Assyrtiko is hot right now. It’s like a summer holiday in a glass. With just one sip taking you to that exotic island of Santorini, looking out over the blue domed roofs and out over the blue, blue sea. It is the white wine that is making wine drinkers sit up and take notice of what is happening in that ancient wine making country, Greece.
Assyrtiko is a grape that is only now beginning to be embraced in vineyards internationally. Peter Barry, from Jim Barry wines in Australia’s Clare Valley has recently released his take on the grape with 2016 being the first vintage of the Jim Barry Assyrtiko being available for sale.
This is the only non-Greek Assyrtiko I have come across and I have made it my priority to taste any new vintages of this wine as the vines gain some maturity. These early vintages, lead me to believe the grape is in good hands with this family – a family who makes such pure expressions of the riesling grape.
Assyrtiko is by no means the only grape that seeks to define the diverse vinous offerings that fall under the heading of Greek Wine. It is difficult to even put a number on how many distinct native varieties there are in Greece since it is not unusual for the varieties to be known by different names in different regions. An issue that seems common in many wine growing countries. The case of Zinfandel / Primitivo / Tribidrag comes to mind and don’t get me started on the whole Syrah / Shiraz conversation.
It is difficult to put a number on how many distinct Greek varieties there are …..
According to the New Wines of Greece website, there are ‘hundreds’ of native varieties of vitis vinifera grape in Greece. Konstantinos Lazarakis MW puts it at roughly 200 local Greek varieties, of which he ascertains ‘less than thirty are known outside the borders of the country’ in his book ‘A Guide to the Wines of Greece’. A book definitely worth reading to begin to get your head around a country with such incredible diversity in terroir and varieties that make it seem like you have entered into a whole new realm of wine geekiness.
So, while you are getting acquainted with Assyrtiko, I suggest that you add a few more grape varieties to your ever-growing bucket list of new varieties to try. Moschofilero, Malagousia and Mavrodaphne are my pick to get familiar with before moving on to Nemea, Agiorgitiko, Xinomavro and others.
The white grape Malagousia offers a much more tropical experience while still retaining floral perfume and a citrus zing. It not only produces dry white wines, taking to oak very well, but it can produce sweet, late harvest white wines that are capable of ageing as well. Whereas Moschofilero produces more elegantly bodied wines, Malagousia can be rich and fuller in style even without oak and has a powerful intensity.
It is a grape that has a history. A little like Viognier, it was a variety that became almost extinct. Also, like Viognier, now that the Greek winemakers have ‘rediscovered’ the heights that this expressive grape can achieve it has rapidly gained popularity. According to New Wines of Greece, this grape is even resilient enough in character it can be matched to asparagus!
In an interview with Vassilis Papagiannakos, he confessed to me that ‘the variety remains a struggle to cultivate well. It is important to protect the grapes from the sun, to keep the acidity and the aroma. The vine grows horizontally, not vertically and it doesn’t like to be trained. You have to tie it up to make it go into the wires. It is very vigorous, it needs green pruning two, three, four times. It needs well-drained soil; with its tight bunches and big berries, it’s particularly susceptible to rot.’
That boisterous personality is not limited to the vineyard. Being such a versatile, robust grape, Malagousia is also a good blender and will give grapes such as Assyrtiko a boost in body and fragrance while softening the acid drive. This will be part of its attraction for both winemakers and drinkers I am sure.
In recent tastings, I have found more producers with Malagousia wines than with the next grape, Moschofilero, so it should not be too much of a challenge to find.
Of the trio, Moschofilero, or Moschofilero-Mantinia, is perhaps the prettiest aromatically. While no relation to any of the Muscat family of grapes, Moschofilero shares that hedonistically, headily intense floral, sometimes as rich as Turkish Delight, perfume with those better known grapes. Interestingly, the grapes are grey-pink colour but are usually used to produce fine white wines, not unlike Gewurztraminer, a grape variety which also can take on those same perfume at its best.
The Mantinia connection refers to the higher altitude, cooler climate region in the northern central reaches of the Peloponnese, that southern peninsula of the country separated by the Isthmus of Corinth. It is this region that has dedicated the majority of its vineyards to the grape and where the grape can reach optimum ripeness before being harvested around October.
The Moschofilero wines that you might find available outside of Greece tend to be dry or off-dry whites however, it is a versatile grape and lends itself to producing white and rosé wines or even sparkling wines. To capture those aromas, the grape tends to be fermented and matured in stainless steel. It is a wine to drink in its youth to enjoy the freshness of the aromatics.
Better known is Mavrodaphne. It is the red grape of the trio and I believe it is on the cusp of its true potential. It is perhaps the Greek grape that has been the best known after that unique and very famous wine, Retsina. With its dark skin colour, it is capable of producing brooding coloured red wines. It is a grape that is much better known for producing the fortified sweet red wine under the Peloponnese regional PDO of Mavrodaphne of Patras or PDO Mavrodaphne of Cephalonia.
As the popularity of these sweet red wines decline, it is becoming time for the grape future to be reimaged for dry red wines. This is similar to the fate of the Portuguese grape Touriga Nacional which you now see increasingly producing quality dry, red wines from the Douro. Even a decade ago, dry wines from the Douro were still new to those not ‘in the know’.
In saying that, Touriga Nacional is considered one of Portugal’s finest, whereas Mavrodaphne is not considered Greece’s first red wine grape of choice. However, with modern winemaking techniques and much experimentation, let’s see what lies in its future. We could even have a nostalgic resurgence in fortified sweet red wines yet, allowing the traditional wines of this variety to rise in popularity again. Perhaps as a refreshing summer cocktail base?
When looking for quality producers from Greece, there are some better known producers. Gaia wines from Nemea and Santorini, whose wild ferment Assyrtiko is very good drinking and may be the easiest producer to find internationally.
If you are interested in finding wines and producers making wines from Moschofilero that you might be able to find in your country look for: Gaia Notios, Domaine Skouras, Semeli, Troupis Winery, Boutari, Domaine Spiropoulos. You may have better luck finding Malagousia producers. Look for producers Papagiannakos Domaine, Domaine Porto Carras, Theopetra Estate and Domaine Vassilou as they are a good place to start.
For more information visit newwinesofgreece.com.