How to research PDO and PGI wine regulations

The name of a PDO or IGP on a wine bottle label conveys a lot of information: where the wine comes from, the grape varieties it may contain, the production methods, and permitted yields. These details are often summarised in wine books, and online in various places, but if you want information that is guaranteed to be accurate, complete and up-to-date, you really need to go the original specification documents.

cahier-des-chargesHere I tell you how to find and read these document for the two biggest wine-producing countries: France and Italy. The methods of finding them, particularly in the case of France, are not at all straightforward – I discovered them by asking on online wine forums, and by poking around on the official websites.

At the EU level

You can find all the PDO and PGI names by using this E-Bacchus form. It requires little explanation, but I would like to draw you attention to one detail that could be extremely useful in the future, and eventually render the rest of this blog post obsolete. If you perform a search, and then click on any PDF icon in the “Action” column, you open a short document. At the bottom of this, there is a field “Reference to the single document”, which in all the examples I have checked contains “Not yet available”. It seems that this will eventually link to a document that describes the PDO of PGI. What a wonderfully simple idea, if and when it ever gets implemented.

French AOC specifications

The simplest way I have found is to start here, where you then enter the PDO or AOC name of interest in the “Nom du produit” field. I have found the system to be tolerant of missing hyphens and accents, but otherwise you must get the spelling correct, so use the EU system first if you need to check on the spelling. Then click “Lancer la recherche”. If you get far too many hits, you might want to repeat the search with more restrictive criteria. You could, for example, limit the search to wines by selecting “Vins” in the “Types / Catégories” field. When you have found the wine you want in the search results, click on its “Fiche détaillée” link. On the page that opens, click on “Cahier des charges” and then “accéder au cahier des charges”. You then get a list of documents, and the one you want is the one with “cahier des charges” in the title. That contains all the information you need about regulations for the AOC. But what a palaver! What we really need is a big link reading: “Just give me the sodding cahier des charges, and give it to me now”.

The Italian system

In comparison, the Italian system is a model of clarity and simplicity. Firstly, go to this page, and scroll down to the lists of zip files. You need one of the zip files listed under “Disciplinari di produzione vini” or “Documenti unici riepilogativi disciplinari (fascicoli tecnici)”, for DOCG, DOC or IGT. Each zip files contains a number of specification files grouped together by the initial letter of the name you are looking for. It’s difficult to describe,  but when you see the lists you will soon get the hang of it. As far as I can make out, the two types of files – “disciplinari” and “documenti unici” – contain essentially the same information, but laid out in a different way. You will notice that the “documenti unici” have the reference numbers you find when performing searches using the EU E-Bacchus system, so my guess is that these documents were designed by the Italians to be linked to in the “reference to the single document” field I mentioned above. Sadly though, the E-Bacchus guys have not yet got round to putting the links into their search results.

But I cannot read French and Italian

As you might expect, the specification documents I told you how to find are in French and Italian. If you have even the merest smattering of those languages it is not too difficult to spot things like grape varieties, but if you need more help there are online translation services for PDF documents. I found that Google Translate does a decent job. If you downloaded the specification PDF you need translating, which is probably easiest way to proceed, you should click on “translate a document” and upload your PDF to Google Translate. You can then save the translation if you wish.

Doubtless these methods will at some point be broken by changes to the official websites, but there is at least hope that future changes might make access simpler.

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How big are your bubbles?

In the pre-Christmas dearth of news, when all serious journalists seem either to be at their Christmas parties or on their way home for the year, comes the widely reported story that champagne is better with bigger bubbles. This assertion is based on a study by Prof Gérard Liger-Belair that is due to be published in the European Physical Journal Special Topics next year.

I cannot get my cyber hands on that precise article, but I am guessing it was the research published earlier this year as a Nature Scientific Report, which states that “Finally, we exhibit conditions on bubble bursting that optimize aerosol evaporation: large bubbles and weakly viscous liquids. We identify a large bubble radius (~1.8?mm), broadly common to the whole range of champagne viscosity, that makes liquid transfer more efficient. […] This result is also remarkable as it undermines the popular belief that the smaller the bubbles, the better the champagne.” A popular belief, eh? I suppose so. But it is also one that Liger-Belair supported back in 2003: “Our ultimate goal is to create smaller bubbles in champagne wines.” According to that older article, the “reason smaller bubbles make better champagne is basically because there are more bubbles available to release the flavour and aroma”.

Absolutely no shame for a scientist to change his mind as new evidence comes to light – science progresses. But this shift of emphasis points to many more fundamental questions about what makes a good Champagne. It is quite possible that in the ideal case you want more bubbles, and bigger ones. But given that a bottle of Champagne can only hold so much carbon dioxide we cannot have both, so where should the balance lie? And do you want them all soon after pouring, as well you might if you a toasting with your glass of Champagne, or do you want them to be released slowly so you can enjoy it over a longer period? Presumably there are also limits to the benefits of aroma-releasing bubbles. However much you enjoy the Champagne aromas, you don’t want your drink splattered all over your nose in a violent eruption of bubbles.

And all the discussion so far seems to assume that aroma intensity, as detected by sniffing, is the most aspect of Champagne quality. Putting aside the other important quality aspects of wine, such as balance, length and complexity, and sticking with the subject of bubbles, my understanding is that the texture of fine bubbles in the mouth is one of the hallmarks of a good sparkling wine. And however much aroma big bubbles might release into the glass, they supposedly give an inferior mouthfeel.

But enough of this geekery. There is a lot more to the enjoyment of Champagne, or any other sparkling wine, than can be achieved by obsessing about bubble size. And most of the enjoyment has nothing to do with what you learn on a wine course. It’s the occasion, and the people you drink it with. Have a good Christmas, and enjoy whatever is in your glass!

