The white wine grapes of Greece — with names like moschofilero, roditis and assyrtiko — sound a bit scary, like alien beings. But I think of them as the constituents of a parallel universe in which crowds of people embrace these wonderfully refreshing, intriguing whites, rather than default to generic summer white wines like pinot grigio. I imagine this for the assyrtiko, especially.
Not that I have anything against pinot grigio. From some of the thorough, painstaking producers in Alto Adige and Friuli-Venezia Giulia, pinot grigio can be a delight. But much of it is mundane. Why should anybody who cares about what they eat and drink settle for familiar and icy rather than something full of character?
The wine industry has no problem with that sort of unconscious drinking. It feeds sales and increases profits. Hence it promotes the notion of “starter wines,” mediocre bottles that help ease newcomers past the shock of transition until they are ready to try the better stuff. Nonsense. The idea is merely a rationalization for selling millions of bottles of mass-market junk wines.
Skip the insipid wines. Go right to good bottles. Discriminate. End of rant. The good news is, the parallel universe of provocative Greek wines, made primarily from this trio of little-known grapes, is very much an available reality, offering a wonderful trove of wines that can be stimulating, even riveting, and rarely boring.
A recent wine panel tasting of Greek whites from the 2011 and 2012 vintages affirmed the quality and value of these wines. For the tasting, Florence Fabricant and I were joined by Laura Maniec, proprietor of Corkbuzz Wine Studio in Greenwich Village, and Levi Dalton, a sommelier and host of the “I’ll Drink to That” series of podcasts. The wine panel has tasted Greek whites several times over the course of the last decade. Many of them often seemed to be works in progress. The best were very good, but the majority seemed somewhat stymied by the move from a largely local market to a global audience. This is no small issue. It’s akin to a farmer, who might have sold eggs in town for years, figuring out how to ship the fragile commodity to another state while keeping quality and product intact. It raises all sorts of questions involving production and transport.
In this tasting, at least, the growing pains seemed to be a thing of the past. Instead, we found consistently well-made wines, and we especially liked those from Santorini, made entirely or primarily of the assyrtiko grape. These wines in particular show pure briny, mineral flavors, as if they were the concentrated essence of millions of tiny seashells. Not once but several times during the blind tasting a comparison was made to Chablis, which cuts a similarly saline profile.
Santorini, one of the Cyclades Islands in the Aegean, is an unusual place to grow grapes. The vines aretrained in curls to hug the volcanic soil as protection against the fierce sea winds. (see pic.) They also absorb moisture from the dew in this otherwise dry climate.
Our three favorite wines were all Santorini assyrtikos, as were 6 of our top 10, which was particularly impressive because only seven Santorini assyrtikos were in the tasting, and the seventh just missed the cut.
“Beauty, purity, racy acidity, refreshing: they really show island living,” Laura said. She forgot to mention moderately priced: All the wines on our list were $14 to $24.
Our top three wines reflected the best and most consistent Santorini producers, not necessarily in any particular order. In fact, each of these producers had two wines on the list. No. 1 was the 2011 assyrtiko from Argyros, which has made wine on Santorini for more than a century. It’s entirely assyrtiko, and vinified in steel tanks to maximize its clean zestiness. Yet this is not a fruity wine. The flavors are savory and textural. This was also our best value at $19.
The second Argyros wine was No. 9, the 2011 Atlantis. This was 90 percent assyrtiko, with the remainder made up of two even more obscure grapes, aidani and athiri. That appears to be the only difference between the two wines, yet this one was altogether simpler, though nonetheless pleasant.
The next pair of wines came from Domaine Sigalas, which has been in business a mere 20 years but is perhaps the most intriguing of the Santorini producers. In contrast with Argyros, we preferred Sigalas’s 2011 blend of 75 percent assyrtiko and 25 percent athiri (our No. 2 wine) over its 2012 100 percent assyrtiko, our No. 8. The blend was earthy and briny, with a wonderfully inviting texture, while the 2012 was tangy and pleasing, and likewise savory.
Levi suggested the different vintages might have been a factor, and speculated that 2011 was probably better. Both of these wines were fermented in steel tanks. But Sigalas also makes a fascinating assyrtiko fermented in oak barrels, which very much affects the texture and character of the wine. Sadly, we did not have a bottle in our tasting.
The third pair came from Gaia, another winery about 20 years old. These two wines were both 100 percent assyrtiko, fermented in different ways. Our No. 3 wine, the 2012 Wild Ferment, uses, as its name suggests, ambient yeast rather than specific yeast selected by the winery, as with the 2012 Gaia Thalassitis, our No. 7.
The choice of yeast is a prime area of disagreement among winemakers: some opt for the measure of control offered by the more predictable selected yeast, and others assert that the more capricious ambient yeast produces a clearer sense of place in the wine.
Too many other variables separate these bottles to focus only on the yeast. The grapes come from different vineyards, and the Wild Ferment undergoes its fermentation partly in oak barrels, while the Thalassitis ferments entirely in steel tanks. We preferred the Wild Ferment for its earthy, mineral complexity, but nonetheless liked the lively Thalassitis as well. These wines both require a bit of air, especially when they are young. I recommend decanting.
The remaining four wines are from various parts of the Greek mainland. No. 4, the 2011 Costa Lazaridi Amethystos, from Drama in the northeast, is a racy, tart blend of assyrtiko with sauvignon blanc and sémillon. No. 5, the 2011 Mountain Sun from Semeli in the Peloponnese region, is primarily moschofilero blended with roditis. They are both fragrant, red-tinged white grapes, with moschofilero coming off as a combination of pinot gris and gewürztraminer.
No. 6, the 2012 Kitma Pavlidis Thema, also from Drama, a combination of assyrtiko and sauvignon blanc, offers a lingering textural presence, while No. 10, the 2011 Kir-Yianni Petra from the Macedonian district, primarily roditis, is chalky, floral and light-bodied.
Taken as a whole, this impressive set of wines makes a strong case for Greek whites this summer. No offense, pinot grigio, but your time is passing.