On holiday in the Greek Islands in 2007, Peter Barry became enchanted with the crisp, minerally white wine they were served as a house wine with almost every meal. On Santorini he learned it was Assyrtiko. The owner of Jim Barry Wines decided to plant some in his own vineyards in Clare, in South Australia.
"I'm looking for something to stand up to heat," says Barry, who is concerned that climate change might make his current white wines lose their zip and flavor if they ripen too early.
Australians recently have happily tested the waters on a raft of southern European grape varieties. They have diligently searched for white varieties suitable for their warmer climate zones as alternatives to familiar Riesling, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon and the occasional Marsanne and Roussanne. Pinot Gris has been so successful that it's joined the A-list rotation here in Oz, and is just now getting exported to the U.S.
More than a few wineries have dabbled in Arneis, Fiano and Vermentino from Italy. There was a brief flirtation with what they thought was the Spanish variety Albariño. After it attained quick popularity for fresh and vital wines, DNA testing revealed it was actually Savignin, and it lost its momentum. Good as the wines were, the confusion with Sauvignon was too much.
When Barry found no Assyrtiko cuttings or plants to be had, he imported some in 2008 and put them through the required 30-month quarantine. He grafted 16 certified cuttings onto Riesling rootstock in 2011, and by 2013 had propagated enough for 6,000 vines.
He planted the vines as on Santorini, a unique system of training them low to the ground, in a circle, like a bush in the shape of a halo. The grapes grow inside a sort of vine nest, protected from the stiff Aegean winds and shaded from the bright sun.
The Assyritko grows next to Riesling in his winery's Lodge Hill Vineyard, a relatively high-elevation site that produces lovely Riesling. The young plants produced enough for a 15-liter test batch in 2013, and production grew to 900 liters (100 cases) in 2015.
Assyrtiko, it turns out, ripens later than the Riesling here, suggesting that the hot climate would not deter it. The grapes retain their freshness and zip in hot vintages such as 2014 and 2015.
The temperature climbed past 95° F the day of our visit in early March. In a cool corner of the winery, Barry fetched an unlabeled bottle from a refrigerator and twisted off the cap. His 2015 Assyrtiko is a dead ringer for a really good one from Santorini—fresh, dry, zesty, light on its feet and brimming with grapefruit and mineral flavors. I would happily sip it on any hot day.
The 2016 is settling in a small stainless-steel tank, having been pressed the previous day. He drew a sample. It tasted of fresh Bartlett pears, with a hint of spiciness.
It will take a few years for other wineries to catch the Assyrtiko train, but if they can do as well with this grape as Jim Barry Wines has so far, it could become an Aussie classic.