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Sweet sparkling Tokaji from Lidl

lidl-sparking-tokajiThe producer of this sparkling Tokaji wine from Hungary is Keurus Winery. It’s 11.5% alcohol, and £7.99 from Lidl. I thought it would be an interesting wine to try, and was sent a sample by Lidl.

Lidl call it a medium sweet wine, while on the label it says sweet. Either of those designations sounds about right to me, but note that it is certainly not really sweet enough for most desserts. The Lidl website suggests it would be good for drinking by itself, or a match for fruit salad, and I would agree. After an initial tasting glass, I drank mine with Indian food, and that worked pretty well too. A lamb biryani if you must know.

The bottle looks the part, but the cork seemed to be of some strange plastic and cork aggregate material that was difficult to get a good grip on to remove, something I don’t usually have a problem with. Hint: wrap the cork with a tea towel or similar before trying to turn it.

This is not a particularly sharp wine, and has aromas of apple and grapes, and towards the finish a honeyed note. The closest point of reference I could think of in terms of sweetness and aromatics was a sparkling Moscato, but this had substantially more alcohol and body.

I was perhaps hoping for a bit more geeky interest, and intensity and bite. But that is simply not the style. It is comfortable and easy drinking, and if you prefer sweeter styles of wine, and even Prosecco usually seems a bit on the dry side for you, this is a good option for your festive fizz. Overall, I give it ***

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Alsace grape varieties and wine labelling

Here I list the grape varieties in Alsace, and describe how they relate to the names on Alsace wine labels. This is not nearly as easy as you might think when you get into the detail, especially when aiming for strict accuracy whilst still making the information easy to access. Let me start by giving the varieties allowed in the AOCs of Alsace and Crémant d’Alsace.

Grape Varieties
Auxerrois
Chardonnay
Chasselas
Gewurztraminer
Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains
Muscat Ottonel
Pinot Blanc
Pinot Gris
Pinot Noir
Riesling
Savagnin Rose
Sylvaner

In this list I use what I would call a commonly understood definition of grape variety. For example, although Pinots Blanc and Gris are clones of the Pinot Noir, I treat all three as separate varieties, not least because the AOC regulations do so. Likewise, and for the same reason, I count Gewurztraminer and Savagnin Rose as separate varieties, even if they are both clones of Savagnin. I also list two varieties of Muscat, but here it is because they are in fact different varieties, however much that may sometimes be glossed over. But for Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains and Chasselas I do not separate out their white and pink clones. The AOC regulations do refer to both colours, but each time one is allowed the other is too, so nothing is lost by lumping them together. Besides, I don’t think it is at all usual to separate out the pink clones for these varieties. For more detail, each of these grape varieties has a sizable section in Wine Grapes.  Internet searches will also give plenty of information about them.

Label Text Permitted Grape Varieties
Auxerrois Auxerrois
Chasselas
Gutedel
Chasselas
Gewurztraminer Gewurztraminer
Muscat Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains
Muscat Ottonel
Muscat Ottonel Muscat Ottonel
Pinot Blanc Auxerrois
Pinot Blanc
Pinot
Klevner
Auxerrois
Pinot Blanc
Pinot Gris
Pinot Noir
Pinot Gris Pinot Gris
Riesling Riesling
Sylvaner Sylvaner
Pinot Noir, red or rosé Pinot Noir
Klevener de Heiligenstein Savagnin Rose
Edelzwicker Auxerrois
Chasselas
Gewurztraminer
Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains
Muscat Ottonel
Pinot Blanc
Pinot Gris
Pinot Noir
Riesling
Savagnin Rose, only from Heiligenstein area
Sylvaner
Crémant Auxerrois
Chardonnay
Pinot Blanc
Pinot Gris
Pinot Noir
Riesling
Crémant, rosé Pinot Noir

The right hand column in the above table is relatively straightforward as I have already explained what I mean by these varieties. Any variety in a list in the right hand column can be used in any proportion.

The left hand column is a bit of a mixed bag. From Auxerrois to Pinot Noir, it contains what the AOC regulations call the dénomination en usage, a sort-of varietal name for the wine. Gutedal is an alternative name for Chasselas, and Klevner for Pinot. More on Klevener de Heiligenstein below. Another denomination en usage is Edelzwicker, which means noble blend even if it is now not required to be particularly noble. Finally we have the two colours of Alsace crémant wines. Except where noted, you should assume that all wines are white.

The main areas of confusion surround the usage of the label terms Pinot Blanc, Pinot, Klevner and Klevener.

Let’s deal with Klevener first. Klevener de Heiligenstein is, as far as the Alsace AOC regulations are concerned, a geographical name that may appear on the label. And like other possible geographical names, in addition to specifying where the vines can be grown it restricts the grape varieties that are allowed in the wine. For Klevener de Heiligenstein it just so happens that only one variety is allowed: Savagnin Rose. And that variety cannot be used with any other additional name on the label apart from Edelzwicker, and in all cases, Savagnin Rose has to come from the area around Heiligenstein. However, to most people, Klevener de Heiligenstein reads like a grape variety: the Klevener variety of Heiligenstein. And indeed, in the book Wine Grapes, Klevener de Heiligenstein is listed as a synonym for Savagnin Rose. So when you see Klevener de Heiligenstein on a wine, feel free to think of it as a form of varietal labelling. Just be careful not to confuse it with Klevner, which has a different spelling, and its own set of complications.

According to the regulations, Klevner is simply an alternative label name for Pinot, and as such it includes a range of grape varieties. But you should also be aware that Clevner and Klävner (also Klevner according to some sources) are used in Alsace as synonyms for the variety Pinot Blanc. So if someone says something that sounds like Klevner, you will need some context to know if they are talking about Savagnin Rose, Pinot Blanc, or a wine that can contain any of several Alsace varieties. If your head is starting to hurt now, do push on – the worst is over.

