Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Akrotiri Ruins

But at a later time there occurred portentous earthquakes and floods, and one grievous day and night befell them, when the whole body of your warriors was swallowed up by the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner was swallowed up by the sea and vanished...

-Plato, Timaeus

The ruins near the town of Akrotiri are what remains of a Bronze Age settlement of Minoans on Santorini. 

It was an advanced civilization, with plumbing, three story structures, and elaborate frescos.

Sometime around 1627 BC, this town was covered in volcanic ash. The ancient eruption on Santorini (then called Thera) not only covered this place in an ash that would stay in place for close to 4,000 years, it also may have led to the demise of an ancient civilization on Crete, to a change in dynasties in China, and to the birth of the story of Atlantis, the island that sinks beneath the sea.

Around Akrotiri, however, they may have seen the end coming. Unlike in Pompeii, there were no human remains under the ash that was excavated here beginning in 1967. There was also almost no gold jewelry left behind. The inhabitants near Akrotiri had most likely been evacuated, and took their valuables with them. What they did leave behind, though, was plenty.

Here was a storeroom, and in the containers would have been wine.

The remains of an ancient cellar.

A look in a doorway.

A stroll down the streets.

Time propped up beside.

Lives that walked under these same awnings, perhaps going inside for a drink to tame their thirst.

A Visit to the Santorini Brewing Company

Yiannis from Gai'a, as it turned out, is also a partner in the Santorini Brewing Company, whose beer I had tried earlier in Oia.

Yiannis took us over to the brewery and introduced us to the whole crew there. It was pretty clear from the start that they like to have a good time. Here Yiannis and Boban Krunic joked around outside. Boban is the Head Brewer at the facility.

The beer is unfiltered, and as the name of the place indicates, local to Santorini.

The equipment is on a small scale. A few of these here...

...a few of those there...

...some place for the finished product to go...

...and that was pretty much the story. All in, a handful of workers look after the whole operation. This is no Mega Brewery, and the beer they produce here tastes like beer with character.

They make three different brews.

There is the Yellow Donkey, which is mellow, lighter, and somewhat citrus toned.

There is the Red Donkey, which is a bit deeper and darker.

And then there is the limited production Crazy Donkey, which is apparently Greece's first and only IPA  style beer.

They bottle Crazy Donkey only in the 750ml size. I tasted it from one of those bottles, and it was pretty darn good. I think my preference overall is for the Red Donkey, though.

The distinguishing character of the Crazy Donkey is the hops, of which it has a lot. I am not good with hop measurements, in terms of what a certain amount of hops might mean for a brew, but every time Yiannis talked about the level of hops in the Crazy Donkey he delivered a kind of "Can you believe that?" subtext. So I imagine that the Crazy Donkey has a large amount of hops.

Yiannis, as I've mentioned before, is an articulate fellow. Knowing this to be the case, I asked him about the difference between winemaking and brewing, as he is involved with both. In the video above, you can see his answer ("Brewing is liberty").

It had been a good visit, and I hope to play again with the beers at some point.

Monday, November 25, 2013

My Number 1 Thanksgiving Pairing Suggestion

What should you be drinking this Thanksgiving? My #1 suggestion would be Sauternes with your pie. Seriously. Sauternes. It is grossly undervalued in the market right now. You can pick up a half bottle of 1989 Rieussec at retail today, in New York, for $59. Fifty nine dollars. That is ridiculous. Rieussec is a top producer. 1989 was a superb year. That wine is killer, AND SO GOOD WITH PIE. You will never have more people around you eating pie than on Thursday. Apple pie, pumpkin pie: they go great with Sauternes. And definitely the kind of pies that people make at home, which are never as sweet as the commercial examples. This is the moment to open up that bottle of Sauternes you can never find a moment to open up. Especially if it is a 750ml. What better opportunity will you ever have to open up a full bottle of Sauternes than on Thanksgiving? There will be tons of people around you, they will all be stuffed with plenty of food, and they will all be eating pie at the same moment. Bingo. Sauternes.

I'm serious. Check the numbers. It isn't just Rieussec. It isn't just 1989 halves. Sauternes may be the second most undervalued wine on the planet right now (after Sherry). Sauternes with age is practically being given away in the auction market today. Why not raise up your hand and get some, and while you are at it, you should also plan on slicing yourself a bigger piece of pie.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Nikos Villas

When we weren't on the roads of Santorini, or at a winery...

...we were often at our rooms overlooking the caldera, at the Nikos Villas.

The setting is pristine.

And Nikos, who makes a little wine himself on the side, couldn't be a more welcoming host.

One evening he shared with us the tomatoes that he'd grown in his own garden.

Although I must admit I often paid more attention to the items on his back bar, such as this Frangelico with a label bleached white by the sun and time.

And yes, we drank a lot of that old Cynar.

Thanks, Nikos!

