Assyrtiko: The Jewel of Santorini

Assyrtiko: The Jewel of Santorini

The harvest in Santorini, especially of its gem, Assyrtiko, is unpredictable and challenging, mirroring the island’s volcanic ecosystem. Years like this one, marked by low winter rainfall, strong spring winds, and prolonged heat, have further contracted the already modest harvest, up to 30% below the annual average.

On the other hand, Santorini’s viticultural history dates back 35 centuries, and poor harvests are not uncommon. Additionally, in Santorini, yields are minimal due to challenging growing conditions, even without adverse weather. A normal harvest might produce 20 to 25 hectoliters per hectare, but often less than 10 hectoliters. However, these difficulties result in an excellent outcome: wines benefit from low yields, gaining intensity, complexity, and structure, along with typical variety characteristics such as high acidity resistant to drought combined with generous sugar development.

Wind and Sea: Guardians of Santorini’s Vines

To shield grapes from the constant wind carrying volcanic particles, viticulturists have developed unique vine cultivation systems over the centuries. In Santorini, vines are grown in a peculiar spiral system called kulura, a basket-like structure protecting young vegetation and grapes from vigorous winds.

During pruning, vineyard workers select strong branches, intertwining them in a circular pattern so that leaves grow outward, forming a protective shield. Plants are kept 10-20 cm above the ground, not only shielding grapes from wind and sunburn but also absorbing dew and moisture from sea mist. The Kouloura root system, sometimes 400 years old, resists phylloxera due to the ash and lava composition of the soil. The meltemi wind may pose challenges, but it is a blessing. Thanks to its shape, it cools the plant, allowing vines to mature their grapes optimally and preventing the development of fungal diseases.

On the other hand, the sea—the Aegean is notably salty. Vines, perfectly adapted, absorb minerals from the soil, ignoring those toxic to their growth and survival, such as sodium.

Soil Characteristics

Santorini’s soil, primarily composed of layers of volcanic ash up to 60 meters thick, lacks clay. The absence of clay has a direct impact on PDO Santorini wines for three reasons:

  1. Zero Water-Holding Capacity: The absence of clay translates to zero soil water-holding capacity.
  2. Zero Organic Matter: The lack of clay also indirectly results in zero organic matter.
  3. Phylloxera Resistance: Zero clay leads to soil resistant to phylloxera.

The first two factors explain Santorini vineyards’ dramatically low yields, elucidating the exceptional structure of the great white PDO Santorini wines. The third factor, absence of phylloxera, allows vines to thrive for an extremely long time, always on their varietal roots, sometimes for hundreds of years.

Assyrtiko: Santorini’s Jewel

Viticulture in Santorini is laborious and costly, with every task in the vineyard done by hand. Today, approximately 1,200 hectares remain under vine, 75-80% dedicated exclusively to Assyrtiko—the star of the Greek viticulture renaissance. Assyrtiko has passionate fans worldwide, with wine enthusiasts organizing tastings, Masters of Wine praising it, and top sommeliers highly recommending it globally. Assyrtiko’s diverse expressions, distinctive tannins, salty minerality, and concentrated acidity make it ideal for pairing with even the most challenging cuisines. About 2.5 million liters of PDO Santorini wine are produced annually, with 30-40% exported, surpassing demand even within Greece.

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