Normally in the EU, if a wine has a variety mentioned on the label, it must contain at least 85% of that variety. However, according to the Alsace AOC regulations, wines labelled Pinot Blanc can contain large proportions of Auxerrois, and they often do. Apparently (reported by Jancis Robinson on her forum, quoting correspondence from CIVA) this is because in this context Pinot Blanc, contrary to appearance, is not a grape variety but a dénomination en usage, and usage has always been to confuse the varieties Pinot Blanc and Auxerrois. However, this does not work the other way round, so if the label says Auxerrois the wine must be 100% of that variety.

Another fudge, I understand, is that Chardonnay used to be tolerated in Pinot, even if strictly speaking it never was allowed. But no more. It is only permitted in white crémant. Which leads me on to another notable fact about Crémant d’Alsace: rosé crémant must be 100% Pinot Noir. It is not permitted to make rosé by mixing white and red grapes, as it is in Champagne and many other sparkling wine regions.

I am aware that some of what I have written here is in conflict with what I have seen in other places, both online and in print. Some errors my well have slipped into my post (and if they have please let me know) but my sources were the curreny official regulations. Specifically, the documents I used were:

CAHIER DES CHARGES DE L’APPELLATION D’ORIGINE CONTRÔLEE « ALSACE » ou « VIN D’ALSACE » homologue par le décret n° 2011-1373 du 25 octobre 2011, modifié par le décret n° 2014-1069 du 19 septembre 2014, publié au JORF du 21 septembre 2014

Cahier des charges de l’appellation d’origine contrôlée « Crémant d’Alsace » homologué par le décret n° 2011-1373 du 25 octobre 2011, JORF du 28 octobre 2011

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A trip to Alsace

Just a week after returning from Santorini, I was waking up to a very different view from the bedroom window – green, misty and with a touch of frost on the ground, the Vosges mountain range in the background rising over an Alsace village, Villé to be precise. Another beautiful European wine region, but so, so, different.villeIn fact the Alsace vineyards could hardly be more different, with neat rows of lush vines in fertile soil, just starting to take on autumnal colours. When you see how different the regions are, it seems almost incomprehensible that both Alsace and Santorini are capable of producing good wine. But they are, and do.alsace-vinesAs in my last post on Santorini, I am not going to attempt anything too systematic here. In Alsace I tasted over 120 wines and visited nine producers, but I am just going to mention two of the most memorable visits – the one that stood out at the time when I experienced them.

Domaine Xavier Wymann, Ribeauvillé

wymann

We were welcomed warmly, and treated to a tasting by Madame Schaeringer. She is the wife of Jean-Luc (both pictured here), who took over the company from his uncle in 1996.

The wines that impressed me most were a couple of Rieslings, Steinacker de Ribeauvillé 2014 and A mon grand-père 2013, and the Equilibre Pinot Gris 2014. What I liked about all the wines, and these in particular, was the understated elegance and complexity, the Rieslings already seeming to show hints of maturity. And very reasonable prices, each of my favourite three wines coming in under €10.

We said hello to Jean-Luc as he packed our order, and had a quick look round the winemaking room where fermentation was in full swing in most of the tanks. Incidentally we had already had a discussion with Madame (I really must learn to be a better journalist and get names), who was keen to improve her already excellent English and amongst other things learn the correct terms for the various winemaking vessels. We reached an uncertain consensus that rectangular stainless steel ones were probably best called tanks. I was also interested to see a bucket – if that is the right term, as I think this was rectangular too – of warm liquid yeast culture, ready to be used in the next batch of must.  Didn’t realise it was done like that.

Oh, and along with our order we were slipped an additional bottle, which was drunk with our evening meal. I also enjoyed that one a lot. On the label was Minori, Rizling, Ribo’bulles. Make of that what you will. I think it was a pét-nat. In other words, a wine with a slight sparkle created by bottling before the fermentation had completely stopped. No sulphur and, as evidenced by the cloudiness, no filtration,. It reminded me of apple pie, complete with cinnamon, pastry and cream. Different, interesting, and good.

Domaine Ernest Burn, Gueberschwihr

I had never encountered Xavier Wymann wines before, and as far as I know they are not available in the UK . Ernest Burn was a little more familiar, but until I visited I did not know what strength in breadth they had.

Here was a very different tasting experience. No intimate tasting room, nor chatting about tanks and Brexit. There was a large area with several tables, surrounded by foudres, and no one representing Ernest Burn at our table as our host was mainly occupied with other people. But we had a very generous tasting, where bottles were just brought to the table with minimum introduction, and we were trusted to pour for ourselves. It is nice to hear what a producer has to say, but there are also advantages to being left to your own devices, as it is easier to concentrate on what is in the glass.

The number of different wines produced was a lot larger than Wymann, so we focussed more – on the cuvées from Clos Saint-Imer, in the Grand Cru of Goldert. They all looked enticingly golden in their clear glass bottles. Was it a deliberate marketing decision to play on the golden colour of the wine and the name of the Grand Cru?

burnSo many of these wines were of excellent quality, and together they made for a wonderful tasting. VTs and SGNs apart, all the Clos Saint-Imer wines were €18, which I thought represented good value. I don’t want to mention them all, but for me the Pinot Gris 2007 particularly stood out. In fact, if I were to nominate a Wine of the Trip that would probably be it. Intense, mature, spicy. Off dry but with high balancing acidity, so overall it left the mouth with a refreshing tingly feeling. Wonderful stuff.

