It is rather unlucky, if not downright unwise, to start producing a report on a grape variety at a point in time where its prime terroir underperformed. When I compiled my Assyrtiko report last year, a good chunk of the Santorini wines I tried were from 2019, a rather undistinguished vintage. While the yearly variation on the island is not as dramatic as in other places (in a way, simply managing to produce wine on such a bare island makes every vintage feel exceptional), I still felt I was kind of starting on the wrong foot. I pitted all these Assyrtikos, from all over Greece, but also Australia, Italy, and Lebanon, against one another, but I asked Santorini to play with one arm tied behind her back. It was a relief, then, to revisit those producers this year, with many 2020s now available on the international market. You see, while the world was trying to get to terms with the second wave of Coronavirus, Santorini was delivering excellent wines. Every producer I spoke to referred to it in glowing terms, both in quantity and quality, with one, Yiannis Valambous of Vassaltis, calling it the vintage of the decade. On the tasting table, the wines seem to confirm it, and there are few producers whom I’ve found to have performed better in 2019 than in 2020.
Sadly, 2021 came back with a vengeance. Punishing heatwaves and lack of rain in June and July had a major impact on quantity and some on quality. Ioanna Vamvakouri, chief oenologist of Mikra Thira, described the effect of the heat to me as seeing July leaves looking like September’s. Matthaios Argyros, owner of the island’s leading winery, painted a picture of a once-in-a-lifetime event, saying that nobody he spoke to recalled ever seeing a July heatwave such as 2021’s. Estate Argyros created mini-shock waves in that part of the world when it declared it wouldn’t bottle any single-vineyard wines for 2021, channelling everything to the main Santorini instead, in order to uphold that label’s quality standards. While most agree it was a challenging year, others see it a bit better. Aris Tselepos, of the Tselepos/Canava Chryssou partnership, for example, likes the aromatics of the 2021. The most optimistic by far is Dimitris Bozonis, Sales Manager at Karamolegos Winery. For him, this is the vintage where the talent of the winemaker will shine through, and good winemakers and good parcels will produce great wines.
A particularly interesting, and positive, thing to see was the change in sentiment with regard to the effects Covid had on producers. When I spoke to many of the same people last year, with the pandemic appearing never-ending, there was a general feeling of despondency about the impact on the wine market. This year, spirits were higher. Naturally, the pandemic didn’t impact everyone the same and those with lower volumes and an export focus were not as hit as those with a greater reliance on the domestic fine dining market, where Santorini usually shines. (Bozonis of Karamolegos was again the chief optimist here describing 2021 as “the best in [the winery’s] history” both in business and quality terms.) Yet, even amongst the latter group, there are many that see a silver lining. It has long been a lament amongst Greek wine cognoscenti that people were drinking top Santorini Assyrtiko on release, when it needs at least 2-3 years to show its best, and can often keep improving for at least few years more. Producers hope that the forced pause of the pandemic, and the unusual availability of Assyrtiko with a bit of age on the market, has demonstrated the variety’s ageing potential to a wider audience.
Like everyone else, however, the Santorini wine industry feels there has hardly been any chance to catch a breath. The pandemic lull has been followed by the tandem crises of energy prices and supply chains, pushing costs up and material availability down, requiring a much better handling of logistics. The word on everybody’s lips is resilience. From the outside, it is easy to forget that, while the world has felt like it has been in non-stop crisis since 2020, Greece has been feeling like that since 2010. People and businesses that have survived, let alone thrived, through all this must be doing something right.
And of course, Santorini’s best days are still ahead of it. Assyrtiko might already give outstanding wines, but its potential feels like it has only started being scratched, and its various facets are still to be discovered outside of Greece. This year, for example, I’ve also covered Vinsanto (not to be confused with Tuscany’s Vin Santo and Trentino’s Vino Santo), one of the world’s greatest, and most underappreciated, sweet wines. More producers are about to join the ranks, with Vassaltis and Tselepos both having something in the works. The most exciting news, however, comes from Argyros. Their cellar portfolio of Vinsanto goes back to 1947, and Matthaios has hinted they might be looking to bottle some vintages in the near future. If so, the first undisputed unicorn of Greek wine will have certainly arrived.
In the meantime, we can enjoy everything that Assyrtiko (or as I would have it, Asyrtiko – if you know, you know) already has to offer. And there is a lot.
Producer of the Year – Estate Argyros
Santorini Assyrtiko of the Year – Argyros Evdemon 2018
Vinsanto of the Year – Argyros Vinsanto Late Release 2001
Discovery of the Year – Gaia Clay Assyrtiko Orange 2017
Best Value for Money of the Year – The Wine Society Exhibition Assyrtiko 2020