Wine Wednesday

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Assyrtiko is a white grape indigenous to the island of Santorini. The islands unique eco-system of summer heat, strong winds, low rainfall, and volcanic soil, contribute to a slower ripening of the grape. The growing conditions although harsh are good for the vines. The soil is porous and phylloxera free. The sunshine and heat allow for a long growing season, and the winds bring sea mists ensuring the vines get moisture all summer long while helping keep pests and rot off the vine and fruit. The winds prove too strong and therefore grape growers have trained the vines to grow in a ‘basket’ form close to the ground with the fruit inside to help shield them against the high strong winds.


Assyrtiko grape clusters are large and because of the unique terroir the grape doesn’t lose it’s acidity even when very ripe. They create flavorful wines that you would believe of from a much more northern location because of the acidity. The old vines have extremely low yields making quality dry white wines that can be drunk young or aged.

assyrtiko grapes

Assyrtiko is grown in other areas of Greece and has even been planted internationally, however the wines from Santorini are unique and of superior quality. Santorini is in the Cycladic group of islands in the southern Aegean. It is a classified region of Europe under PDO Santorini.

As I sit in my car in horrible traffic, in again what is another rainy day in Pittsburgh, I daydream about my evening ahead. I have decided that today, I will open one of my favorite wines that will take me from the cold and gray of Pittsburgh in Spring to the warm and blue of Santorini in the summer.  I ponder and contemplate my choice in wine today, as I know that I would really enjoy this wine when the sun finally does shine here in Pittsburgh. However, I decide that I need a trip to sun and sand—and the wine will take me there as long as the bottle lasts. Gaia Santorini Wild Ferment Assyrtiko is the island in a glass.

GAIA Wines was founded in 1994 by Yiannis Paraskevopoulos (Agriculturalist and PhD in Enology from the University of Bordeaux II) and Leon Karatsalos (Agriculturalist). In 1996, GAIA Wines welcomed economist Christina Legaki as a third share-holder and grew bigger. In 1999 Thalassitis Oak Fermented wine was produced and was one of their most prestigious wines. Then in 2008, the Assyrtiko Wild Ferment was produced. For the wild ferment it took a different approach. First Gaia took a grape from the upland vineyard of Pyrgos, as it is more aromatic than other parts of the island. Then, instead of using commercial yeast to ferment the wine, they used the wild yeast that lives naturally on the skin of the grapes. The results are different each year with the challenge of a wild ferment. The wild yeast plays a large role in the wines character.

assyrtiko label

I have several bottles of Assyrtiko in my private collection. As you may recall from last week, I was very selective on which wines I could smuggle to the USA in my luggage. Good thing is that I have even seen Gaia wines here on the shelves of the Pennsylvania Liquor Store. (Which unfortunately doesn’t have the selection of Greek wine I think it should have. )  As I get closer to home, I stop at the supermarket. I decide that a nice salad of roka greens, cucumbers and feta will be the start to my meal and a nice grilled fish will be the entrée. As I have had this wine before, I am certain this will be a good pairing.   I can’t be sure of the exact profile as the wild fermenting makes each vintage exciting, different and unpredictable. 

With my husband grilling our fish outside under an umbrella, I prepared our salad, and decanted the wine. We had already began talking about Santorini, recalling the first time around 20 years ago that I first rode a donkey up from the port and woke up that morning with four kittens in our hotel room that invited themselves in through the open door.

cats on a bench

The Tasting:

On the nose, I immediately get the citrus aroma. There is slight petrol and herbal scents.  My nose also picks up the oak and what I think might be a bit of white pepper. Maybe it is my mind playing tricks on me as I am thinking of that time at the black beach, but I do believe I can smell a volcanic pumice stone scent.

On the palate, I do taste the citrus…. more like the peels rather than the flesh. I get a hint of almond and I do taste a bit of white pepper. There is definitely some honey, and the fact that the wine has been in my cellar for a while probably contributes to this. (A 2011 vintage that I am drinking now.) I definitely get a bit mineral and salty taste. There is a hint green olive ore at least it’s brine.  There is also a flavor of oak and a touch of what for a lack of words—moss. I am an educated novice so my flavor profile may be a bit all over the place in description.

The Pairing:

A great choice to go alongside the fish and salad. The minerality and salty brine flavor stood up to the feta cheese. The slight pepper flavor was brought out even more alongside the peppery and bitter greens. The acidity of the wine and the citrus flavors made it a good complement to the fish, as we like our fish with lots of oil and lemon. The charring of the fish from the grill enhanced the oakiness in the wine.

Grilled-Sea-Bream  roca salad  

As we dine, we remember our trips to Santorini. A place that I believe unmatched in beauty on earth, where one should visit and experience at least once in a lifetime.  We remember the mezedes (appetizers) that we had at a gorgeous café in Thira. We are taken back to the caldera with it’s blue and white houses that cover the black rock like snow circling the vast crater left by a volcanic eruption that changed the world at that time.

We remember the first time we visited more than 25 years ago, and how we sunbathed on the black volcanic sand beach of Kamari. It was a time when all beachgoers were topless and baked themselves without the application of sun block. I can still remember the grit of the sand feeling different, grainier than the beaches of brown and white sand. It was also the first place I experienced a Greek ice coffee—Nescafe. At the time, my palate was not ready for that.

santorini beach

My husband remembers his years as a teenager when he camped on the beach for most of the summer while working days baking pizza to pay for his camping fees and nighttime partying.  We talk about the future of our family on this island. How our son will someday soon be hanging there in the nightclubs and keeping us up worried. As worrying is what us parents do. I remember my husband…young and handsome. And I am sure he remembers me in the tiny bathing suit that I was once able to wear. He is still my Greek God—just not so young and a little less hair.

Santorini was the first vacation I took to Greece.  A smart move by my husband, at that time, as it was when he asked if I would l move to Greece. I was in aw. How could one not want to move to this beautiful country!

More information about the wine from the winemaker:

2011 assyrtikoAfter undergoing the 12-hour skin contact process at around 10οC, the grape must is placed in small 1.000 litre INOX tanks and in new 225lt French and American oak barrels and acacia barrels. The temperature is then allowed to rise naturally, without any further involvement. From that point on, modern technology passes the baton to traditional winemaking. Fermentation develops on its own at a gradual pace. The wild yeast strains that prevail are the ones which eventually determine the wine’s character. In every tank and barrel something different occurs. After the end of the fermentation, we choose only those tanks and barrels which, according to our expertise, raise the Assyrtiko to new levels of enjoyment. The challenge in the production of ASSYRTIKO BY GAIA-WILD FERMENT is the fact that every year we discover a new dimension of this multifaceted variety.

ASSYRTIKO BY GAIA-WILD FERMENT has slight citrus aromas well-combined with elegant oak notes, a rich mouth fell, crispy acidity, intense mineral flavours and a long finish.
Enjoy this wine with seafood, fatty fish, lamb and poultry at 8o-10o C. Keep the wine for 2-3 years under proper cellar conditions and it will undergo profound changes. Its mineral dimension will subside while the fruity and honey flavours will envelop its body. Pour ASSYRTIKO BY GAIA-WILD FERMENT in a wide decanter for around half an hour before enjoying it.

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