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Minerality in wine update

The discussion, or debate as many would like to see it, about minerality has moved on considerably since my post on the subject back in 2012, as evidenced by the Institute of Masters of Wine seminar about a month ago, which has been particularly well reported by Emma Symmington. The term is still abused, often in marketing, and there are still those who will gleefully rant against those abuses, but there seems to be more of a consensus developing amongst those who have given the term serious thought. If I may presume to represent that more serious thinking for a moment, let me attempt to summarise that consensus.

santorini-mineralityThere are at least two scientific meanings for the word mineral, which often get conflated and confused. As far as the geologist is concerned a mineral is a naturally occurring chemical compound, and rocks are agglomerations of different minerals. However, in plant biology, minerals are ions that are taken up from soil by the roots, e.g. nitrates and magnesium ions. The naïve interpretation of minerality in wine is that compounds from the rocks underneath the vineyard get taken up by the roots of vines, and finish up in the grapes, where they contribute directly to the flavour of the wine. Thus vines on chalky soils result in chalky wines. This is wrong for a number of reasons… Firstly, the vast majority of rocky minerals do not taste of anything. Secondly, the ion minerals in the soil do not principally originate from the chemical compounds in the rocks. Thirdly, plants tend to take in what they need of each mineral and then stop, so high soil mineral contents are not reflected in the vines and grapes. Finally, in the concentrations found in grapes, the minerals are below our taste detection thresholds. Minerals might have indirect influences on wine flavour, by affecting vineyard drainage for example, but it would stretch my credulity to breaking point if someone suggested that those influences lead to wines that taste of the rocks in the soil.

mineralsI hope there is nothing too controversial in the above, because I would now like to set it aside and move along to say that even if minerality in wine has little physical or chemical basis, it can still be used as a metaphor. That, I think, is the broad consensus view on minerality, and an excellent basis to take the discussion forward.

Metaphors can be beautiful, evocative and poetic, and if that is what you want in a tasting note who am I to argue? But tasting notes are also used to communicate. Person A experiences a wine and tries to describe those experiences in a tasting note. Person B reads that note, and imagines what the wine must taste like, perhaps to help with a buying decision. How good are metaphors in general  for this sort of communication?

When we say a wine has pear drop notes, we of course don’t mean it contains pear drops – it just tastes like pear drops, which is arguably a very straightforward simile rather than a metaphor. If we don’t understand what it means, we can suck on a pear drop. What is more, even if the wine does not contain pear drops, it probably does contains isoamyl acetate and ethyl acetate, which also contribute to the flavour of pear drops.  This is similar to how quite a number of wine descriptors function, and in those cases it seems to me that the chances of good communications are relatively good.

But when we say that a wine has good minerality, how does that work in communication? To communicate in the way I described above, the writer and the reader must have a common understating of the term. Many wine geeks say they understand exactly what it means, but the problem is that there are many different understandings, and very diverse ones at that. From comments in various wine forums, I note that for some it is an aroma, for others a taste or a texture sensed in the mouth. Clark Smith in his book Postmodern Winemaking is a bit left field in describing it as “an energetic buzz in the wine’s finish, almost like an electrical current running through the throat.” Personally, I use it for a positive aspects of a wine that are neither vegetal nor animal – often for a certain something that is very closely related to acidity and sulphur. This lack of common understanding was also commented on by the participants at the minerality seminar mentioned above, and nicely illustrated by the graph in Emma’s report. As she writes, “So if a group of MWs can’t agree on what minerality is, means, or tastes like – what hope do consumers have?”

I conclude simply by suggesting that the term minerality does not work well in communicating what wines taste like. I would hate to dictate what descriptors may and may not be used in tasting notes, as communication according to my definition is not everything. But isn’t it an important factor? You decide.

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Santorini wines and producers

I feel that any attempt at being systematic in a post on producers and their wines would be too presumptuous after one visit to the island, but I would still like to write a little about what I found and why I am so excited about Santorini wines. So am simply going to let you know what made the biggest impact on me, and hope that you will bear in mind that there are all manner of reasons why an experience may or may not have impressed at any particular moment. YMMV and all that.

If you haven’t seen them already, for a bit of background you might like to take a look at my blog posts that lead up to this one: Santorini as a destination for wine loversSantorini vineyards and vines and Santorini grape varieties and wine styles.

Wine with food

Let’s start with the wines I drank – not merely tasted – in restaurants. This of course is generally the best way to experience wines, and with the highly acidic Santorini dry Assyrtikos it is even more true than for most. With food Assyrtiko shines. Seafood is the obvious choice, and here is the aftermath at Fratzekos Fish Tavern in Perissa. While there is food on the plate I have more important things to do than take pictures.thalassitis-at-fratzeskos

The wine on the table is Thalassitis 2015, a Santorini PDO Assyrtiko wine made by Gaia that retails in the UK for around £18, or €17.00 from the producer. This is bone dry, crisp, sharp, and refreshing. It is intense and powerful, more mineral than fruit, possibly even a hint of Riesling-like petrol, but any fruit is definitely citric – lime, I think. If you want to understand Assyrtiko typicity, without getting confused by oak, oxidation or wild yeasts, this wine is a great place to start.

At another seafood restaurant, Melina’s Tavern, mentioned in my first post on Santorini, we had another Santorini PDO Assyrtiko. This was a 2014 from Boutari. This was not tried side-by-side with the Thalassitis, so I am relying on memory and my tasting notes, but I found the Boutari to be quite similar, and it is good for the same reasons. The differences I noted were that I found it even more difficult to identify the citrus fruit that the wine reminded me of, and there were hints of herbs and spices. I don’t think this is available in the UK, but looking at other Boutari wines I would guess would be a few Euros cheaper than the Thalassitis.

