Whilst I was waiting for Cecilia Pasqua to take the stage at Hanging Ditch the other week (see More From The Veneto), I couldn’t help but spend my time perusing the shelves. It wasn’t long before my eyes lit upon an old favourite of mine: Gaia Wine’s Thalassitis (2011, 13% ABV), a wine I had not drunk since the long-forgotten halcyon days when Oddbins had the audacity to offer a large selection of (mostly) very good Greek wines.
This 100% Assyrtiko is made from the fruit of low yielding, 80-year-old ungrafted vines that somehow manage to survive and prosper in the almost Martian extremes of Santorini’s climate. Everything that makes this Aegean caldera such a tourists’ paradise conspires against the production of wine on Santorini: cloudless skies offer no respite from the blistering summer heat, rainfall is so meagre as to be desert-like and the volcanic Aspa soil retains neither water nor nutrients. Being a small and exposed island, wind is also a constant threat to vines and fruit alike. The only benefits offered by the hostile environment are the morning fogs that carry much needed moisture across the parched island and a soil so inhospitable that phylloxera is completely absent.
Santorini’s Assyrtiko vines are still grown in the way they have been for thousands of years: the climate makes regular forms of trellising impossible, instead the vines are uniquely twisted and trained into low basket shapes using a technique called “Koulara”. This training method has the grapes hanging inside for their protection and the leaves outside and above to provide shelter from the wind and the sun. These basket shaped vines also act as moisture traps by condensing the fog into precious liquid. Not only does Assyrtiko thrive under these conditions, but in Thalassitis it produces one of the world’s finest and most distinctive dry white wines – a claim I do not make lightly.
A pale greenish gold hue, with a lightly scented nose of fresh pear, apple blossom and wild herbs – marjoram and thyme. As bone dry as the back label stated, the structure was boosted by a pronounced saline minerality which supplied an almost chalky mouthfeel. No wonder the name of this wine is derived from “Thalassitis Oenos“, the ancient Greek practice of adding seawater to wine to boost its therapeutic benefits. Savoury, toasty notes and a streak of pear and citrus fruit ran through the palate, as did a perfume rather than a flavour of wild herbs. Austere yet rich, fragrant and full bodied, it was absolutely a wine that needed food and it was a triumph with a fillet of grey mullet served with tagliatelle dressed with a light sauce of black olives, orange zest, sultanas and pine kernels. The combination was as Moorish as it was moreish. The acidity and minerality combined with the long, long toasty, citrus and pear finish was slightly reminiscent of a Savennières or a grand cru Alsace Riesling, but Santorini’s climate imbued a warmer, riper mid-palate. Definitely not a wine for everyone, but I love the challenge of its prickly nature.
There is something about wines from volcanic areas that I find deeply enjoyable, be they from Soave, Vulture, Alsace, Madeira or Tokaji. There are even volcanic areas of the Napa valley whose wines have a degree of poise and precision that makes them atypically appealing to me. Whilst I was studying for my WSET Diploma, the hugely informative and knowledgeable David Bird MW mentioned in one of his lectures that wines produced from grapes grown in volcanic soils were distinctive for their high acidity and, whilst the above regions’ wines certainly back up this statement, I have never been able to verify this elsewhere. I should probably send him an email to enquire further, but if anyone has any insight into the science and into the veracity of this phenomenon I’d be very interested to hear from him or her.