Few wine producing countries globally are on the worldwide ascendancy quite like South Africa with its incredible diversity of grapes varieties, its broad array of wine styles produced, its new young energetic winemakers and the ever rising quality of the premium wines. But just before you think this popular success is confined solely to a New World nation, rest assured, one of the most ancient grape growing countries in the world is also riding the crest of an ever growing wave of popularity. Greek wines, but more specifically the white Assyrtiko wines of the Cyclade island of Santorini are currently seeing a renaissance not witnessed in classical Western wine markets since the mid-2000’s when now iconic producers like the late Haridimos Hatzidakis burst onto the United Kingdom wine scene with profound unoaked old vine Assyrtiko whites from this small volcanic oasis in the Southern Aegean Archipelago.
After reaching a notional pinnacle of commercial success towards the late 2000’s, the global crash and subsequent Greek financial crisis in 2010 served to relegate most of the up and coming Greek wines, including the hugely successful wines of Santorini, back to the touchlines of mainstream wine markets as consumers reluctantly battened down the hatches and anecdotally reverted back to buying the classics of France, Spain and Italy again.
With Winemaker Yiannis and owner Yiannis in the Vassaltis cellar.
It was around this time that Yiannis Valambous, the current day owner and visionary behind the Vassaltis winery,decided to leave his career in financial services in London and return to Santorini, a childhood holiday destination, with a plan to revive the family vineyards that he inherited from his late father in 2012 and build a modern, state of the art premium boutique winery. Along with oenologist Elias Roussakis and winemaker Yiannis Papaeconomou, Yiannis created a team with a shared vision of producing the greatest wines on the island.
The new Vassaltis Winery in Vourvoulos
I recently travelled to the island of Santorini to visit the Vassaltis winery and vineyards to better acquaint myself with the realities of growing premium grapes on this barren volcanic island and to better understand the intricate politics of sourcing the best fruit from the numerous small, fractured mosaic of local growers on the island.
Vassaltis Winery Tasting Friday 19th October With Owner Yiannis Valambous and Winemaker Yiannis Papaeconomou
Vassaltis Aidani Limited Bottling 2017, PGI Cyclades, 13.5 Abv.
Palate bright lime straw colour. Mouth watering aromas of white peach, cream soda, green apple purée, honey suckle. These big Aidani bunches with thick skins are considered a fine variety to communicate the vineyard’s terroir. With a full and fleshy entry, there is a bitter liquorice bite, pithy spice, a delicately waxy texture and noticeable floral, saline mineral green apple intensity. Soapy, peachy, peppery and opulent, this late ripener has its own fleshy gregarious personality. Considered in many ways the alter ego of Assyrtiko with a higher pH and lower acids.
(Wine Safari Score: 89/100 Greg Sherwood MW)
Vassaltis Nassitis Dry White Wine 2017, Protected Geographical Indication Cyclades, 13.5 Abv.
Nassitis was the word by which the Dorians, who lived on the island 4000 years ago, referred to someone originating from an island. Created to use the varieties Aidani and Athiri (as well as a few others) that are often grown in field blends with Assyrtiko. But without the Assyrtiko additions, the wines often lacked balance and a finish. Assyrtiko consisted of 10-15% in the maiden 2015 release but has subsequently increased to 47% in the 2017 release, often coming from a second selection of Assyrtiko that does not make the Vassaltis Grand Vin. The wine also includes 25% to 30% each of Aidani and Athiri with an RS below 2 g/l. The nose shows and exotic bouquet of honeysuckle, peach blossom, yellow orchard fruits and crunchy green apples and greengage fruit notes but with a pronounced vein of minerality never far away. Classical dusty minerality of pumice stone and basalt remind you of the volcanic origins of this wine. On the palate, there is a taut linear tension, stony liquid minerality and subtle piquant green peppery herby fruits, spicy white peach purée and subtle nuances of sappy, resinous white citrus oil. The finish is direct and foursquare in the mouth with salinity, and a pronounced maritime influence.
(Wine Safari Score: 90+/100 Greg Sherwood MW)
The black volcanic basalt found in the vineyards
Vassaltis Nassitis Dry White Wine 2016, Protected Geographical Indication Cyclades, 13.5 Abv.