The final restaurant wine I’d like to mention is Gavalas Winery Santorini Natural Ferment 2015, also an Assyrtiko. This too was sharp and dry, but was aromatically more interesting, presumably due to the wild yeasts. Sweet ripe fruit, with a certain richness: orange, peach apricot. And a herby complexity. €16.00 from the producer, of which more later. I recommend the wine, but not the restaurant – Feggera in Megalochori.

Actually there is one more restaurant wine that deserves a mention, but the mention is a bit tricky as it was served to us in a jug, and described as homemade. It was red, thin, acidic and tannic, but alongside food it worked well – a heck of a lot better than the bottled and branded industrial plonk you get in the UK. Was this the Brusca style I wonder? Maybe not alcoholic enough to be Brusca. Get it at Tzanakis Tavern in Megalochori, where there is the friendliest welcome, and a group of local men eat and drink every day. And where every so often an incongruous bus-load of tourists is delivered for an evening of typical Greek food.

A couple of producers

The first one I’ll mention is Santo Wines, which is the Santorini coop. But it is not just any old wine coop, it is large, and has been hugely influential in supporting growers on the island, and in promoting Santorini wine in the rest of Greece and abroad. To make your mark in export markets you need to be able to supply good quality wine in large quantities, and Santo Wines is geared up to that task. It is also geared up to cater for the wine tourist, with large seating areas indoors and outside, in the shade and in the sun, where you can drink wine and eat light food. Apparently it can get busy in summer, but when we visited in October there was plenty of space. It is modern, smart, and the views are stunning.santo-winesThey have a large range of wines, but I shall mention just a couple. The first is, I believe, a style that is unique to Santo Wines: a sparkling Assyrtiko, made using the traditional method. Ours was of the 2013 vintage. This is maybe not as good as some of the other wines I mention here but – put it like this – it is one of the few wines I squeezed into my aircraft hold luggage to bring back. Minerally apple nose, again almost Riesling-like, highish acidity, and dry. If you’ve been following my tasting notes so far, you would expect nothing less of Assyrtiko, but add to that the fizz and you get an amazingly refreshing drink that would work well as an aperitif, or to drink with seafood. I actually first tried this at breakfast in a village in Northern Greece, and I liked it then too. It’s €23.00 at Santo Wines. You can pick up some seriously good stuff for that price in the Champagne region, so it is not exactly a bargain, but how many opportunities does a British wine geek get to drink sparkling Assyrtiko? The second wine I bought at Santo Wines was not cheap either: €70.00 for 50cl of 2004 Vinsanto. 85% Assyrtiko 15% Aidani, aged in oak for 3 years, 6 in tanks, bottled in 2013. I tasted this as a sip in the Santo Wines’ shop, along with a few other older Vinsantos, some cheaper and others more expensive, and this was by far the one I preferred most. Sadly no tasting notes for these older Vinsantos, but the 2004 would undoubtedly have a good whack of volatile acidity, as that is one of the things I look for in these wines.

xenolooThe other producer visit I’ll cover here is Gavalas, which has an equally pleasant tasting area, but one that is very different to Santo Wines. It is in a quiet and cool winery courtyard, in the centre of the village of Megalochori. The deal is that you can taste as many wines as you want, but pay one or two Euros (actually €1.65 or something like that) for each wine. My wife and I tasted all 10 wines they had available and, as the pours were generous for a tasting, we shared a glass. I’ve already mentioned their Natural Ferment Assyrtiko, so the wine I’d like to describe here is Xenoloo 2015. It is a blend of three relatively rare grape varieties – 50% Mavrotragano, 45% Voudomato and 5% Athiri. This pale ruby wine is intense and fresh on the nose, with red fruit aromas. I thought it maybe had a touch of brett stink too, but whatever it was the effect was positive. Very sharp, and quite tannic, in the mouth. Another purchase for hold luggage at €14.30. The Mavrotragano 2015 was also good, but that was a barrel sample.

Other wines that stood out

Another couple of other Vinsantos I really liked were Agyros 1992, and Gaia 2005, at €55.00 and €35.00 for 50cl from their respective producers. They were both quite volatile, with good raisiny flavours, and sweet of course, but I thought the Gaia was sharper, fruity, and with more volatile.

vassaltisAt Vassaltis, their 2015 Santorini Assyrtiko impressed all four of us at the tasting table – see label image with the reflection selfies of its admirers. Like many Assyrtikos, this was highish in acidity had great minerality, and I at least thought it had a little whiff of petrol. But unlike many Assyrtikos, this was not so aggressive, and had a gentle elegance – something that perhaps came from the 6 months of lees aging. This was a true stand-out wine for me, and I made sure a bottle of it accompanied me home. €17.00 from the producer. We also tried the 2014 by the way, which was Vassaltis’ first attempt at this wine, made with no added sulphur. To me this tasted overwhelmingly of Riesling-petrol, and was not nearly as successful. Another memorably good wine however was their Aidani 2015. This was lowish in acidity, gentle, floral and perfumed. A lovely wine, but only available at the winery as a mere 700 bottles were made. It was on sale at €19.50.

