I have long been a fan of assyrtiko, which just gets better and better each time I taste it. Clearly, Peter Barry of Jim Barry Wines in Clare – currently home to Australia’s best rieslings – is a fan too. He discovered the white grape while on holiday on the Greek island of Santorini and reckoned it had potential in his homeland.
“I loved assyrtiko’s minerality; I think it is a variety suited to the modern palate,” says Barry. “Our climate is changing, so we must be ready to adapt with new varietals. We are experimenting initially with half a hectare of assyrtiko in Clare using the true mother vine and a Santorini clone; but it will be five years before we get to taste the fruits of our Greek import,” he says.
Barry is not alone in his enthusiasm for assyrtiko. Hugh Johnson classes it as “one of the best white grapes of the Mediterranean”. There is no doubt that Greek whites have improved in quality. Now UK wine buyers are taking note, as we see more Greek wines appearing in the better UK supermarkets.
Assyrtiko is believed to be similar to riesling, but tastewise I think it has a lot in common with sauvignon blanc. Like sauvignon blanc and riesling it has naturally high acidity, which it manages to retain even grown in a warm climate. It has a minerally, steely palate and structure – it also increases its richness and honeyed character with age in bottle, like riesling.
What I particularly like about assyrtiko is its freshness drunk as a youthful, dry, white aperitif. It’s delicious on its own or served with shrimps, grilled halloumi or even Thai cuisine.
There are 1,200 hectares of assyrtiko vines in the world – with 60 per cent of these planted on the island of Santorini.
Anyone visiting Santorini might be surprised to see the growing assyrtiko vines woven into basket-shapes. This is the special “koulara” training system used here. Vines are woven in continuous circles to protect them from the wind and sun. Grown in sight of the sea with cool breezes on Santorini’s volcanic ash soils, the old assyrtiko vines produce the best Greek whites I have tasted.