Santorini – A Great Wine Region

Ia_Santorini-2009-1

The stunning, rugged beauty of Santorini

I had thought that I wouldn’t write anymore about Greece and Greek wines for a while, but the sheer excitement of some wines that I have tasted from Santorini recently mean that I really have to share them with you.

Over the last month I have been giving some Greek wine tastings and as I had expected the quality of the wines won lots of sceptics over and made people look at Greek wines in a new light.

All the wines were well received and all showed very well indeed, but one region consistently proved to be the crowd pleaser. This was the white wines from the beautiful volcanic island of Santorini.

Map of Greece's Wine Regions - click for a larger view

Map of Greece’s Wine Regions – click for a larger view – see Santorini north of Crete & south of Paros

Sadly I have yet to visit the vineyards of Santorini – I hope to put that right this year though – but I have known and loved the white wines from this island for a long, long time and have almost always enjoyed them. I have found that as long as the alcohol level is not above 13.5% then these wines always deliver pleasure. Above that, and a handful are, the alcohol burn ruins the balance for me – so check the alcohol level when you first buy one.

Satellite photograph of Santorini clearly showing that it is the lip of a volcano.

Satellite photograph of Santorini clearly showing that it is the lip of a volcano.

Many of you will know Santorini I am sure, it is basically the lip of a volcano, so a settlement perched at the very top of a mountain as the rest just happens to be underwater. The place is tiny and basically solid volcanic rock which has very little organic matter and a complete absence of clay which means that Phylloxera never took hold. As a result Santorini can boast some of the most ancient vine roots in the world – up to 300 years old it seems.

Santorini's wild rocky terrain showing the low trained vines in the terraced vineyards or 'pezoules'.

Santorini’s wild rocky terrain showing the low trained vines in the terraced vineyards or ‘pezoules’.

The problems here are wind and lack of water and they solve both of these in the same way. In order to protect the vines from the extreme winds that blow across the island, they basically train the vines close to the ground and weave the stems into a basket to contain and protect the grapes as they ripen. Growing this low to the ground also maximises the effect of the morning dew on the vines.

Santorini vines woven into baskets.

Santorini vines woven into baskets on the ground – note the rocky soils.

Backbreaking work.

Backbreaking work.

Unfortunately it also means that tending these vines is backbreaking work, but like so may other extreme vineyards around the world – Mosel, Côte-Rôtie, Cinque-Terre, Etna, Ribera Sacra etc. – the results do seem to make the effort worthwhile.

Everything about grape growing on Santorini makes for naturally low yields and good concentration, so it is hardly surprising that the island has enjoyed a high reputation for its wines for thousands of years. Whatever the wines were like in antiquity though the modern wines are of excellent quality and that is thanks to these extreme natural conditions and the high quality local grapes.

Santorini is home to a handful of grape varieties and all of them are of interest, but one stands out as being especially fine, capable of being the standard-bearer for Greek wine much as Sauvignon Blanc is for New Zealand wine. That grape is the wonderful AssyrtikoAss-err-tick-OH – and frankly if you like Sauvignon Blanc (or Verdejo and Grüner Veltliner for that matter) you will like it. Who knows you might even prefer it, some of the people at my recent tastings did.

The wonderful thing about Assyrtiko is that it retains its freshness and acidity even when grown in desert conditions like those on Santorini.

The harvest

The harvest

The wines:

ASSYRTIKO2012 Santorini Assyrtiko
Santo Wines – the Santorini cooperative whose wines are marketed by Tsanatli
Santorini Protected Designation of Origin / P.D.O (like an A.O.C.)
100% Assyrtiko
I had tried the 2011 while in Greece last year and it was excellent, a real standout wine, but if anything this had the edge. The nose was stony and mineral, citrus and fresh, while the palate was crisp, bone dry and nervy. There seemed to be a purity and concentration to it that I found thrilling, the fruit was there in a lemon/lime kind of way with hints of apricots too, but it was the acidity and mineral quality that gave this its finesse and elegance and the finish was wonderously long. A great wine, how I wish I had had a bit of fish with me – 92/100 points.

As far as I am aware this is not yet available in the UK, but it really should be – check with Venus Wines.