In our Boutari tasting, which actually did not include the Boutari Assyrtiko mentioned above, their Selladia 2013 impressed most. This is from a Boutari estate on the island, and is a 50/50 blend of Assyrtiko and Aidani, and was another bottle I bought – for €15.55 – to bring back with me. Apart from giving it a good score, my notes from Santorini were even briefer than usual: it was a bit like an Assyrtiko, but more muted rounded and full. However, the bottle I opened at home allowed me to find more words. On the nose, intense, fresh, honey, peach and apricot, with a certain lactic note. Medium high acidity, and dry. In addition to what I got on the nose, there was also some lime on the palate. I was intrigued that this wine appeared to be simultaneously sharp and soft, the softness coming from the lactic character.

apiliatisFinally a couple of Sigalas wines. I liked their Mavrotragano 2014 a lot, but again my notes were very brief: intense, aromatic, bright red fruit, medium high acidity, medium tannin. In conjunction with a very good score, that does however give me an impression of the wine – it was that combination of intense bright red fruit with acidity and tannin that made it so lip-smackingly good. It would have been €35.20 at Sigalas – if they had any left to sell that is, which they didn’t. The other wine I’m going to mention is Apiliotis 2009. This is 100% Mandilaria, and a red naturally sweet wine made from grapes that have been sun-dried for 10-12 days, and then oak-aged for at least 24 months, 9.0% ABV, and €27.00 for 50cl. On the nose, this was intense, volatile, and carried notes of cherry. Highish acidity and with detectable astringency, it was smooth and very sweet. I rarely like sweet red wines, but this won me over with its edginess.

Santorini is not the place to look for wine bargains. It is expensive by Greek standards, and not really cheap by any standards. But there is excellent quality to be found, and the wine has much to offer that is special and unique to the island. It is definitely worth exploring. And all that really applies to the rest of Santorini too.

(To be meticulous about following my own rules, I should disclose that I was given special treatment during the visits to Santo Wines and Boutari, for which I was very grateful, and was not charged for anything there apart from bottles of wine I wanted take home. Everything else on the trip was paid for in the normal way.)

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Santorini grape varieties and wine styles

One hundred years ago it is said that there were nearly 100 different grape varieties on Santorini. One can assume that many of those have now died out, but there is still a lot of diversity, and all varieties are supposed to be local. That is to say I was told international varieties are banned, but I am uncertain how local and international are defined and exactly how the ban works. Anyway, here I am only going to discuss the more important varieties on the island – important in terms of volume, inclusion in the Santorini PDO, and quality.iliana-vines

Assyrtiko covers around 70% of the vineyard area, and is the main white grape in all Santorini PDO wine. Konstantinos Lazarakis characterises the grape very nicely his opening sentence on the topic: Arguably the finest Greek grape variety today, Assyrtiko has the rare ability of balancing breadth and power with high acidity and steely austerity.  The adjective assertive sums up the grape in one word, and also acts as a good alliterative mnemonic for its name if you are struggling to get to grips with your Greek varieties. As will be seen below, Assyrtiko can be used to good effect in sweet and dry styles, and is also used for at least one sparkling wine. In my opinion it deserves more international attention, which is now starting to be forthcoming. It was, for example, only a month ago that Jim Barry Wines announced the first release of their Assyrtiko. The white varieties Athiri and Aidani are much less common on the island, and serve as minor auxiliary wines to blend into Assyrtiko. Used like that, they tend to tone down the more aggressive nature of the Assyrtiko.

Mandilaria is the main red grape, acounting for just under 20% of the vineyards. It has very dark skins and thus can make very dark wines. On the island this is the most common source of red and rosé wines, and like Assyrtiko is used to make both dry and sweet styles. The red grape Mavrotragano is of little importance in volume terms, accounting for less than 2% of wine production in 2005. But in the 1990s Sigalas caused a stir by releasing a Mavrotragano varietal wine, demonstrating its high quality. Since then Mavrotragano has grown in popularity, and seems to have a good future.

Santorini PDO wines must all be predominantly Assyrtiko, but this can be blended with small quantities of other white grapes, all from Santorini of course. For Vinsanto the rule is that there must be at least 51% Assyrtiko; while for dry styles it is 75% Assyrtiko and the balance can only contain Aidani and Athiri. For non-PDO wines on the island, Cyclades PGI is usually used as the designation, which allows a broad range of varieties and styles.

vinsanto-wineThe wine with the oldest tradition, going back to ancient times, is the sweet wine of Santorini now known as Vinsanto. The word Vinsanto is a contraction of vin Santo or vino Santo – literally, wine of Santorini. In turn, the name Santorini derives from Santo Erini (St Irene), the name of the church close to its historical main port. Some suggest that the Italian Vin Santo was named due to its similarity to Vinsanto. There is even a story, probably apocryphal, explaining exactly how that came about. In practice, Vinsanto contains at least 80% Assyrtiko, and this is blended mainly with Aidani, or both Aidani and Athiri. The grapes are harvested late, and left to dry in the sun for 6 to 14 days. This exposure to the sun tends to create volatile acidity, and is a key point of difference with Vin Santo, for which grapes are dried in the shade. Vin Santo also tends to be less acidic and more fruity. The dried grapes are crushed and fermented, largely on their skins, after which they must spend at least two years in oak barrels. Older styles of Vinsanto usually finished their alcoholic fermentation at around 9% ABV, and some of these were then fortified. That is still allowed, though most producers seeking higher levels of alcohol would these days use yeast strains that can take the wine to over 13%.

nykteri-wineNykteri is another traditional style that is still made. This is a dry wine that is predominantly Assyrtiko. Ripe grapes are picked early in the morning, and these are all crushed and pressed the same day. For small-scale winemakers with a limited labour force, this is a lot of work that would continue on into the night, giving the wine its name – Nykteri means night work. After fermentation, the wine is aged in oak, sometimes new oak, for up to two years or so. The result is a premium wine with a high alcohol content, over 13.5%, that can sometimes show a little oxidation from the barrel ageing. When I first read the description of how Nykteri is made, I wondered why it was regarded as so special. Later, I learned about the other traditional style dry wine, Brusco, which means coarse. An understanding of Brusco is really needed to explain why Nykteri is a thing. For Brusco, over the period of a week or so, as the grapes of different varieties and locations become over-ripe, they are harvested and emptied into a shallow vat, one day’s harvest being dumped on the grapes of previous days, a method of working that is clearly more in tune with peasant wine-making than the frantic all-in-one-day Nykteri. During the week, the grapes at the bottom of the pile would get crushed, and start fermenting and macerating, and when the vat was full all the grapes would be trodden. As you can imagine, this is not a recipe for fine wine. The result is wine that is highly tannic, acidic and alcoholic, and probably illustrative of pretty much every wine fault imaginable. Brusco is no longer made commercially but, with the natural wine movement still apparently gaining ground, surely it can only be a matter of time before it is re-invented. I would certainly be up for trying it.

