Ode to Santorini’s Assyrtiko
“Out of the bowels of the thunder you came / Shuddering with the irresolute clouds / Stone of bitterness, tempered, arrogant / Where hope is carved out of the deep secrets of your heart / With fire, with lava, with smoke / With words that illumine the infinite / You brought forth the voice of the day / You felt the joy of creation / You surged into the world, firstborn, / Born into the purple, risen majestic from the foam.”
I discovered this translation of an excerpt from “Ode to Santorini,” by Nobel Prize-winning poet Odysseus Elytis, on a wall at the Santorini Wine Museum.* It seemed the perfect introduction to Assyrtiko, an indigenous white variety that produces a wine fitting such powerful and poetic origins.
Autochthonous, meaning indigenous, originates from Greek and literally means “from the earth itself.” Assyrtiko is autochthonous to Santorini, which explains why it is able to thrive in the island’s adverse conditions. It is the fire, lava and smoke Elytis wrote about that define the soils of Santorini. They came up from the deepest parts of our planet and are so inhospitable that even phylloxera did not bother trying to live there. The result is that today Santorini has vines as old as 500 years on original rootstock. And its viticultural heritage goes back to the Phoenicians, some 3,500 years ago. The island is home to some of the oldest continuously cultivated vineyards in the world.
It is not just the soils that impose challenges. There is also the lack of rainfall (as little as 350 mm annually), with no rain at all during the growing season. The only moisture comes from the sea mists that cover the island at night, which helps the vines retain their high levels of acidity. And vine spacing is critical. Each vine must have enough space to acquire what it needs from the environment, including access to the cool northern wind known as meltemia, which brings respite in the hot summer months. There is also a westerly wind so extreme it feels as if it could lift you off your feet. Both winds dry the vines of excess humidity from the nightly sea mist so that no bacteria grow.
The participation of humans in terroir cannot be denied on Santorini. In order to protect the vines from the elements, the original growers devised crown pruning, or koulouri, a method which weaves four or five hearty canes into a freestanding basket that provides shelter from the elements. No green pruning is necessary; grape production is naturally moderated.
In the cellar the challenges continue for the winemakers. Assyrtiko is prone to oxidization, so timing is crucial and oak must be used judiciously—some even avoid it entirely. But skill results in wines with distinctive character, able to age many years. Its crisp acidity and citrus and grapefruit flavors commingle with its mesmerizing volcanic minerality and ash, and sometimes even a little hint of the sea, delivering a level of complexity usually associated with red wine.
With inspiration from Odysseus Elytis, it can be said that Assyrtiko brings forth the voice of Santorini. It expresses its creation. Illuminated by the sun, rising majestic from mist in the night, Assyrtiko surges into the world offering its sensory expression of the story of its life, powerful and enduring, beside the sea.
*The full poem, translated by Jeffrey Carson and Nikos Sarris, appears in The Collected Poems of Odysseus Elytis.