Argyros Atlantis White bottle2011 Atlantis White
Argyros Estate, Santorini
P.G.I. Cyclades (like a Vin de Pays, but actually could be labelled as a P.D.O.Santorini)
90% Assyrtiko with 5% each of Aidani & Athiri
The other grapes make this slightly less crisp, it is softer and even slightly fleshy and textured, so it feels less pure and less mineral, but is still a gorgeous dry white wine and what it lacks in minerality and complexity compared to the pure Assyrtiko it more than makes up for in sheer drinkability. The palate gives a touch of pear that softens the citrus, while the nose has a touch of the sea – 89/100 points.

Around £10 a bottle in the UK from Marks & Spencer online.
Distributed in the US by Athenee Importers.

Santorini grapes drying in the sun

Santorini grapes drying in the sun

VINSANTO2004 Vinsanto
Santo Wines – the Santorini cooperative whose wines are marketed by Tsanatli
Santorini Protected Designation of Origin / P.D.O (like an A.O.C.)
85% Assyrtiko with 15% Aidani
Vinsanto desert wines are an old tradition on Santorini and if they are all as good as this one I can see why it caught on. Very ripe grapes are harvested and then dried in the sun for 10 days or so to further concentrate the sugars. As with all really top notch desert wine the sugar here, although high, was balanced by the sheer class of the wine and the cleansing high acidity. The flavours were astonishing with great depth, concentration and complexity. Toffee, caramel, honey nuts, nougat, apricots, orange, coffee, fig, clove show what long ageing in old oak will do, but the dominating character was freshness and liquor orange. A great, great desert wine that was superb on its own and with the baklava, but would be equally good with apple pie or strudel, and blue cheese – 93/100 points.

As far as I am aware this is not yet available in the UK, but it really should be – check with Venus Wines.

Oia on Santorini

Oia on Santorini

On this showing – and past experience – I really believe that Santorini is one of the great wine regions and Assyrtiko one of the world’s finest white wine grapes. Do try some when you can, you will not regret it, there might be nothing better with simply cooked fresh fish and seafood.

Thanks to my friends at Tsantali for most of the photographs.

Great British Food – it is great

It was only in 2005 that French President Jacques Chirac memorably damned British food with those astonishingly ill-chosen words, “you can’t trust people who cook like that“. So, there was no doubting his view, which was once that of the world at large – even the British themselves. When I was growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, very few people seemed interested in good food in Britain at all and looking back it seems the menus, both at home and out, were very limited and dull. I well remember watching items about the French lifestyle on Blue Peter and hearing that old cliché; “the British eat to live, while the French live to eat.”

In those days there were still the last vestiges of the old British view that things should be plainly cooked, that anything fancy was suspect and that being interested in food was not quite right and really a funny foreign idea altogether. Certainly the British of the day were unlikely to indulge in earnest conversation about food, the way Spaniards will about Jamón, the French about cheese or the Italians the relative merits of oils and vinegars.

So, if Chirac has made that statement in 1975 I would have probably agreed with him, but all that really has changed now. Enjoyment of food now seems to be an integral part of British life and food is no longer regarded as just fuel. I love eating out anywhere I go in Europe, but in reality the variety and quality of food available in Britain now is as good as anywhere – different, but certainly as good. I don’t just mean fine dining either, this country is full of exciting affordable places that turn out delicious food at all price levels and from an enormous array of ethnic backgrounds.

However food isn’t only about eating out, restaurants and fine-dining. It’s also about the ingredients and this is where it seems to me there has been a more profound change. Everywhere I go there seem to be local producers of fabulously tasty things, wonderful cheese shops and delis and nowadays we all take it for granted – my mother would have loved it. She died in 1978 when just buying spaghetti involved a special journey to an Italian shop in town and we had to bring our garlics and olive oil back from Spain.

One of these exciting food producers really appeals to me – The Artisan Smokehouse – and I have been fortunate enough to try quite a few of their products. Frankly if you are at one of the events where they show their wares – I regularly bump into them at the excellent Three Wine Men tastings – then you just cannot miss them as the smell is wonderfully enticing. I love the smell of smoked food and so it always beckons me over.

