Akrotiri continues to give up secrets about Minoan society 4,000 years ago, and the similarities to our own modern comforts are pretty incredible....
Perhaps the ancient Minoan towns that populated Santorini Island and Crete 4,000 years ago looked similar to this modern-day view.
Standing on the edge of the caldera and looking out into the sea, it's difficult to imagine that beneath these peaceful, lapping waves lurks one of the world's most powerful volcanoes, and that this calm view was one of armageaddon-like destruction during the Minoan Explosion sometime between 1500 and 1627 BC.
The volcanic eruption all those millenia ago buried in ash and pumice an ancient Minoan town that archeologists refer to as Akrotiri. This bustling sea-faring town boasted three story houses with a market square, paved streets, artistic wall paintings, advanced furniture, toilets and plumbing, pipes and 'air conditioning' systems, and evidence that ancient wine was traded through this town. The sea-faring Minoans had some sort of warning of the volcanic eruption, because no human remains were left at the site. Perhaps early smoke, sulfur, and pre-volcanic earthquakes caused their organized departure. Archeologists posit that although they made it off the island, the people of this town most likely perished on their ships in a tsunami that followed the explosion. The volcanic explosion weakened other Minoan outposts to the point where other cultures and civilizations could easily move in and take over their cities. Imagine what the world could be like today if some of the Minoan technologies could have been advanced on thousands of years ago.
These plaster casts of wooden beds are just one example of the craftsmanship and handiwork of the Minoans.
Here, you see a glimpse into a bustling marketplace where amphorae filled with grains, oils, and wines supplied the locals with daily needs.
A closer looks shows a view of an amphora that held grain-- the contents were usually hinted at by the designs on the pottery. In the amphora in the upper left of the photo you can see the grain design painted on the outside of the clay.
Akrotiri continues to give up secrets about Minoan society 4,000 years ago, and the similarities to our own modern comforts are pretty incredible....
As I grow deeper and deeper into my sommelier career, I am continually amazed by wines from terra rossa soil. Call it an obsession if you must, but this soil-type has an unbelievable way of transmitting its raw flavors through to the palate. Wines from grapes grown on these iron-rich, bright red soils yield some of the densest, flavorful, and stunning wines the world has to offer. On a recent trip to Greece, I took a stroll through the lands, groves, and vineyards of Biblia Chora, and was delighted to feel my feet sink into the soil here. The remarkable terra rossa landscape that surrounds the Biblia Chora estate is the source of power in their wines.
Seas of wavy grasses lead the way to hillside vineyards, located at the foot of Mount Pageo. Jagged rocky outcroppings form a dramatic skyline in the distance, as spiders and garden snakes watch pensively as you invade their territory. The land seems to ooze a sense of mystery, as if it had a narrative of rich history to tell... if it only had the words.
And indeed there was a rich history here. Ancient documents trace winemaking back through the centuries and note a particular popular grape variety called Bibla Ambelos. Biblia Chora winery takes its name after this long-lost variety.
Two swaths of land that led from the winery to the mid-way up the mountain's foothills look a bit different, and in fact, they are scars from a recent mysterious fire. Blackened, flame-ravaged trees poked their branches out from new wild-flower growth. The trees are still in that delicate post-fire state where it isn't clear if they will continue to grow, or wither to dust.
Over a hundred vines were lost in the flames, but the main vineyards are-- thankfully-- just fine.
Just who is bold and tenacious enough to plant assyrtiko in this terrain? And to put in all the extra hours and manpower to farm it organically?
It takes teamwork. Vassilia Tsaksarlis and Vangelis Gerovassiliou first planted assyrtiko in 1998. Since 2003, assyrtiko has been an allowed grape variety in the Pangeon Area PGI.
Biblia Chora produces many wines in addition to assyrtiko, including agiorghitiko & cabernet sauvignon. But it was the assyrtiko that seemed to be stirring up conversation all over Greece.
Throughout Greece, I heard many people scoff that assyrtiko isn't suitable to northern vineyards because it cannot possibly compare to Santorini assyrtiko. And it's true that the root systems are babies compared to the 300-500 year old assyrtiko roots embedded in the Santorini pumice. But a side-by-side comparison is pointless-- like comparing the lifetime achievements of an 80 year old scholar to a talented and promising teenage student. Of course the young vines here haven't grown their roots so deep; of course they lack decades of track record; and certainly they have not had the chance to subtly adapt clones to the environment here. Of course they cannot produce fruit (yet) that can elicit the magical response of which the historic vines on Santorini are capable. These things take centuries, and more than one generation of capable stewards. The vines here are trained differently. They face different pests. The climate is different. The soils are drastically different. The vineyards here and the vineyards there produce completely different wines.
But despite their youth and the different struggles Nature tasks them with, the assyrtikos from Biblia Chora have their own sense of beauty. After tasting through about a decade of examples, it's impossible to deny that something special is happening here.
Here are a few tasting notes from a fascinating vertical tasting of Areti assyrtiko:
2004 Biblia Chora 'Areti' assyrtiko
mushrooms, dried cedar, an acid skeleton with little flesh left on the bones. Interesting, but at the end of it's evolution.