assyrtiko-wineMany Santorini wines are however made in what is best described as a modern style. They are typically fermented in stainless steel, and most commonly they are unfussy wines that are bottled soon after fermentation. But they are certainly not to be sniffed at. In my opinion, Assyrtiko dominant wines made in this style are some of the most exciting on the island, offering beautiful varietal clarity, and pure, intense refreshment. The most obvious words on these labels will most likely be simply Santorini and/or Assyrtiko. You will also see wines that proclaim themselves as oak-aged, wild ferment or reserve, and estate and single-vineyard wines.

For a bit more context, also see my other posts on Santorini. As before, my written sources are Santorini – An Historical Wineland by Stavroula Kourakou, and The Wines of Greece by Konstantinos Lazarakis.

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Santorini vineyards and vines

465px-santorini_landsatSantorini is not a big island. The size of the airport runway in this satellite image will give you a quick intuitive feel for its size. To put numbers on it, the main island  is around 15 km from North to South, and 10 km from East to West.

With around 1,000 ha of registered vineyard, 1/9 of the islands’ total area is given over to vines. But in the main vine-growing area – the Western part of the Southern half of the main island, excluding most of the Akrotiri peninsular – over 50% of the land is vineyard.

It was no accident that we chose to stay in Megalochori, which is very central in that area, and within walking distance of four wineries. Around Megalochori, I got the impression that any land that was at all fertile contained vines. Even scruffy patches of land between buildings, and gardens attached to houses seemed to be pushed into vineyard service. Indeed, most vineyards are owned by small growers who sell their grapes to the co-op (Santo Wines) or to privately owned producers. Some vineyards are owned by the estates that produce wine, but that is not so common.

The image below shows some countryside between the villages of Megalochori, by the cliffs of the West coast, and Pyrgos, a few kilometres inland. Pyrgos is the white village on the leftmost hill on the horizon. Here there are vineyards and very little else. Note the stone walls and terracing used to protect vines from the strong winds on the island, and vineyards from wind-related soil erosion.

Even in this important viticultural region of the island, the land looks barren and the vines stunted and sad. OK, this was well after the harvest in early October, and I have read that in the summer the vines give a pleasing green colour to the landscape. Also we should of course judge vineyards by their fruits rather than by how pretty they look, and on that basis Santorini vines can hold their heads high.

santorini-vineyard
The vineyard soils (if that is the right word) contain very little organic matter. They mainly consist of sand-like pumice particles, and small fragments of pumice, with the occasional chunk of volcanic rock as shown below: black basalt, and rocks with red oxides and yellow sulphur compounds. This soil is áspa – a solid, compacted version of what I have just described – that has been tilled to the depth of 50-65cm to create something that vines can get a foothold in.

The surface of the vineyards is dry for the vast majority of the year, but apparently the pumice is very good at retaining water, so several centimetres below the surface the soil is permanently moist, from dew and the very little rain that falls. The vines spread their roots horizontally to collect this water in the layer of soil, though roots are also sent down through the solid áspa. Irrigation is not used on mature vines. There are no rivers on the island, and water is too precious to use in the vineyards even if it were desirable. For human use, some coastal towns get supplied with brackish water from a desalination plant, while other places get deliveries of water by tanker. Even with the moisture-retaining properties of the pumice, it is necessary to have widely separated vines to ensure each one gets enough water, and this results in low yields of the order of 20 hl/ha. Sometimes hollows are dug for each vine, with a small mound of earth around each hollow, in an attempt to both capture the dew and protect the vine from wind, and the basket-pruning described below serves the same purposes.

The vines of the island are generally very healthy, and get little chemical treatment apart from a dusting of sulphur – something that in this volcanic setting could arguably be considered part of terroir anyway! As mentioned in my previous blog post, phylloxera cannot survive in the Santorini soils so vines are left on their own vinifera roots, and cuttings taken directly from existing vines are used in new vineyards. Layering – propagation by bending a neighbouring cane into the ground to allow it to put down roots there – is sometimes used to fill gaps in old vineyards. Many vines are very old, and it is not unusual to find mention of 50 year old vines on back labels, or even 150, without these facts being trumpeted on the front of the bottle.

santorini-rocks

There are two traditional pruning methods on Santorini. These have various names in Greek, but I shall call them basket, and goblet-with-loops. They are both methods of pruning bush vines, and both keep the vine relatively low and sheltered from the wind. Before I describe each in more detail, I will just comment that many of the vines in the vineyards I walked through around Megalochori and Pyrgos did not seem to conform to either pruning system – they were all low bush vines, but the shoots just seemed to be allowed to radiate outwards along the ground. Maybe it was just me, the particular vineyards, or the season, but I found these vineyards difficult to relate to the ranks of basket-pruned vines you will see if you do an image search on the Web.

