Note: Our own Erin Zimmer just returned from ten days eating and drinking her way around Greece and will be sharing her adventures with us all week as Snapshots from Greece. —Ed.
When most people think of Greek wines—that is, if they ever think about Greek wines—they think retsina. Sadly, it's been nicknamed alcoholic Pine-Sol since it was first created with pine resin to help boost the shelf life 2,000 years ago. This hasn't been so great for the rest of Greek wines, especially the non-piney, non-sucky ones.
On Santorini, one of the Cyclades islands and a hot tourist magnet, Assyrtiko grapes grow all over, creating some of Greece's best white wine. People might not notice the grapes with all those distracting black sand beaches and deep-blue waters. You've probably seen a postcard (or watched Mamma Mia or Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants). The grapevines were hiding somewhere behind the amazing white sugar cube-shaped architecture built into the cliffs.
It's pretty incredible that Santorini can produce wine, especially since it experienced a volcanic eruption around 1500 B.C., leaving the island all ripped apart. Because of the little rainfall, big winds, and sunny skies, Santorini vintners have been forced to grow the Assyrtiko grapes a certain way. To protect them from the tough natural conditions, the plants are pruned low to the ground in a basket shape, where the protected grapes grow at the center. This means no nifty machine can swing by and pick them all in one clean sweep during harvest season—they have to be hand-plucked.
Assyrtiko wine usually has a full-bodied, acidic flavor with refreshing aromas, and pairs well with seafood. The island's salty air and natural volcanic soil (made of pumice and lava bits) infuses it with a nice, crisp minerality. About ninety-percent of Santorini's wine-making comes from the Assyrtiko grape, and as it becomes more popular internationally, wineries on mainland Greece have started planting it too, adding Assyrtiko to blends to give them a nice acidic oomph.
Snapshots from Greece: Koulouri, the Thessaloniki Street Food
Snapshots from Greece: The Modiano Market in Thessaloniki
Snapshots from Greece: Fage Yogurt
Snapshots from Greece: Souvlaki from O Thanasis in Athens