I first encountered assyrtiko, well the notion of it anyway, while researching and writing a piece about new grape varietals, in December 2011.
Eben Sadie and the young Turks in the Swartland were leading the charge back then, with plans on the ground to plant small blocks – a quarter hectare each – of the likes of assyrtiko, agiorghitiko, piquepoul blanc, terret noir, marsanne, carignan and grenache noir.
The thinking was actually, still is that as the already arid Western Cape becomes hotter and drier, the wine industry will need to look to planting new varietals that can thrive in dry-land vineyard conditions, because the viticultural capacity of what we’ve grown here traditionally will decline over time.
And that is bad news for an industry already under immense pressure to survive and prosper.
Back then the timeline for getting such new vine material into the country – it is a meticulous and time-consuming process followed by Vititec which is essential to safeguard our agricultural domain – looked
like five years or so, which means that by 2016, the first plantings of these new vines ought to have been under way.
Fast forward to 2019, and what appears to be the first commercial planting of assyrtiko, a savoury white Greek varietal hailing from the Aegean island of Santorini, will be planted on a north-east facing slope on freshly prepared ground at Jordan wine estate on the Stellenboschkloof Road this year.
The one hectare vineyard makes the 35-year dream of Gary and Kathy Jordan a reality, a dream which they have nurtured since they visited Santorini in 1984 for the first time and tasted the savoury wine, redolent of minerality and white fruit flavours and aromas, with its naturally low pH, high acids and surprisingly pleasing astringency.
Upon their return from Santorini all those years ago, Gary contacted Vititec’s predecessor, then under stewardship of the KWV, to enquire if assyrtiko was available. “It’s not on the list, meneer,” Gary recalls being told.
But the dream was kept alive, nurtured by return visits to Santorini, tasting, talking, thinking assrytiko, planning for the day it would come to Jordan.
This tale unfolds during a fascinating tasting at Jordan a couple of weeks back, preceded by an exhaustive geological description of the Cape Winelands (Gary is a geologist by profession), juxtaposed with a description of the terroir of Santorini from which assyrtiko hails, and culminating in the reveal of the high site which has multiple soil types, all dry and rocky, in which the new vines will be planted.
“There isn’t much assyrtiko material available,” says Gary, “so it’s going to take four to five years to plant what we want.” The process to bring a new varietal into the country, and make it commercially available, is lengthy but vital.
Vititec is the only institution in South Africa licensed by ENTAV-INRA in France to undertake the complex process which is essential to satisfy the daunting phytosanitary requirements for introducing any new plant material into our agricultural domain. Set by the Department of Agriculture to ensure that ghoulies and ghasties which could be enormously destructive to our national vineyard do not find their way into the country, it is difficult and expensive to find an agency overseas in the country of origin of many of these varietals, to complete the phytosanitary requirements, and to certify the plant material virus and parasite-free.
“But it’s not only the phytosanitary requirements that pose a challenge. Back in 2011, Vititec CEO, Nico Spreeth said: “The first thing we’d have to do is make sure it is actually assyrtiko. Vineyards in Greece are often planted with more than one varietal.”
But thanks to the relationship established between Vititec and ENTAV-INRA, its counterpart in France, both phytosanitary certification and the verification of the type of vine material, is bullet-proof according to Nico.
“When we get plant material from ENTAV-INRA, we are secure in the knowledge that it is what we have asked for, and that it is clean.”
Once the vine material is certified safe, it must be propagated under controlled conditions on own roots in a mother block, after which it can be grafted onto phylloxera resistant root stock to prepare the “stokkies” that will find their way into a new vineyard, and those “stokkies” are waiting patiently for the time when they will journey to Jordan, their new home.
“Once planted, it will be four to five years before we have a harvest of any magnitude from to make wine in any quantity,” says Gary, adding
that the site is ideal for the new vines: hot, dry, often windy, and poor sandy, rocky soils, the very conditions in which assyrtiko thrives on Santorini.
An intriguing feature of assrytiko, is the practice of weaving the living vine in basket-weave ground-hugging fashion to protect the vine from the Meltemi, the prevailing north wind that blows, sometimes for days, in the hot season in Santorini.
The tasting hosted by Gary, is fascinating. We sample eight assyrtikos, seven from vineyards in Santorini, and one from Jim Barry in the Clare Valley in Australia, the only commercial assyrtiko vineyard outside of Greece.
The assembled palates dissect each wine in detail, debating its pros and cons, discussing its stylistic nuances, colour, nose and palate, and whether or not it will appeal to South African palates.
The discussion is all about style – each wine is technically perfect – and the breadth of opinion is quite wide, which shows just how palate preferences differ among those of us fortunate enough to do this as part of our day jobs.
A show of hands in the closing stages of the tasting picks out the top two wines in the line-up, which
gives Gary what he was after: the aggregate opinion of the assembled company as to which styles he might consider pursuing when the first assyrtiko grapes arrive at the cellar door.
And a few years thereafter, we’ll find out what that style might be.