The Ancient Assyrtiko Vines of Gai’a Wines
When I was researching for my post on the 2010 Gai’a Wines, Notios Red I came across several fascinating images in the winery gallery. They were images of low-lying woven vines on Santorini. Santorini is an island located southeast of mainland Greece and north of Crete. The island itself is actually the rim of a volcano with the caldera mostly underwater. To produce these wines Gai’a Wines has a winery on the island. It is located on the beach at an old industrial cherry tomato processing factory. The location may seem odd but Santorini is famous for its cherry tomatoes.
The vines of Santorini are traditionally grown in the Koulara method or basket trained. Each year the vines continue to be woven in the form of a basket. The grapes may grown on the inside of the basket with the leaves providing shade so they do not ripen too quickly. Additionally, the strong summer winds from Africa would knock down any trellised vines. Over the years the vines decline in yield due to a combination of age and the several meters of vines the nutrients must pass through before reaching the fruit. When the vines reach 75-100 years of age the basket is traditionally cut off at the base. New vines eventually grow from the rootstock and within 2-3 years a new basket has been formed. This process is known to have been repeated several times making the roots several hundred years old. It is absolutely fascinating that these wines are produced form 70-80 year old vines with 300+ year old roots!
Unlike other parts of Greece the vineyards of Santorini have never been infected by Phylloxera. Back in 1600 B.C. there was a devastating volcanic explosion which created rocky volcanic soils throughout the island. Phylloxera does not grow in volcanic soils so the vines never died off nor was there a need to replant them on different rootstock. The soils are a mixture of volcanic ash, pumice stone, and solidified lava and sand with absolutely no clay. Yiannis comments that the soils of Santorini are sulfur rich causing the indigenous yeasts and bacteria to have some level of tolerance. This allow indigenous populations to survive any sulfur added during the winemaking process. There is no irrigation on the island nor is there much rain. In fact the climate is classified as a hot desert. Any rain that does fall is absorbed deep into the porous soils where it is gathered by the ancient roots. There is some mist and sea spray which provides additional moisture.
A quick search on the Assyrtiko wines of Santorini will reveal many notes about the dry style of wine with powerful acidity. This is true! The Thalassitis is unlike any wine I have drunk before. This is a bracing and puckering wine which is best with food. They are on the dry side with a strong stone component. The Wild Ferment developed interesting flavors after being open for one day with riper fruit that was in balance with the acidity. It also was a perfect match for cheesy toast. If I picked a single wine I would recommend you try the Wild Ferment. The combination of indigenous yeasts and barrel fermentation have provided for a unique wine. Though most of the barriques are made from French and American oak, a portion are made from Acacia. Yiannis feels this lends a floral quality to Assyrtiko. I would personally cellar this wine for a year or two for development but if you are curious to try it now then decant it for several hours. I suspect the high levels of acidity will allow these wines to age for many years. Both of these wines are available in limited quantities at MacArthur Beverages. Many thanks to Andrea Englisis of Athenee Importers and Yiannis Paraskevopoulos of Gai’a Wines for answering my many questions. In addition I appreciate John in stocking these wines from Santorini so that I could taste them.
2011 Gai’a Wines, Thalassitis, Santorini – $23
Imported by Athenee Importers. This wine is 100% Assyrtiko sourced from 70-80 year old vines located in Episkopi, Akrotiri, and Pyrgos. The pourous soils are mostly of volcanic pumice. The nose was tart, dry, and very light. In the mouth the laser-beam flavors were dry, stoney, with powerful almost petillant acidity. The flavors were lively on the tongue with tart lemon flavors making for a refreshing aftertaste. On subsequent nights the wine put on weight in the mouth with powerful acidity hitting the tip of the tongue. The flavors remained low-lying with a yellow-grapefruit note, a bit of a tang, and a puckering aftertaste. Interesting texture. ** Now-2019.
2011 Gai’a Wines, Assyrtiko, Wild Ferment, Santorini – $23
Imported by Athenee Importers. This wine is 100% Assyrtiko sourced from 70-80 year old vines from 12 different plots located in the upland vineyard of Pyrgos. This vineyard is located higher up at 200-300 meters and produces more aromatic wines. The fruit is fermented in a mixture of 50% stainless steel tanks at low temperature and 50% barriques at high temperature, of which 80% are new and 20% used. Only indigenous yeasts are used. After fermentation the best barrels and tanks are used for Wild Ferment. There was a light to medium strength nose which was Pilsner-like with sponti aromas. In the mouth the wine started with restrained fruit that was a touch ripe, assertive acidity, steely/stoney fruit then tart lemon flavors as good texture developed and the wine expanded in the mouth. There was drying texture left inside the lips. On subsequent nights the fruit became yellower and ripe with a dry finish and green apple flavors in the aftertaste. It showed a good balance between fruit and acidity. **(*) 2014-2019.