Using 40% Assyrtiko and 30% each of Aidani and Athiri with an RS just over 5 g/l RS, the 2016 has an opulent, exotic nose of fresh vinyl, mechanics rag, salty green apple purée, brine and hints of oyster shell in an almost off-dry Alsace style. Full and fleshy, with the extra bottle age the Assyrtiko is starting to dominate the shorter aromatic profile of the Aidani. There are complex savoury fruit notes developing showing caramelised figs, bruised greengage plums and peach pastille on the long characterful finish. Drinking well now, it displays a friendly generosity in an accessible style. Delicious now.
(Wine Safari Score: 91/100 Greg Sherwood MW)
Vassaltis Vineyards Assyrtiko Vertical:
Vassaltis Assyrtiko 2017, Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) Santorini, 13.8 Abv.
With around 1 g/l RS, this 100% Assyrtiko was fermented in stainless steel from fruit sourced 100% from the village vineyards of Vourvoulos and spent a varying time on its lees depending on when it was bottled, but usually between 6 and 11 months for the last bottling before the 2018 harvest. (This bottling is around 9 to 11 months). Classical Assyrtiko aromatics of crushed grey slate, basalt and dusty pumice stone with additional layers of saline maritime notes, oyster shell, crunchy green apples, apple pastille, musk, white citrus, leesy richness and sweet baking herbs. Intense and powerful, the palate shows impressive gravitas and depth, brimming with salty green fruits, crunchy white peach and smokey, dusty liquid mineral notes. Superbly crafted, there is a fabulous interplay between maritime salinity, terroir minerality and austere, taut, crystalline fruit purity. Really quite a profound expression of this noble variety.
(Wine Safari Score: 94+/Greg Sherwood MW)
The famous old vine “kouloura” trained Assyrtiko vines
Vassaltis Assyrtiko 2016, Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) Santorini, 13.5 Abv.
Also 100% Assyrtiko from Vourvoulos, the 2016 saw 40% spontaneous fermentation and was aged on its lees for between 6 and 11 months, with this late bottling seeing 9 to 11 months. With a little extra bottle age, this 2016 shows extra complexity and exoticism. Massive aromatic depth and breadth is loaded with yellow plum, sea breeze, green apple purée, crunchy green pears, dried figs, white peach and a profound saline, maritime, fragrant honeysuckle liquid minerality. On the palate, there is a rich sour and savoury texture with impressive salinity, chalky gravel, wet river pebbles, piquant herbs and a tart sourdrop salty yellow plum acidity. So much going on that ones palate is almost overwhelmed. Delicious evolution and complex tertiary profile, this wine is drinking beautifully at the moment and is a mineral pleasure bomb. Beautiful!
(Wine Safari Score: 93/100 Greg Sherwood MW)
Vassaltis Assyrtiko 2015, Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) Santorini, 13.5 Abv.
The first vintage vinified at the new Vassaltis winery, this wine still displays a crystalline, bright pale straw green lime brightness. On the nose there is fabulous complexity of lime peel, struck match, white citrus, yellow grapefruit, sour orange and then a savoury bass note of ripe artichoke earthiness. The dusty, stony mineral nuances are never far away, expressed as a more struck flint smokiness than the archetypal basalt and volcanic minerality we are so used to on Santorini Assyrtiko whites. The palate is super tart and fresh, linear and chalky, with a strict line of acidity and plenty of ‘dry Scheppes bitter lemon’ rasping intensity. The salinity and tart acidity loosens it grip right at the finish, unleashing a fresh wave of yellow grapefruit, brine and salted pear fruit. A wine drinking beautifully now but certainly will be equally enthralling in one or two years time. Very impressive.
(Wine Safari Score: 93+/100 Greg Sherwood MW)
With the two Yiannis’s in their single vineyard in Vourvoulos.
Classic, barren, volcanic low potential soils of Santorini that are so suited to the Assyrtiko vines.
Vassaltis Assyrtiko 2014, Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) Santorini, 12.8 Abv.
