing Indian tonic. It doesn’t hint at oxidation. It has 14% alcohol volume. This retails for around €35. 92

T-Oinos Clos Stegasta Assyrtiko 2018

Expressions of white flower, Key lime pie, and iodine freshness characterize this wine. Its palate is both sumptuous and crisp. Despite its bright character, the wine also has a deep and full-bodied palate, reminiscent of what is commonly said of Cabernet Sauvignon-driven Bordeaux reds: the iron fist in the velvet glove. Perfectly paired with fresh fish and seafood, this wine is crafted from vines grown in a 8ha plot called Tinos, perched 1,500ft high. After being aged in stainless steel for four months, only 6,000 bottles are produced, a bottle costs approximately €90. 96

Vassaltis Santorini 2018

This Assyrtiko was savoured over a meal in Cyprus last year, thanks to the owner, Yannis Valambous. It holds an ABV of 13.5%, an intense, complex, and focused wine. Notes of crunchy red-apple and juicy pear are extended to a finish that evokes a taste of the sea. A bottle can be bought for roughly €30. 92

At about €900 a week, Hotel Orizontes Santorini provides panoramic views of the renowned caldera. This view stretches from the Akrotiri lighthouse to the popular yet often congested village of Oia. Enjoy the view while lounging in the large outdoor pool. The hotel is a short walk from Santo Winery and not far from the great Pyrgos vineyards. There you can observe the old vines, pruned into the kouloura or basket shapes which are so distinctive of the island. Indulge in coffee while strolling through the quaint narrow streets of Pyrgos village, which is home to the island’s best-kept medieval settlement.

When it comes to a luxury stay, with prices ranging from €800-1,000 for a two-night weekend, you can’t ignore boutique accommodations like Iconic Santorini. It nests in the natural volcanic rock formation. Private rooms facing the half-moon-shaped bay form a spectacular amphitheatre, offering incredible caldera views from private sun-drenched terraces complete with outdoor Jacuzzis. Its Imerovigli location puts it in the centre for vineyard visits. The on-site chef serves exquisite food complemented by an exceptional wine list featuring wines from Estate Argyros, Hatzidakis Winery, Santorini Pure, Volcanic Slopes Vineyard, and Domaine Sigalas, to name a few. The daily changing breakfast, wellness options, and attentive service saw Iconic Santorini securing the title of Greece’s Leading Luxury Boutique Hotel in 2022 by the World Travel Awards. I loved every bit of my stay there.

Upon a relaxing ferry trip from Santorini to Tinos, Aeolis Tinos Suites is a fantastic choice of stay. Sitting at 1,250ft (380m) above sea level, the hotel offers unobstructed views of the other Cycladic islands and a refreshing breeze from the North Sea right from the Aeolis pool. This award-winning hotel, housing 45 villa-like rooms, has a capacity of up to 100 people. But during my stay in September, the number of guests was lower (only 40), ensuring a high ratio of attentive staff to guests. With designs that merge with the terraced hills of the island, the hotel boasts an excellent restaurant and a tranquil setting, perfect for relaxation after island exploration. The peak season sees the prices around €1,800 for a week-long stay.

For fine dining on Santorini, Selene in Fira Town is an unparalleled choice. I fondly remember a delightful dinner with Santo Wines’s then marketing director Stela Kasiola and Santorini deputy mayor Markos Kafouros. Their selection of 85 Santorini wines and over 200 other Greek wines impressed me most. The addition of Yiannis Karakasis MW as a wine consultant brought more sophistication in the selection. The patrons now delight in creative tasting menus from Italian-Greek Michelin-starred chef Ettore Botrini. A cordial and professional team welcomes you in a beautiful courtyard setting.

The local islanders frequently recommend To Psaraki, a Nofollow” target=”_blankfish tavern restaurant overlooking the Vlychada Marina. Renowned not just for the variety and freshness of its fish, ranging from Mediterranean Barracuda, to red mullet, the restaurant also takes the lead in preparation. The starters and side dishes incorporate local produce like Santorini cherry tomato, fava beans, island capers, and white eggplant. A must-try is their homemade starter spreads, such as tzatziki and fava. An impressive selection of local wines complements the dishes.

Thalassaki on Tinos stands as one reason why publications like Forbes term Tinos as a hidden gem. The efforts of the owner, Aris Tatsis, and chef, Adonia Zarba, who have been running this beachside eatery for over two decades, focus on freshness and precision. Dishes such as coriander, lime, and thyme-infused grilled calamari are presented with a sophistication that would impress a Michelin-starred restaurant. They serve a terrine consisting of eggplant, zucchini, tomato, and red pepper drenched in olive oil alongside their freshly baked bread. The salad is made exclusively from locally sourced tomatoes, and garnished with high-grade salty feta, fresh greens and olive oil.

Athens offers numerous wine bars and eateries, but Blue Fish in the nearby Vouliagmeni is my frequent choice. Enjoy a seat on the balcony that extends out to the sea, offering a private beach. (The local public beach becomes crowded during the summer.) Their wine selection boasts a plethora of exquisite Greek wines (including Assyrtiko). Delectable ceviche and fresh tuna tartare pair well with the entry-level wines. Consider trying the grilled sea bass served along with shiitake and oyster mushrooms, or the regional Greek fish called fargi, a member of the red-snapper family, seasoned with olive oil and fresh lemon juice. The grilled octopus, served over braised leek and classic Santorini fava (made from yellow split peas) ranks among the most tender dishes I’ve tried in Greece. If a lunch visit is planned, carry a swimsuit and enjoy a splash in the sea between courses. Bright beet and carrot purées, quinoa, and potato and celery root purées form the side dishes, enriching lunch visually and gastronomically.

The book The Wines of Santorini by Yiannis Karakasis MW, loaded with historical facts, winery profiles, charts, soil analysis, in-depth information on island viticulture and wine production, and market trends, is a must-read for anyone keen on learning about Assyrtiko.

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