However, much as I like the aromas and flavours of smoked food, Tim Matthews has a palpable passion for it – which is why he and his wife Gillian started The Artisan Smokehouse some seven years ago. Talking to him he really does come across as a sort of Heston Blumenthal of smoking. There doesn’t seem to be anything he won’t have a go at smoking and precious few things that he hasn’t actually smoked – even maple syrup apparently.

Indeed Maple seems quite a thing with Tim, he does all his smoking over natural maple wood chippings and I know from personal experience that maple wood has a wonderful smell of sugary maple syrup.

Tim & Gillian

Tim and Gill Matthews

“It started off as something fun to do, but we now supply delis county-wide and see ourselves as part of the growing Suffolk food mafia!” said Tim.

In truth the smoking process is only something that I have a superficial understanding of, but whenever I speak to Tim he really draws me in. He is passionate about his craft and food in general, flavour seems very important to him and this enthusiasm is infectious.

His passion shows in the foods he produces and in the raw materials he smokes. The flavours he achieves strike me as being very delicate. Sometimes with smoked food that is all you can taste – the smoke. With Tim’s products the smoking seems subtle and integral to the other flavours. The texture and the flavour of the raw material are as important as the smokiness.

Truthfully though the thing that originally got me interested in his wares seems pretty unsubtle, it was smoked garlic. He smokes whole heads of British garlic and the aromas are just so enticing. Wrapped in foil and roasted, the soft flesh of the garlic is unctuous and delicious with a rich smoky note and pungent character – trust me it is fabulous on toast!

I am not the greatest fan of smoked salmon, but their Freedom Food Smoked Scottish Salmon was a revelation with a deep flavour that seemed to have a fruity quality to it. Even better, to my mind, was the Freedom Food Hot Smoked Scottish Salmon Fillet, the flakes of fish were firm yet succulent with a fragrant flavour reminiscent of Chinese tea. The hot smoking actually cooks the fish and so the texture is unlike most smoked salmon and like a piece of cooked fish, but with that delicious fragrant smoky quality.

Just before trying the smoked fish I wondered what wine to have with it. Something about the aromas of the food made me think of  that Grüner Veltliner would be good, so went in search of a bottle. However I found a lone bottle of something else that got me thinking and changed my mind. I am glad I did as the combination was perfect:

Dr%20F%202009%20Rkatsiteli2008 Dr Frank Rkatsiteli
Dr Konstantin Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellars
Hammondsport
New York Finger Lakes A.V.A.
New York State

An unusual grape, Rkatsiteli is from Georgia, but was widely used throughout the USSR, including Ukraine as well as more widely in Eastern Europe. It has an aromatic, floral and spicy kind of character, so will appeal to fans of Grüner Veltliner and dry Furmint.

This was great with both the smoked salmons. Just a lingering succulent softness showed this was a mature white and it balanced the acidity, which was still enough to be a perfect foil to the smoky flavours and fatty feel of the smoked salmon. The aromatic and fragrant nature of the wine was a great match for the fish too, as was the delicate spice character. A terrific dry white wine and a great combination – 90/100 points.

The 2010 vintage is available in the US from the winery at $15 a bottle.
Dr Frank’s wines are available in the UK from Wine Equals Friends.

Artisan Smokehouse hamper

A hamper from The Artisan Smokehouse

The meats are equally good by the way, the Smoked British Fillet Beef is so tender and fresh tasting with the flavour of the meat and that of the smoke sitting perfectly together. Tim’s Smoked Free Range Duck Breast is delicious too, despite being smoked you can taste the duck as well as the fragrant smoky flavour – it would be great in a gourmet salad.

I was also delighted to be able to try his speciality Violino di Capra – marinated, cured and smoked goat leg – which was stunningly delicious, fragrant, delicately meaty and fragrantly smoky.

The smoked meats would be wonderful with any red that wasn’t too strong by the way, earthy, umami flavours help too. Wines with the weight of a rich Beaujolais or fruity Pinot Noir are perfect. A smooth Syrah or a Barolo could be good too, like Spar’s excellent value earthy and meaty 2007 Valle Vento Barolo.

So, as you can see from my reaction to a small cross section of the range from The Artisan Smokehouse, what they make is delicious and terrific quality. It strikes me that one of their hampers would make a wonderful present for the foodie in your life.

