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How Greece’s Assyrtiko Became a Global Sensation

How Greece’s Assyrtiko Became a Global Sensation

If you walk into a bar or restaurant and it serves one Greek wine, odds are it’s an Assyrtiko. To raise the stakes, you can bet dollars to dolmas that it’s an Assyrtiko from Santorini, the grape’s volcanic homeland in the Aegean Sea. It’s a surprisingly safe wager. Despite the fact that Greece has some 300 indigenous wine grapes, and even though only 3% or so of the country’s 64,000 hectares of vineyards are planted to Assyrtiko, Santorini’s hometown hero is the most prominent Greek wine in the United States. Big-city sommeliers praise its food-friendliness and aging potential. The staunchest advocates claim that, in a blind tasting, wine experts might misidentify Santorini Assyrtiko as Grand Cru Chablis (le gasp).

Few things in wine are certain, including which grapes or regions become global superstars. Climate science, consumption trends, the fickle whims of iPhonewielding tourists and more all had to align to turn Santorini Assyrtiko into an international ambassador for Greece’s ancient wine culture. Now that they have, neither Greek wine nor Santorini’s volcanic slopes will ever be the same.

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Far-Flung Finds

Enthusiasm for Santorini Assyrtiko and the popularity of the island itself are growing in tandem. From 2021 to 2022, tourism to Santorini was up more than 60%, surpassing pre-pandemic levels to welcome some 745,000 international arrivals with seaside cliffs and aquamarine waters in their minds. Tourism is a double-edged sword for locals—creating seasonal jobs while at the same time eroding coastlines and forging a prohibitively expensive real estate market— but it elevates the stature of Santorini’s best-known grape. Far-flung travelers return from Santorini with sand in their hair and a taste for Assyrtiko, says Johnny Kozlowski, beverage director for The Avra Group, a fleet of Greek restaurants with locations in Manhattan, Miami and Los Angeles: “People have gone to visit Santorini, or had a friend who visited, and they come back and tell their friends about the great wines they had, and now they want to try Assyrtiko, too.”

Kozlowski links Assyrtiko’s rise to broader consumption trends across the U.S. With its electric acidity and expressive minerality, Santorini Assyrtiko pairs with the sorts of foods many Americans are eating: “healthy, ‘clean,’ with a lot of olive oil instead of butter,” Kozlowski says. “When you get people enjoying those kinds of meals, these are the wines they want to drink with them.”

Of course, fun meals and vacations aren’t foolproof ways to build a global wine phenomenon. After all, plenty of Americans visited Portugal in recent years, and considerably more of us are searching the internet for Assyrtiko than are googling Arinto, Touriga Nacional or other Portuguese wine grapes, according to Google Trends data. If Assyrtiko weren’t so delicious and relatively accessibly priced (for now), it wouldn’t matter how many people sipped it while filming their Instagram Reels.

            We’ve reached the day where a frenchman is advising another frenchman to plant assyrtiko.

Yiannis Paraskevopoulos

“The wines are so unique,” says Sofia Perpera, an Athens-based chemist and oenologist who consults for the Greek Wine Federation. “They’re so rich, they have layers and excellent aging potential and they go with so many foods … You get this amazing minerality from the volcano. It reminds you of Montrachet from Burgundy.”

The volcanic caldera of Santorini, Greece / Getty Images

Taking the Heat

Flattering comparisons aside, Assyrtiko has an advantage that no one in the wine business can deny. The grape is resistant to disease and drought, adaptable to various growing conditions and, crucially, retains uncommonly high levels of acidity as heat indexes climb. “With global warming, the first thing grapes lose is acidity,” says Perpera. “Assyrtiko is a gift from Santorini to the world when it comes to climate change.”

Hardiness amid a rapidly changing climate has inspired winemakers to plant Assyrtiko everywhere from Italy’s Alto Adige to Australia’s Clare Valley. “A winemaker friend of mine in the U.S. told me, ‘If I have a problem with acidity in my wine [blend], I just add some Assyrtiko,’” Perpara says.

Yiannis Paraskevopoulos, winemaker and co-owner of Gai’a Wines in Santorini and Nemea, Greece, has had similar conversations of late. A French winemaker called to pick his brain about Assyrtiko because a neighbor advised him to plant it to withstand an increasingly hot, arid Mediterranean climate. “We’ve reached the day where a Frenchman is advising another Frenchman to plant Assyrtiko,” says Paraskevopoulos, laughing. “I lived to see the day.”

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These new, international Assyrtikos share characteristics like adaptability in the vineyard and acidity in the bottle, but Santorini Assyrtiko has its own je ne sais quoi. Even if you allow for what Kozlowski artfully describes as “the romance of the volcano,” or the persuasive power of a cool-sounding backstory, the best bottles of Santorini Assyrtiko have a distinctive linear structure, beautifully tart fruit and flintiness from millennia-old, pre-phylloxera root systems.

“All volcanic soils are not created equal,” says Paraskevopoulos. Santorini’s soils contain very little potassium, which sounds like a bad thing but is great for creating acidity in grapes and protecting vines from diseases. The absence of clay in Santorini’s vineyard soils means Assyrtiko plots don’t retain water or sustain organic matter, “so our yields remain dramatically low,” says Paraskevopoulos. “The lower your yields are, the more concentrated your wines feel.”

Age is another differentiator. Everything in Greece is ancient: The volcanic eruptions that created Santorini were in the 17th century B.C.E.; people have been making wine on the island for more than 3,000 years; and Paraskevopoulos estimates Gai’a’s expansive root system is about 500 years old. “We have terroir expression because the root system is so voluminous, it’s in contact with all the elements of the soil,” he says. “It’s the reason why a new vine could not express the same minerality.”

Geological composition and terroir expression are the sorts of topics that get people in the wine world hot and bothered and can seem jargony at best for a lot of consumers. Yet, Santorini Assyrtiko has managed to carve out a niche that’s equalparts crowd-pleasing and geeky. In an industry fraught with uncertainty, it’s an overnight success story some 3,000 years in the making.

Santorini Assyrtikos To Try

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2024 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!

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