2005 Biblia Chora 'Areti' assyrtiko
a soft light lemon aroma, zesty bright texture, an interesting fresh mushroom mid-palate taste
2006 Biblia Chora 'Areti' assyrtiko
aromas of seaweed and green leaves, a bit faded but in a nice way. soft & supple texture
2007 Biblia Chora 'Areti' assyrtiko
a really stellar example of aged assyrtiko from Northern Greece. Lemon nose with hints of developing mushroom, a round & rich texture
2008 Biblia Chora 'Areti' assyrtiko
that classic lemon-zest aroma, but with hints of subtle floral perfume, a pithy tartness on the palate with a soft, pleasant acidity. quite elegant and stately
2009 Biblia Chora 'Areti' assyrtiko
aromas of lemon and peaches with just a hint of smokiness, a flavor like juicy meyer lemon juice
2010 Biblia Chora 'Areti' assyrtiko
aromas of peach pit and a rich, lemon zest flavor. a clean zingy finish
2011 Biblia Chora 'Areti' assyrtiko
talcum and butter-lemon-poundcake aromas, a soft, pure richness, an acidity that is almost chewy, like lemon candies
2012 Biblia Chora 'Areti' assyrtiko
*the first year that they began barrel fermenting 15% of the wine. the previous years are all steel.
*every Areti is aged 4 months on the lees
smokey, herbaceous aromas, hints of oak. medium bodied, very intense with a rich mid-palate
Tsaksarlis and Gerovassiliou also make a white blend called 'Ovilos' that blends 50% semillon with 50% assyrtiko with lovely results, mimicking the dialog between semillon and high-acid sauvignon blanc that you can find in great white Bordeaux.
It's pretty exciting to see what these two are culling from assyrtiko in the North.
The plane landed on Santorini and we headed straight for Gaia Winery (pronounced "Yay-yah"). Through the windows of the van came flashes of white sandy fields with sparse vegetation, black and red mountains rising up from the foothills, and jagged outcroppings of volcanic rocks. As we neared the winery, an old chimney grew larger in our sights. We parked in its shadows and our group wandered out into the sunlight in various states of jetlag and sleep deprivation. Maybe it was partly due to the dream state we all seemed to be in, but it was clear to all we had just entered an other-wordly paradise.
The winery is an old tomato processing plant - turned nightclub - turned winery, and vestiges of both former lives are apparent as you walk through the building complex. This chimney once played a big part in making thousands of gallons of tomato paste. Santorini is famous for delicious tomatoes that have a unique bite to them due to the volcanic soils. At one time, 18 tomato processing plants thrived on the island, similar to this one. Today, there is only one.
The old tomato factories are either destroyed or repurposed, and this one works great as a location for aging Gaia's Vin Santo.
The tasting room (formerly the dance floor for the nightclub) is perched on the edge of the Mediterranean. From this unique volcanic beach, it is difficult to imagine that this is the same sea that washes ashore on Croatia's verdant coastline, and that these are the same waves that lap against the jagged rocks that rise up from the Amalfi Coast.
A few steps from the winery the sea pounds against a beach of black sand, studded with ancient bits of lava, pumice, and sulphur. It's the same volcanic soil in which the vines struggle.
On this day, the waves seemed a bit violent; possibly a good day for some small-time surfing. As you approached the water, powerful crests came crashing down on grapefruit-sized rocks, shaping them into soft, round stones. Once the water hit the beach it disappeared quickly as it filtered through course sand-- exactly the opposite of how a crashed wave rides up several meters on the compact, silky sand of a Caribbean beach.
But in the tasting room, away from the vociferous meeting of water and rock, the sound of the crashes had a lulling, gentle effect. You couldn't block out the sound of the waves, just as you cannot separate the influence of the ocean when you taste these wines.
Yiannis Paraskevopoulos is the man pulling the strings behind this operation. He spirited us off to a historic vineyard with some of the oldest ungrafted vines in the world. The root systems of these plants are 300-500 years old.
Most of the vines on the island (with the exception of some of Sigalas' vineyards) are trained as a basket. Each year, the wood from the previous year is coiled to form another ring of the basket-- counting the rings, you'll see some baskets are close to a century old. When the baskets are about 80-100 years old, they are snipped off, and a new basket is started from shoots that come up from the root system.
The nutrients pulled up from the soil by the vast, ancient root system must coil through-- in some cases-- a football field's length of vine before reaching the fruit.
The soils in the vineyards are not unlike the beach sand off the winery steps. White and black sands, yellow sulphur rocks, red pumice, and snail shells form a deep layer of volcanic-based soils practically devoid of organic material. It's mind-boggling to walk above root systems that have been mining this rock collection for half a millennium.
Here are a few different angles of a single plant-- you can see the coil pattern of the older growth when you look at the plant from the inside, or from the side. You can see a grape bunch tucked in the center of the basket, where it will be protected from high winds that can rip across the sands at up to Beaufort Force 8.
Training vines in this basket method is laborious and time consuming. Pruning takes weeks, sometimes months.
Most of the vineyards are owned and worked by locals who have passed down vine training/pruning techniques through the generations. There are about 1,000 growers who hold an average of less than 1 hectare. These growers sell their grapes to one of the 13 wineries on the island.