The Artisan Smokehouse
Tim and Gill Matthews
Telephone: 01394 270609
Email: info@artisansmokehouse.co.uk
http://www.artisansmokehouse.co.uk

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The Rusty Pig’s cooking chorizo

The Rusty Pig 
As if all this smoked gorgeousness wasn’t enough, I was recently tutoring a wine tasting and Robin Rea was giving tastes of the charcuterie that he makes down in Ottery St Mary in Devon. Robin is an experienced chef and still cooks at River Cottage HQ, but he has a passion for curing and air drying charcuterie. I really think what he makes is as good as anything I have had from France, Spain or Italy – the chilli salami was amazing, intensely hot and sweetly tasty by turn, like a gourmet’s Russian Roulette! It was all, as Robin says, “pigging delicious.”

What’s more, it isn’t only a shop where you buy amazing sausages and bacon, you also can eat there.

Robin Rea

Robin in full swing

Rusty Pig
Robin Rea
Telephone: 01404 815580
Email: robin@rustypig.co.uk
http://www.rustypig.co.uk/gb.aspx

It would seem that Chirac was completely wrong, we have thrown out that old view of British food and are now as keen as anyone else to eat great food, cook great food and to produce great food.

Hungarian Rhapsody

Everywhere I go at the moment I keep stumbling across excitingly different white wines. Many of them are made from grapes and in regions that I am aware of, but have only very limited experience of tasting until now – I suspect that is a good thing as wines are so much better now than in my youth. I am sure that if I had tried wines from these places 28 years ago then I might have not been anything like as impressed as I am now.
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Gru-Vee Baby – or Grüner Veltliner conquers the world


Beautiful Wachau Vineyards

Sadly I have yet to visit Austria’s vineyards, but I greatly admire the wines they produce and what I have seen of Austria appeals to me immensely.

I am especially drawn to Austria’s signature grape – Grüner Veltliner. Some of you will know that I am keen for people to drink a wider spread of grape varieties than the normal small group of suspects, so I am excited that Grüner is starting to break through in the UK. Apparently it has become so popular in the United States that the trendy set over there call it ‘Grü-Vee’ – strangely predictive text makes it more time consuming to type or text Grü-Vee than to actually give the grape it’s proper name.

In her book Vines, Grapes and Wines, Jancis Robinson states; Grüner Veltliner ‘produces wines that are almost always good, but never great. It is incapable of not giving great pleasure and delight, but would never warrant intellectual study. Producing a wine for quaffers rather than connoisseurs.’

I sort of know what Jancis meant, the grape does produce a type of wine that is easy to enjoy, it can be very direct and pleasurable and for me this puts it on my list of the white grapes whose time has come – indeed in many ways it is the standard bearer of these grapes. I really do think that the quality of most wines has improved since Vines, Grapes and Wines was published in 1986 as growing techniques and winemaking skills have developed and this is especially obvious in fresh, dry white wines.

I could list a huge array of white wines that have improved beyond all recognition during my time in the wine trade, chief amongst them would be the wonderful whites of Galicia in Spain, Italy’s Verdicchio, Friuli and modern German wines as well as the seldom seen wines of Slovenia, Jura, Savoie, Luxembourg and the French Moselle region. I could also add Switzerland and the Alto-Adige in northern Italy to the list for good measure, but it is Austria’s Grüner Veltliner that is starting to enjoy real success and is hopefully breaching the walls of the Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio obsessed wine market.

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Schloss Proschwitz – a story of Meißen men

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I had always been aware that eastern Germany made wine, even that the old DDR had a couple of wine regions, but had never been in a position to try any until recently. There was a lovely young German couple attending one of my courses, he was from Bavaria and she was from the countryside near Dresden in the east. I had never before met anyone from the German Democratic Republic, so it was very interesting hearing her talk of Trabants, the Communist Young Pioneers and holidays in Hungary and Bulgaria. Interestingly her husband was quite dismissive of her past life in the east, which angered her, so I hope they are still together.

One week she mentioned the wine of her region and when I said that I had never had any she immediately said that she would bring me a bottle back the next time she visited her mother. She was as good as her word and a couple of weeks later handed me an elegantly tall fluted bottle of:

Schloss Proschwitz 2001 Scheurebe Trocken Kabinett. Continue reading