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Getting to Know Assyrtiko & Santorini's Claim to the World's Oldest Vines

April 23, 2013

Ten winemakers trekked from Santorini to New York last week and, under the auspices of the North American bureau of the trade association New Wines of Greece, invited press and wine buyers to lunch and a tasting. Hardship as it was, I sacrificed a few hours to this cause, principally because my curiosity had been piqued last fall when a wine region I'd not given much thought to--and a grape I'll admit I'd never heard of--turned up twice in research for a story on sommeliers' top fall wines by the glass, published on sibling site Gourmet.com. The specific wine in question: Gaia Wines' Thalassitis 2011, made from Santorini's principal varietal, Assyrtiko. Tasted with and without food last week, the 2012 bottling was minerally, complex, and as likeable as Jason Hopple, beverage director of New York's North End Grill, had led me to expect when he named the 2011 as his white wine pick for the story: "The saltiness from the sea breezes and the island's volcanic soil maintain the grape's acidity, making a perfect pairing for seafood and fish." (No doubt for the same reason, Gaia's Thalassitis 2011 was on the by-the-glass list at Le Bernardin as well last fall.) To learn more about this wine and its cohorts from Santorini, I followed up by email with Gaia co-owner and chief winemaker Yiannis Paraskevopoulos. For people unfamiliar with Assyrtiko, is there another varietal you can compare it to? A funky hybrid between Riesling and Albari?o?hard to say, really. How would you describe Santorini's terroir? Soil: Light, porous, and fertile volcanic soil (pumice) with no organic matter and no clay. Because of its sandy constitution, this soil is--and will remain forever--phylloxera-free. Climate: Typical Mediterranean climate: Relatively warm winters with lower temperatures around 8 to 10 degrees Celsius followed by warm, windy, and dry summers. Some say that Santorini's vineyards are the oldest in the world. Please elaborate. Images of the vines are revealing. Growers prune their vines in such a way where a "basket" (or "bird's nest") is formed. This formation protects clusters from gusty winds--not uncommon on the island--and also the canopy "topping" the vine provides the necessary shade to the berries, preventing sunburns. Year after year, more new wood is added to this living "basket," which grows in height and diameter. After, say, 80 to 100 years of growth, all elements coming from the soil have to spin around many meters of coiled wood before reaching the fruits. The already low yield drops dramatically. It is then when the growers will totally "decapitate" the old vine at the level of the soil. The root system, still in place in the soil, will fast generate a new plant from a dormant bud. This is possible because, due to the clayless volcanic soil of Santorini, there is no phylloxera on the island?and never will be! Calculating that this technique of "revitalizing" the vines is done every 80 or so years, as an average, and that it is done 5 times, as...

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