Bud burst comes to Santorini, a Greek island in the southern Aegean Sea, in the early spring as it does in most of the Northern Hemisphere, but it is unlike bud burst anywhere else on Earth. With the use of kouloura pruning, new shoots are woven into basket-shaped vines, which protect delicate young fruit from sand blowing in punishing wind and the burning effect of the island sun on black lava.
Vineyards have been continuously cultivated in this inhospitable environment for 3,000 years. This is in no small part due to the resilience of assyrtiko, the island’s high-quality indigenous grape variety. Assyrtiko thrives in the mix of pumice stone and lava rock that have blanketed Santorini since it was devastated by a volcanic eruption in 1650 BC. The grapes are small and densely flavored, much like the prized white eggplants, cherry tomatoes, capers, and yellow fava beans grown on the island.
A singular feature of assyrtiko is that approximately every 75 years vines are pruned to the root and allowed to regrow. A new vine could spur from a root system that is up to 500 years old. The ancient roots burrow deep in the soil, making it possible for assyrtiko to thrive in an environment with scarce water.
Assyrtiko is prized for its capacity to retain high acidity and sugar levels simultaneously. Even in a hot arid climate, it yields fresh citrus and mineral-driven wines capable of maturing in the cellar. It is the kind of muscular white wine that can be enjoyed with grilled lamb as easily as it could with fresh fish. Assyrtiko from Sigalas, Hatzidakis, and Gaia Thalassitis are among the finest examples available in the U.S., and an ideal place to begin exploring the wines of Santorini short of a vacation in Greece.