I like classic wines made from so-called noble grape varieties as much as anyone, but there’s a thrill of a different kind in wines that push the frontiers. I wrote about a batch of these boundary-pushers last September in The next big thing… There was a wine from Kazakstan, Czech Pinot Noir, Azores wine from 100-year-old vines, orange wine from the Mosel, German Chardonnay, wine from an exceedingly rare Greek grape, mould-breaking Canadian wines, Turkish rosé – none, of course, destined to be the next big thing, but all worthy of being the next niche thing. Today I bring you another: Australian Assyrtiko.
Not only is Jim Barry Clare Valley Assyrtiko 2016 the sole Assyrtiko in Australia, it’s the only Assyrtiko wine outside Greece, as far as anyone knows. I discovered earlier this year, when researching a piece on Greek Assyrtiko for Decanter magazine (August issue), that Larry Rodenborn of Tryphon Vineyards in the Tahoe National Forest in the US planted 60 vines in 2015. But when I contacted him to find out how they were doing it emerged that only a few had survived because they had got root-bound in their temporary pots before they were planted. Clairvaux Vineyard, home to Trappist Cistercian monks in California, has a little Assyrtiko, but doesn’t make a varietal wine from it.
Introducing new vines to Australia is no walk in the park. Having tasted Assyrtiko for the first time on holiday on Santorini in 2006, Peter Barry returned to the island to collect two cuttings 18 months later. Back in Australia they went into mandatory quarantine for two years. A year on again (do keep up: we’ve reached February 2011) Peter collected 32 buds from the two mother vines and had them grafted on to 30 Riesling vines in two vineyards in Clare Valley. Finally, in August 2011, five years to the day after he had drunk his first glass on Santorini, the Barry family planted half a hectare of Assyrtiko in their Lodge Hill Vineyard. They now have nearly seven hectares of Assyrtiko across four sites in Clare Valley, a handful of them grown and pruned in the traditional Santorini kouloura basket shape (see photo below) and their first commercial release: 11,500 litres of 2016 (which followed 1,100 litres in 2015 litres and just 15 in 2014).
Jim Barry Assyrtiko wines trained in the traditional kouloura basket-shape in Clare Valley, Australia; Peter Barry (above right)
No walk in the park, but surely more growers will follow the Barry family, tempted both by the quality of their 2016 and, in an era of climate change, the suitability and hardiness of Assyrtiko vines. They’re free from phylloxera, think nothing of drought, can be trained to withstand wind, will adapt to different soils and retain their dazzling fresh acidity through ripening. Santorini Assyrtiko, grown on sandy, volcanic soils and often from vines of great age, has an extraordinary mineral, smoky pungency. Jim Barry Assyrtiko doesn’t have the same mineral intensity, but has lovely smoky pink grapefruit, pear and peach flavours, notable texture and gleaming acidity. Stockists include Corking Wines, Noel Young Wines and The Solent Cellar, £20-£25. And the 2017 vintage is in the bag.
Assyrtiko vines in their Santorini homeland