When Yiannis wonders aloud to some of his growers why so much hard labor is put into so few grapes, they say they do it "to be unbored." (ha!) You might also see the faint trenches they've dug (in unbored states) between the rows-- these are dug to help water distribute evenly throughout the vineyard in a heavy rain.
Aside from the occasional heavy rain, one of the biggest vineyard destroyers is a unique wind that blows up from the Sahara every few years. Known as the Livas, the hot wind can "turn your grapes to raisins in a day," Yiannis notes. "It can destroy your harvest." Other winds besides the Livas can also be threatening. In 2012, Force 11 winds "didn't stop for three days and we lost 75% of our berries right at budbreak."
Another winemaker, Stefanos from Argyros Estate, also lamented the 2012 damage. Shaking his head, he said, "I remember the date. April 18th 2012," as he despairingly recalled hurricane-force winds in his vineyards.
And so, basket training is a necessity in most places on the island.
Here, Yiannis lifts up a basket from the bottom, revealing the coil-like training method, and showing us some of the older wood snaked at the bottom.
We tasted through several of Yiannis' wines. Here are a few notes from some of my personal favorites:
2013 "Wild Ferment" Assyrtiko
1/2 barrique - 1/2 stainless steel
of the barriques: 1/3 Acacia, 1/3 French, 1/3 American
A unique herbaceous aroma of dark green shiso leaves; a soft oak structure that hides like lace behind the bracing acidity; the finish tastes like fresh grapefruit and you feel a unique cooling sensation on the gums.
2009 'Thalassitis' Assyrtiko
round aromas, like a fluffy lemon meringue; a dancing midpalate; a unique sensation of cooling on the palate similar to the 2013 wild ferment; the sensation you get from chewing mint without the mint flavor.
2013 'Thalassitis' Assyrtiko
lemons, salts, and stones; a vibrant electric midpalate; a dense yet light flavor, like an airy meringue made of salted pomice, lemon zest, and electric sparks.
*notes from a visit/tasting on 6/4/2014
Bright red terra rossa soil is famous the world over for its unique flavors and characteristics that can be transmitted through wine.
Here is an overview of some famous terra rossa vineyards and regions around the globe:
Weilberg (Pfalz, Germany)
Pfeffingen "Weilberg" Riesling (Pfalz, Germany)
There are two known vineyards with terra rossa soil in Germany: the Steingruber in Westhoffen and this Weilberg vineyard in Ungstein. Pfeffingen's Weilberg vineyard has a strip of terra rossa soil that runs from the top of the hill to the bottom. The terra rossa portion takes up about 4 hectares of the vineyard's 30 hectares. Pfeffingen owns 2 of the 4 terra rossa hectares. They plant riesling on it; the co-op that owns the other half plants it with spatburgunder.
Pfeffingen winemaker Jan Eymael has this to say about working with the terra rossa soil:
"Terra rossa is an extremely dense soil. It's very thick and extremely difficult to work with. When it's dry, it is as hard as concrete. When it's wet, it's really sticky." (Eymael, 2013)
Coonawarra: Wynns & John Riddoch
John Riddoch (1827-1901): born in Scotland, moved to Australia during a gold mining boom, found a gold nugget, sold it, used the money to open up a series of shops that sold necessities to gold miners. In 1861 he came to Penola where he farmed sheep and got lucky in a wool boom. He became wealthy, built a mansion in Yallum Park, entertained royalty and was considered one of the best dressed members of the South Australian parliament. By the time 1891 rolled around he was ready to open up a new business and founded the Penola Fruit Company. He planted cabernet sauvignon, shiraz, malbec and pinot noir and made his first wine by 1895. (Wynns 2004)
In 1897 Riddoch rallied the local growers and suggested that they name their town Coonawarra. The name began to appear on labels and soon Coonawarra wines popped up frequently in the press. After Riddoch's death a distillery took over and spent decades turning wine from this incredible terroir into brandy. To help the regional economy growers were offered subsidies to rip out crops and start dairy farms. Things were looking bleak for Coonawarra wine until S. Wynn & Co. bought the old Riddoch property in 1951 and started selling wine instead of brandy.
In 1982 Wynns decided to pay homage to John Riddoch by naming a top cuvee after him. It's made from only the top fruit in the top vintages, and after that only a few select barrels are chosen. The winemakers at Wynns estimate that less than 1% of their top cabernet sauvignon grapes go into this special bottling.
Eymael, Jan. (2013) Personal Communication during Winery Visit. 2 May 2013.
Wynns (ed). (2004) Reflections: 50 Years of Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
*this is a promotional book put out by the winery to celebrate their 50 year anniversary & document a 50 year vertical tasting held in celebration of the anniversary.
Tsaksarlis, Vassilia. (2014) Personal Communication during Winery Visit. 1 June 2014.
I’m Erin, and I’m thirsty for drinks and the secrets they hold. Wine is my main game, but I’ve been known to love a cocktail here and there, and who doesn’t like a good beer on the regular? This blog is for wine/spirits/beer geeks. No beverage will be left unsipped!