Basket pruning is by far the most usual of the two traditional systems on Santorini. According to contemporary accounts, it was common in the Eastern Mediterranean in ancient times, but as far as I know it is now unique to Santorini. The starting point for basket pruning is a sturdy trunk with three or four short spurs close to the ground. In the winter, one strong shoot on each spur is selected and cut to a length of 60-80cm, and the others are removed completely. The selected shoots are then bent round and twisted with each other to form a horizontal circular shape close to the ground, and become the canes for the next season’s growth. The following year, the strongest shoots from those canes are selected, and woven round to provide another layer to the basket. Thus the basket is built up, getting higher and slightly wider year by year. After 20 years or so, the basket is cut off, the spurs throw out new shoots, and the process is repeated. Below is a basket with only a few years growth.

santorini-basket

Goblet-with-loops pruning is less common, and mainly used for Assyrtiko vines as this method gives more exposure to the wind and Assyrtiko grapes have the protection of thicker skins. Also, this variety has very flexible canes that can be bent in all weathers, and in early winter. It is also be used with Mandilariá, but the harder canes of that variety are more difficult to bend, so the loops are usually longer and not as tight, and they are formed on damp days in early spring when the sap has started to flow again. As with basket pruning, the method requires a vine trunk with a few spurs, though the image below suggests the trunk need not be sturdy for this method. Two shoots on each spur are selected, and the others removed. One selected shoot is pruned to leave 2 buds, and the other with 10-15 buds. The longer cane is bent to form a vertical loop, and tied back onto the spur. One such loop can be seen in the centre of the image below, though this is a lot shorter than the supposedly ideal length, and there is only one in total on the vine. The looped cane provides the main grape-bearing shoots for the growing season, and is removed in the following winter. Meanwhile, the two shoots that come from the shorter cane provide the starting point for the next season.

santorini-loop
That’s all on Santorini vineyards and vines. I have already mentioned a couple of Santorini grape varieties with little explanation, but I shall cover these and other local varieties in more detail in my next post. Written sources are Santorini – An Historical Wineland by Stavroula Kourakou, and The Wines of Greece by Konstantinos Lazarakis. Other information came from Iliana Sidiropoulou of Santorini Wine Trails, who was our wine guide for a day. Errors and misunderstandings, as usual, are doubtless my own.

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Santorini as a destination for wine lovers

Arguably Santorini’s biggest attraction is the view over the volcanic caldera. We arrived after dark, but when we woke up and stuck our noses out of the bedroom we saw it for the first time, and I took this picture. The two closest islands are the peaks of the volcano, while the distant island and Santorini itself represent the volcano’s edge. Nearly 4,000 years ago most of it collapsed into the sea, causing a tsunami that destroyed the Minoan civilisation in Crete some 100 miles away. It is often said that the caldera view is best from the resort of Oia; we were staying just outside the considerably less touristy Megalochori, and ours was pretty good too.

santorini-caldera

santorini-pyrgos

Visual clichés are not difficult to find on Santorini, but that does not necessarily make them any less attractive. This church is in Pyrgos, a village within easy walking distance of Megalochori, and close to the highest point of the island. It is another of the more traditional villages, but has considerably more tourist impact than Megalochori. Perhaps a good thing, as there is a better selection of restaurants, including some of the best on the island. Quite a few more-exclusive hotels too. But being more inland it lacks the much sought-after caldera view, at least the one you get directly from the cliff top. On the other hand you do get a 360° view of the whole island.

Santorini has archaeology too. We spent a leisurely two or three days visiting the two main sites, and the archaeological museums in Fira. Pictured below are some of the Akrotiri excavations of a Minoan bronze age settlement. The town was destroyed by volcanic eruptions around 1627 BC, the ones that also finished the Minoan civilisation in Crete. The site could be described as another Pompeii, both in the sense that it was a town destroyed yet preserved by a volcano, and also in terms of its archaeological significance. There is already a large covered area that has been excavated, but that represents only a small fraction of the town.

santorini-akrotiri

Close to those excavations is a small beach (yes, Santorini has beaches too, if you like that sort of thing) with a few restaurants. There we ate seafood, including this fried squid. Which brings me to the subject of food, and a good deal closer to why wine lovers in particular will like Santorini. Our experience with restaurants was very mixed. It seemed that Santorini tourists are quite happy to throw a lot of money at fancy restaurants that offer stylish, but poorly conceived and executed, food. However good places do exist, and also simple unpretentious family run operations with basic food at a fair price. The squid was eaten as Melina’s Tavern, which is definitely at the better end of the spectrum.

santorini-squid

santorini-wine

There is a lot more to Santorini wine than the Assyrtiko grape, but this variety is the lead player. Various styles of it can be found on the island, but a good quality wine that sees no oak contact is its purest expression, and the Gaia Thalassitis pictured here is an excellent example. Intense, with sharp and steely minerality, but also full-bodied and powerful. Even early in the morning as I type this, the thought of that small plate of squid with a glass of Assyrtiko is making my mouth water.

We did not see the vineyards at the most attractive time of year, but they are nevertheless probably best described as interesting rather than beautiful. I have never seen such barren vineyard soil before – pumice stones and dust, with the occasional lump of volcanic rock, and practically no organic matter.

Vines are widely spaced, to allow each one to find enough water, and pruned very low to prevent wind damage. Basket pruning is the style that usually gets mentioned, and you can see examples in the foreground of the image below. No phylloxera here, so every vine is on its own its own roots. Old vines are common, with many labels claiming vines over 50 years old, and some over 150 – truly pre-phylloxera. Expect more on Santorini vineyards, vines, varieties and wines in future blog posts.

santorini-vineyard

Are there any downsides to Santorini as a tourist destination? Well, it is not the cheapest place in Greece. However, by UK standards, even with a weak pound, I would not say it is particularly expensive either. Also, I am told it gets very busy in the Summer, especially when receiving visits from cruise ships, but in early October nothing seemed particularly crowded. The weather is a bit more of a risk at that time, but we still had maximum temperatures of 23-26ºC, and saw no more than a few spots of rain.

Santorini has so much to offer as a destination for wine lovers. If you haven’t yet been, you should at the very least seriously consider a visit. I don’t know why I left it so long.

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