A Visit to Gai'a on Santorini

Yiannis Paraskevopoulos, who founded Gai'a in 1994, is a thoughtful practitioner of the vine who is also highly articulate in English. He completed a PhD on the subject of lactic bacteria at the University of Bordeaux (where Emile Peynaud had taught an earlier generation of students) before taking up winemaking at Boutari for a time. Eventually he set up his own shop with equipment he rented from his friends at Argyros. Today he runs two winery facilities for Gai'a, one here on Santorini, and one in Nemea.

The Gai'a white called Thalassitis accounts for most of their production here on Santorini. The name Thalassitis refers to the ancient Greek practice of mixing sea water with wine.

Given the setting, and Yiannis' own facility as an amateur sailor, this seems like an appropriate title for a wine from this place.

The thick walls here originally housed a tomato processing plant, and later a seaside bar.

Today they house shiny steel.

As well as oak and acacia.

The regular Thalassitis is fermented in the steel tanks, but there is also a Thalassitis Oak Fermented wine and an Assyrtiko Wild Ferment, and those are both fermented in wood. Where the regular Thalassitis is raised reductively, the wines fermented in wood see battonage.

Although the grapes handled here are the white Assyrtiko, much of the production is treated to a 12 hour cold soak of pre-fermentation skin contact after crushing ("All the interesting stuff is in the skins and the soil," explained Yiannis). The Wild Ferment lots are not temperature controlled during the fermentation. As the building itself is not air conditioned, I imagine that the temperature of the wild fermentations, which use native yeasts, could be pretty high. Cold stabilization and bottling occurs over at the other Gai'a facility, in Nemea.

Our tour of the winery over, we stepped back outside...

...and over to the tasting room.

With Assyrtiko, "we have everything to extremes" said Yiannis. Low pH, high potential alcohol, lots of phenolics, old ungrafted vines, low yields. And one might add high average temperature and little rain. But the surrounding water acts as a buffer against strong vintage variation.

That being said, I thought that the difference between 2011 and 2012 at Gai'a was pretty stark. The examples from 2011 showed more drive and mineral character, while the 2012 bottlings exhibited a softer profile. This 2011 Thalassitis Oak Fermented was especially wonderful, and perhaps this bottling needs time inside the bottle to show well, as the 2012 of the same was for me overwhelmed at this stage by oak. When I placed my nose in the 2011 there was not just oak, but also minerals, and the more chamomile tones of the acacia. Yiannis mentioned that 2009 and 2011 both shared cooler Augusts, August being the month of the harvest for Assyrtiko, generally.

Although this Wild Ferment from 2012 showed a soft profile, it also had some charms. Yiannis said that the 2012 was "the most aromatic Wild Ferment we've had yet".

2012 is also an interesting year at Gai'a because they did for the first time a different bottling of Thalassitis that had an especially high amount of sulphur added. It will be released after 5 years of age at the winery. Aging Assyrtiko is something that especially interests Yiannis. The Greeks, says Yiannis "like aggressive wines, we like them young" and for this reason there is "not really a culture of aged white wine in Greece." Yiannis, who often recommends that buyers age his whites in their cellar for a few years, or decant them before serving, has been experimenting with extended aging of a different type. With the 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012 vintages he placed 500 bottles of white wine under the sea water for an expected 5 year maturation. He feels that aging bottles under water, where there is a consistent temperature and no oxygen, may yield good results.

Is there a saltiness, a brine, to the smell of Assyrtiko? Sometimes, but Yiannis summed up the flavor profile of the grape without those accents, noting instead pear, green pepper, and starch.

Where might those aromas originate? Yiannis took us to a nearby vineyard to find out.

He explained that the lack of potassium in the soil of Santorini partially accounts for the low pH in the wines. When you think about a low pH wine that has mostly tartaric acid (Assyrtiko might have "maybe 3% of malic acidity" said Yiannis), you can understand why Yiannis might be experimenting with aging regimes, and stirring the lees for some bottlings.

Out here, though, the only thing stirring the leaves was the wind.

And maybe our own movements against the small rocks.

As evening was approaching...

...we decamped to a nearby restaurant.

Which was called Saltsa.

The owners are friends of Yiannis', and they serve his aged Assyrtiko vinegar at the tables.

We took a look around the rooms.

Which were in the Santorini style of pleasantly casual, and open to the air.

And then we tried what has been on other occasions the worst wine of my experience, the Gai'a Retsina. But Yiannis patiently explained to me why I had probably disliked this wine so much in the past: it has to be drunk young, and yet there is no vintage date on the label. Retsina, as a table wine, is not allowed to carry a vintage. Which is unfortunate, Yiannis told me, because the wine tastes better when it is fresh, and in fact the Ancient Greeks praised "the new Retsina" of the year. What happens is that Retsina turns more turpentiney with age. And turpentine is very unpleasant, at least to me. Yiannis told me that the Greeks prefer Retsina with strongly flavored dishes, such as sardines, or those heavy in garlic. But he also said that they frequently blend sparkling water with their Retsina in the glass, which I will agree helped me to digest it on this occasion.

There was nothing wrong with the rest of our meal, however.

And I chewed happily on caper leaves.

And sunk my teeth into warm lamb, as the night went on.