Saturday, November 23, 2013

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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As far as Giannis' remark about ageing their whites, I buy the straight Thalassitis and the Wild Ferment every year. I drink some young, some along the way, but always some for later (the other day I just drank my last "straight" Thalassitis from 2007 - wonderful, by the way). These wines tend to have a crazy, bursting-at-the-seams vitality and tonicity when just released: they are difficult to resist. But they do tend to develop in very interesting ways and become very different, but to me equally exciting wines, as they age for a while. The one thing that I'm still slightly suspicious about is the use of Normacork. I've had some bottles that I had aged for 4-5 years affected by a rubbery stink that I'd never come across before and couldn't put down to anything else. Any idea about this, anyone?