Santorini - Hatzidakis Those of you who have visited the small Cycladic will know the sheer, dry, volcanic beauty of the place. You may also know that Santorini is one of the finest wine producing regions in the whole of Greece – and it is here you will find the superlative, most aristocratic of all Greece’s indigenous white grape varieties, Assyrtiko. This island, with its half-moon shaped bay – sculpted by a volcanic blast that obliterated about one-third of the landmass over 3,000 years ago - unleashes panoramas of high rolling coloured rock terraces that end abruptly at white cliffs which plunge into the Aegean. Mild winters and warm, dry summers here combine perfectly with the volcanic soil to give steely fresh mineraltinted wines that range from bone-dry all the way through to succulently sweet. Grown in the porous pumice soil of the island, the highly versatile Assyrtiko produces the best dry white wines of the country, and also produces the island’s glorious sweet wine, Vinsanto. In the hands of Greece’s most talented winemaker Haridimos Hatzidakis, Assyrtiko produces slide-rule balanced, focused, steely mineral flavoured dry whites with the most charming locked-in fruit imaginable, and cask-aged Vinsanto’s that unload raisins, nuts, citrus and dates along a firm rod of tasty cutting acidity. He also makes a fantastic dry late-harvest wine known locally as Nykteri which, when aged for three to five years in the bottle takes on the air of a fine aged Sauvignon Blanc. Growers on this island shield their grapes from the hot Meltemi winds by weaving their vines into basket shapes - this also traps precious dew from the night air, to feed the plant much needed moisture. Incredibly, this helps to supplement the vines with water, because the parched pumice soil of the island will give up the little moisture it retains only to roots that are able to delve deeply enough to reach what sparse moisture there is far beneath the surface of the island. But this is part of the reason such wonderful wines are made on Santorini - vines that are forced to live life under so much stress, on the edge of starvation and barely able to survive for many months of the year, are the ones that produce the best results when it comes to making wine. Santorini, until now, has only been well-known for its white wines. No red wines of any note have been made on the island for over a century due to the region’s lack of a high-quality signature indigenous red variety. Until now only the local variety Mandelaria has been utilised to any great extent to make aromatic though rather thin non-descript red wines. But things are about to change – pioneering producer Haridimos Hatzidakis has successfully resurrected the once nearextinct red variety Mavrotragano. He started experimenting with this grape in 1995 when he was still Boutari’s winemaker on Santorini, and decided to carry on his project on his own when he branched out by himself with his own label in 1997. There have been many problems along the way with this hugely tannic monster of a grape, but since 2000 Hatzidakis has released five Vintages. Before this, Hatzidakis engraved his name as ’s most talented winemaker when he launched his fabulous dry white wines and his other-worldly fresh-tasting Vinsanto sweet wine in 1997 from his tiny but ultra-efficient winery, which is literally carved into the earth by the side of one of his organic vineyards. The sheer artistry of these wines has catapulted his reputation to cult-status not only in this country, but in the and much of the rest of as well. You can now find his wines available in this country not only with pioneering merchants such as The Wine Society and Theatre Of Wine, but also such eminent retailers as Fortnum and Mason and Harvey Nichols. This is not only because he has succeeded in outperforming far more established – and far bigger and more powerful - producers in the region, but his skill and pioneering work with near-extinct varieties such as Mavrotragano has been so successful that it has forced a complete rethink and turnaround-in-direction of red wine production on the island of Santorini. The effects of this are now even beginning to be felt in other regions on the mainland, where rival producers are starting to take note and experiment with this variety themselves. The combined effect of Hatzidakis’ success in these different areas has now, in my opinion, lofted his reputation above every other winemaker in . “Mavrotragano and Voidomatis have traditionally and historically been the two main indigenous red grape varieties on the island,” said Hatzidakis. However the collapse of the Russian market about 100 years ago had a devastating effect on viticulture in Santorini and many vineyards were abandoned. In the period prior to the Crimea War, Mavrotragano was used to make very good quality Vinsanto. Similarly Voidomatis was used for sweet wine as well. Mandelaria is now the predominant red grape variety on Santorini. It was first brought in from the neighbouring to Santorini in 1957 by the Argyros family - one of the largest vineyard owners and winemakers on the island. Mavrotragano however is now challenging to become the number one red grape variety on the island and I believe it has all the qualities to succeed”. “The main difficulties with Mavrotragano are viticulture related,” explains Hatzidakis. “This is mainly due to the fact there is not sufficient experience with this variety. Although the 2004 vintage has been a great success, I am still experimenting with Mavrotragano, and there are still cultivation issues to be sorted out. A lot of work still needs to be done on the vines in my new vineyards, and I’m still trying to establish which areas on the island are best suited to this variety. There are also difficulties at the moment in the selection of good quality grapes. At present the predominant method of cultivation is the old traditional 'basket method'. However it is not certain that this is the best for approach for Mavrotragano, with the exception of course of those vineyards at higher altitude which are exposed to the winds. A lot of work therefore needs to be done to establish the best method of viticulture for this unique and unusual grape variety. Outside Santorini the Mavrotragano is not well known. Some efforts have been made to grow this variety on the mainland, but it is very early to tell how much success will be had with Mavrotragano away from Santorini" he said. The Wine society has bravely stocked Hatzidakis’ experimental Mavrotragano for the last two vintages. His hedonistic 2004 – on sale now - is filled with perfumed garden herbs, leathery tobacco-tinted fruit and has a rich balance and velvety tannins no other vintage of this promising variety has ever possessed. There is no question in my mind that there is much more to come from Mavrotragano, and that this variety will take the place of the rather dowdy Mandelaria as the chief red variety of the island - and it may even rival Assyrtiko one day as the great grape of Santorini. The wines of Hatzidakis are easily available by mail-order or over the internet from Cooden Cellars in (01323-649663 www.coodencellars.co.uk). Speak to my friend Ian Jarman there and tell him I sent you. He may try to tell you a thing or two about our time together in – don’t believe a word of it! Hatzidakis Santorini White (Assyrtiko) 2004/5/6 – £8.99 One of the finest white wines produced in today. I liken it a little to Grand Cru Chablis in its steely focus, style of fruit and tremendous balance – it is dry, firm, flinty on the palate, powerful but subtle with a sublime minerality, and the enormous concentration of restrained lemon/jasmine fruit makes this colossus of a wine the envy of just about every other producer in . Hatzidakis Nykteri White (Assyrtiko) 2003/04/05 - £9.99 This incredible late harvest white is powerful yet so restrained and so fresh-tasting on the palate you would never guess that it is able to age for around six to seven years. There is a creamy feel about the bone-dry fruit which dwells beneath a backbone of crisp but unobtrusive acidity, and this only intensifies with maturity, to take on the air of an aged Sauvignon Blanc. Hatzidakis Mavrotragano (Red) 2003/04 - £12.50 Even though Hatzidakis is still experimenting with this wine, it is still the finest red to be found on Santorini. Edgy and Pinot Noir like in character, beautifully balanced and laced with nuances of garden herbs and leather. A must-taste for anyone with a deep interest in rare grape varieties – it should age well for around seven years. Hatzidakis Vinsanto 1998 - £11.50 per half-bottle The incredible freshness on the palate of such a sweet wine is testament to the skill with which this wine has been made. Nuts, apricots, a crisp rod of tasty acidity, candied fruit, all abound within the huge complexity of this perfectly balanced mega-stylish sweet wine. It’s expensive, but worth every penny, I’ve tasted wines at twice the price which just aren’t as good.
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