This was first “unofficial” vintage produced from fruit from owner Yiannis’ own vineyards. Produced at the large Boutari winery in the south of the island, this wine just crept in with the legal limit of 75% Assyrtiko with the remainder being the rest of the field blend of Aidani and Athiri. Very rustic winemaking was employed in a big outdated 1980’s winery. The colour is instantaneously recognisable as different to the lime green 2015, showing a rich honied yellow gold. The nose is ripe and exotic with layers of bruised yellow orchard fruits, mechanics rag, caramelised fig, yellow peach purée and peach tea. Definitely savoury, earthy tertiary development on the nose while the palate somehow manages to retain a semblance of freshness balanced with a honied textured palate similar to aged Alsace or grand old Portuguese dry whites from the Dao. While this wine is not in the same quality league as the newer vintages produced at the Vassaltis winery, it remains an intriguing piece of vinous history in the ongoing journey of this new young premium winery.
(Wine Safar Score: 88/100 Greg Sherwood MW)
Vassaltis Assyrtiko 2016 Barrel Aged, Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) Santorini, 13.7 Abv.
This 100% Assyrtiko was fermented in stainless steel but aged in 500 litre second fill French oak with ample batonnage employed, remaining in barrel for around 4.5 months before being returned to stainless steel tanks on its fine lees for a further 7 months ageing. There is a lovely restrained nose of yellow citrus, yellow orchard fruits, petrichor, wet slate and basalt minerality. Oak influence is very subdued and the fruit expression also remains backward and shy, leaving the salty, stony mineral nuances to rule the roost at the moment. The most profound element of this wine is its explosive concentrated palate that displays such awesome gravitas and intensity with notes of pineapple pastille and white peach purée. At once texturally rich, broad and mouth coating while remaining bright, tart and deliciously saline. This is a wine that has left an impression on me since the very first day I tasted it. Some may scoff at the idea of ageing Assyrtiko in oak and thus adulterating the purest elements of its volcanic maritime terroir, but this 2016 wine is a towering winemaking effort with impressive gravitas, harmonious balance and imperious textural complexity. Drink now or over the next 5 to 8 years.
(Wine Safari Score: 95/100 Greg Sherwood MW)
Winemaker Yiannis Papaeconomou in the cellar.
Other New Wines Tasted:
Vassaltis Assyrtiko Single Vineyard Vourvoulos 2017, Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) Santorini, 14.3 Abv. (1,700 bottles produced)
A 1.5 hectare vineyard in Vourvoulos which has a small amount of Athiri that is picked separately at an earlier date to the Assyrtiko. Around 1.9 tons of Assyrtiko fruit are picked at night and whole bunch pressed with around only 2.5 hours between picking and pressing which the winery feels has a massive influence on the style, purity and integrity of the resulting wine. The wine is certainly aromatically massively restrained and backward, showing shy subtle nuances of dried green herbs, green apple bon bons, crystalline honeydew melon, white peach purée and an underlay of dusty, granitic, crushed basalt rock and grey slate minerality. On the palate the wine shows pin point piercing precision, incredible subtlety and elegance, nuanced maritime notes of brine, oyster shell and salted white citrus. It just never puts a foot out place, remaining fantastically true to the varietal characteristics of Assyrtiko, its terroir influences and its profound volcanic liquid minerality. Extra focus, extra intensity and a seemingly impossible step up yet again in quality compared to the wineries ‘regular’ Assyrtiko cuvée. Due for release in May 2019 with almost 9 months ageing in bottle, this could be one of the greatest expressions of pure Assyrtiko ever seen from Santorini in modern times.
(Wine Safari Score: 96+/100 Greg Sherwood MW)
“This cuvee is like an orchestra seeking greater presence, where instead of trying to turn up the volume for overt impact, it has instead increased the number of musicians from 20 players to 100. The resulting sound is exponentially more profound and the added gravitas spellbinding.”
Vassaltis Assyrtiko Single Vineyard 2016, Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) Santorini, 14.8 Abv.
