Drink the grapes of Greece for a taste of summer
The promise of heat.
Hush now, with your weather reports, your resolutions and exercise regimes. You may be in the chilly midst of an English winter; I am in denial. My head is in the cloudless skies of Santorini, a volcanic sliver in the Aegean where the houses are blinding blue and white, the few flowers a fierce pink and the soil an unforgiving pumice stone that ought to be as much use to a homeless vine as an unfurled umbrella during an eruption.
Vines have grown here for thousands of years – the island’s name apparently comes from Santa Irene, the church the ancient Italians could see when they sailed in to buy Vin Santo, the local sweet wine. The vines don’t exactly grow. To protect the grapes from the heat, the thick, woody trunks are coerced into curling in on themselves, round and round.
The result looks like a field of grounded birds’ nests. The grapes nestle in the centre like chicks, protected from the sun by stem and leaf, and from fungus by the hot winds that scour the island. It’s an unforgiving sort of place, Santorini. “Three trees, here, is a forest!” says Stefanos Georgas, winemaker for Estate Argyros. But the vines cling on, their roots sometimes six metres deep, their branches living to well over 100 years old. Perhaps they like the view: Santorini is startlingly beautiful, particularly at sunset over the caldera, the expanse of sea that flowed in during one of the biggest eruptions earth has seen, in the second millennium BC. It entombed the Minoan city of Akrotiri, turned a round island into a crescent and may, according to Plato, have sunk the legendary Atlantis.
The crescent faces west and any right-thinking tourist bids the day farewell looking out across lost domains towards the tip of the Greek mainland, with a tomato keftede in one hand and a glass of Assyrtiko in the other. The fritter is the colour of the western sky; the tomatoes are native to the island and so is the Assyrtiko.
Greece has a remarkable number of grapes nobody else has ever heard of: the Phoenicians brought them in from Mesopotamia, back when there were still Phoenicians and a Mesopotamia. All the whites seem to begin with A, but Assyrtiko is the one to try. It is austere yet pretty – rather like its homeland – mineral but citrusy, thirst-quenching yet moreish. In other words, it’s a mass of contradictions, appropriately enough for a beverage whose ingredients grow on parched pulverised rock in a climate and a location that could drive the geologically minded to drink.
It is lovely – with grilled fish, with those tomatoes in any incarnation, with nothing but the memory of sunshine. I think you can smell those warm, harsh, beneficial winds in the glass; they are a useful reminder that weather extremes can have their uses, although I must say I prefer their extremes to ours.
The final contradiction of this elixir is that the wines from these titchy vineyards, with their hand-picked grapes and minimal production, are available in two of the UK’s biggest supermarkets. M&S has Atlantis, a blend of 90 per cent Assyrtiko, 5 per cent Aidani and five per cent Athiri, from Estate Argyros. Haridimos Hatzidakis sells his organic entry-level Assyrtikos to Waitrose, despite having a winery that looks like a Portaloo and a tasting room that’s a cave beneath a foliageroofed shed. For a better range of Hatzidakis’s wines, the London wine shop Theatre of Wine is the place to go – unless you’ve the wherewithal for a flight to Greece.
The lost island of Atlantis may or may not lurk beneath the waters around that ravaged, ravishing crescent of rock. But it isn’t drowned land I’m after, anyway. It’s light and the promise of heat: the chance to sit on my unvolcanic island with a glassful of summer. It’s called the best of both worlds and it tastes delicious.