The secret of Santorini’s Assyrtiko is rapidly making its way through the grapevine of New York’s gourmands, who are raving about the grape variety grown on the southeast Aegean island.
“The Americans are mad about Assyrtiko,” the general manager of the Union of Santorini Cooperatives, Matthaios Dimopoulos, says with no small amount of pride.
The Assyrtiko grape is, of course, grown in other parts of the world as well, but the climate and terroir of the volcanic island have endowed the local grapes with special characteristics, most notably a high concentration of polyphenols, which affect the wine’s taste, color and mouthfeel.
“When vineyards are under stress, as ours are because of strong winds and aridity, you do get high polyphenol concentrations. This is why we like to say that Assyrtiko is the only white wine with the characteristics of a red,” says Markos Kafouros, chairman of the the Union of Santorini Cooperatives and deputy mayor of Thera (as Santorini is officially known), as he shows us around the USC premises, which has hosted some 300,000 guests in the past few years alone for tastings.
Other than winemakers, the union also represents growers of other Santorini products, such as its signature cherry tomatoes and fava (Lathyrus clymenum). This summer, visitors to the USC premises and shop will also be able to purchase a new product line designed by Korres, one of Greece’s leading producers of natural cosmetics, which makes use of the Assyrtiko grape and its beneficial properties with the essence of the grape skin. The Santorini Vine Collection consists of a shower gel and body cream that signals the new partnership between Korres and USC, which also represents Santo Wines. The new product will also be gradually distributed through pharmacies across Greece and Korres outlets in the US and Germany, before heading for France, Russia, Finland, the Czech Republic, Ukraine, Belgium, Australia, Singapore, Japan, South Korea and Cyprus.
Vintner Stavros Lygnos cannot hide his enthusiasm about the new opportunities that have opened up for the USC through partnerships with the private sector and the fact that Assyrtiko has been recognized as an endemic variety.
“I have spent my entire life since childhood in the fields and now 90 percent of my crop is Assyrtiko,” says the 62-year-old farmer.
This partnership is not the first of its kind for Korres, however, as it has also worked with saffron producers in Kozani, northern Greece, in a project that has helped 1,000 families from 20 villages in the area.
The Athens-listed company is further collaborating with 3,000 families that cultivate mastic (mastiha) on Chios island and with farmers in Agrinio who used to grow tobacco and have now turned to chamomile crops for the cosmetics company.
Korres works closely with the Athens Agricultural University and has made deals in Thesprotia for sage, Larissa for almonds, Samos for lemon verbena, Olympus for mountain tea, Naxos for thyme, Komotini for calendula and the American Farm School in Thessaloniki for echinacea.
The company’s decision to commission farmers to grow the ingredients it uses in its preparations was strategic and is aimed at supporting small farms and local communities.
It has also branched out into the field of social support by spearheading a program at the Aghia agricultural prison in Hania, Crete, where inmates are taught how to grow basil using organic methods, as well as a similar initiative in collaboration with the KETHEA drug rehabilitation program in Thessaloniki for the organic cultivation of yarrow.