A 100% Assyrtiko wine that is late harvested around two weeks after the main picking of Assyrtiko. A very small amount of grapes, too small for the pneumatic press, so only real free run juice was collected followed by spontaneous fermentation started in tank before being transferred to a 40 year old barrel which developed a layer of flor after being “seeded” from a flor sample created at the winemakers Yiannis’ home in a jar under more controlled humidity conditions but using some of the same wine. The flor layer collapsed into the wine after 2 months so the barrel was topped up with Vassaltis Santorini Assyrtiko 2016. This flor barrel was then blended with a portion of remaining free run juice from the same vineyard which was aged 3 months in a 100% new French oak 225 litre barriques. The blended wine stayed in stainless steel 6 months before bottling in 75cl and 150cl bottles.
The nose shows a wonderfully creamy, dusty, biscuity nose of lees, lemon peel, honey suckle, dried herbs, Japanese green tea and tell tale salty sherry flor salinity nuances. Subtle notes of dried mint leaf, bruised yellow orchard fruits, wet grey slate and wet basalt round out a thoroughly complex and intriguing bouquet. Texturally full and broad, this has an incredibly concentrated texture of salted lemons, tequila agave spice, bitter oranges, salty oyster shell, white peaches, grated pears, pine apple pastille, botanical herbs and an awesome, towering acidity. This wine combines savoury citrus fruits with salty maritime flor background notes punctuated by tart searing acids and a savoury, liquid mineral, leesy sweet / sour finish. One of the most exciting and profound wines I have tasted (from anywhere) in a very long time. One for the collectors!
(Wine Safari Score: 97+/100 Greg Sherwood MW)
Vassaltis Assyrtiko 2017 Barrel Aged, Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) Santorini, 13.8 Abv.
With the 2016 already being one of my favourite wines from Vassaltis, knowing that the 2017 vintage is a quite serious proposition, led to a lot of extra anticipation to taste this new wine. With 4 g/l RS, this wine remains taut and linear in feel, the bouquet showing attractive but subtle notes of salted caramel biscuits, savoury lemon peel, rock salt and crushed basalt and gravel minerality. Plenty of restraint and reserved liquid minerality, this wine suggests a serious proposition and the palate doesn’t disappoint. Jammed packed full of pineapple pastille and sweet crunchy green apple, there are deliciously vibrant acids with a serious wound sprung tension that is accentuated by the clarity of fruit purity and tart pithy peach fruit salinity. Similar to the 2016 in many ways in the way it absorbs the oak and barrel ageing and offers back nothing but the purest of Assyrtiko citrus fruits, subtle vanilla pod spice and layers of liquid minerality. This is benchmark delicious Santorini.
(Wine Safari Score: 95+/100 Greg Sherwood MW)
The very old vine vineyards in the south west of the island near Pyrgos producing some of the best Assyrtiko fruit on the island.
Vassaltis Assyrtiko 2015 Barrel Aged, Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) Santorini, 13.5 Abv.
This late release expression was held back in the winery and will be release in approximately 2020 with a free SO2 of approximately 60ppm versus the original release of 2015 that was around 35ppm. This is a big bold fleshy Assyrtiko that is capable of handling not only lengthy barrel ageing but also extended bottle ageing with the addition of extra SO2 added before the final bottling.The aromatics are fairly mineral and tight, dusty and gravelly with a pronounced chalky lemon purity, green bananas, greengage plum and a generally tauter, fresher, more youthful overall feel to the wine with a gentle kiss of vanilla oak spice. The palate comes across as slightly two speed and two dimensional versus the complex melange of yellow pastille fruits and vanilla spice that was served up the last time I tasted the maiden barrel aged 2015 version. Taut, softly textured, mellow yet vibrantly fresh and retrained, this wine suggests great potential but currently is reticent and unwilling to release its hidden secrets that one can sense are there in abundance. This is a great forward thinking endeavour that will help show consumers the history and evolution of some of Vassaltis’ older expressions but also present the wines in a mellow, youthful well preserved format. A very excitingprospect for the future.
(Wine Safari Score: 93-95/100 Greg Sherwood MW)
The view from the town of Thira towards Skaros Rock.
The General Classification System on Santorini:
1. PDO : Protected Designation of Origin Santorini
2. PGI : Protected Geographical Indication Cyclades
3. Varietal Classification
4. VdT : Vin de Table style