Assyrtiko, the Greek grape variety that aims for Olympus
Pierre – Emmanuel Fehr presents T-OINOS in the Swiss magazine, Bilan:
the Greek grape variety that aims for Olympus
Long gone are the days when Retsina used to scratch the palate of holidaymakers. For some years now, Greek wines have been appearing on the menus of the greatest starred restaurants. A revival embodied by Assyrtiko, a great white grape variety associated with the image of Santorini and whose success is linked to the explosion of the Greek culinary scene.
by Pierre-Emmanuel Fehr
Ιt is necessary to set foot in the vineyards of T-Oinos, an emblematic estate on the island of Tinos, northwest of Mykonos, to feel the energy of the place.
A mineral universe, huge blocks of granite fallen from the sky, the sea in the distance like a corrugated iron sheet, the vines that stand in the middle of the bare horizon and this merciless Meltem that sweeps everything in its path and envelops the vines of marine browns. To taste his Assyrtiko is to become one with this austere and telluric terroir. On the palate, it is a burst of saline granite, an almost authoritarian vigor, a sharp and salivating acidity. The whole body is pierced by a bright and thirst-quenching breath.
A wine can be good, but to be great it must be dynamic,” says Jacques Perrin, director of the Club des amateurs de vins exquis. This one from T-Oinos is among the greatest white wines in the world and is unique among Assyrtiko for its freshness and tension.”
First vines in 2003
The result is crazy, but the intuition and investment of its initiator even more so. When Alexandros Ava- tangelos, a Greek from Corfu, who is currently working in philosophy, diplomacy and business, discovered Tinos, he knew that the island had a wine tradition dating back to antiquity.
He knew that the island had a wine-making tradition dating back to antiquity, but he had no taste references that could support him in the idea that the production of a great wine in Tinos was possible. Convinced that he had found an exceptional terroir, he identified the best plots of land on the island with Michalis Tzanoulinos, a gardener and keeper of the island’s secrets (who has since become the estate’s head of the vineyard), and decided to plant the first vines in 2003.
His approach fascinates Jacques Perrin: “His intuition of revealing a wine is comparable to that of the first people who decided to plant vines on the Vosne-Romanée side”. It took 20 years and 15 million euros to achieve excellence. The success is now such that the vintages are sold out and new areas are being cleared to progressively increase the production of Assyrtiko, culminating today in some 8000 bottles.
The “Magician of Santorini”
With a few exceptions, the fame of Greek wines is almost exclusively from the island of Santorini, which has multi-century-old vines and volcanic soil. The Assyrtiko of the island have a phenomenal concentration, in a more exuberant and muscular style than T-Oinos. Its spearheads today are the estates Karamolegos, Vassaltis or Gavalas. But it was the late Haridimos Hatzidakis, who passed away in 2017 and also called the “Wizard of Santorini”, who made the reputation of the island’s wines with Assyrtiko of unparalleled emotion.
For Ralph Urban, Greek wine importer for Wine & Nature in Hambourg, Santorini is the anchor of the success of Greek wines. “If Santorini didn’t exist, no other island could replace it and offset its impact on the image of Greek wines internationally.”
Given Santorini’s dominance in the Assyrtiko world, T-Oinos’ move may seem all the more audacious. But its model could inspire others. In addition to a magical site, land free of intensive cultivation, a respectful viticulture and the integration of local teams, such as the brilliant oenologist Thanos Georgilas, the estate has been able to take advantage of marketing and intelligent collaborations. It has positioned itself at the top end of the market (with prices ranging from 20 to 130 euros) with the clear strategy of winning the international market through starred restaurants.
Collaborations with Gérard Margeon, head sommelier of Alain Ducasse restaurants, and Stéphane Dere- noncourt, star consultant in Bordeaux, or the importation of wines to Japan by Louis Robuchon-Abe or Jacques Perrin in Switzerland, have been decisive in enabling T-Oinos to enter the world of fine dining.
In search of taste
“There is now a paradigm shift in Greece, a real quest for taste in the restaurant business as in wine,” notes Jacques Perrin. It reminds me of the revival of Piedmont wines fifty years ago, which relied heavily on white truffles, becoming an export model.” For Ralph Urban, the truth is in the glass: “When in a blind tasting of the world’s great wines the Greeks come up short, it is no accident. If a wine merchant or a stan- ding restaurant has no Greek wine, it is in my opinion out of laziness or lack of foresight.”
Ralph Urban notes that this craze has caused prices to skyrocket in recent years. In three years, sales have increased tenfold, despite higher prices. “Greek wine is no longer considered exotic and its quality has improved so much that it competes with closely related grape varieties, Riesling for Assyrtiko and Nebbiolo for Xinomavro.”
Roger Baumann, director of REB Wein in Zurich, didn’t wait for Greek wines to explode before importing Dalamaras and Thymiopoulos, stars of Xinomavro in Naoussa, Petrakopoulos, the new star of Robola in Kefalonia or Karamolegos from Santorini.
What if we let Greece into our cellars?