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11.02.2006

2004 Argyros Estate "Barrel Select" White Wine, Santorini, Greece

I go out of my way to taste wines from up-and-coming, out of the way, and generally obscure wine regions. I never know what I'm going to find, and sometimes I'm really surprised.

Greece can hardly be considered any of those things, perhaps with the exception of up-and-coming, but if one were to be wholly accurate you'd have to say "up-and-coming, again." The Greeks have been making wine for a long long time (since roughly 1600 BC), though unfortunately their reputation as winemakers suffered a setback in the 1960's with the dramatic rise in popularity of retsina, a white wine flavored with pine resin. Retsina has been part of the Greek wine culture for roughly 2700 years (generally thought to have arisen because of the pine resin that was used to seal amphorae, the big clay jugs for storing wine at the time) but it always played a small role until the craze of the Sixties made it synonymous with Greek wine, which generally had a lousy effect on the appeal of Greek wine internationally, a setback that Greece has yet to fully recover from.

But even during that time, and increasingly since, there have been many wine producers in Greece striving to make wine of exceptional quality, often from some of the hundreds of indigenous varietals native to the country.

One of the least intuitive places for winegrowing in Greece is the island of Santorini, where (I imagine as a result of demand from traders and pirates through the centuries) hundreds of years ago some crazy fool thought to plant grape vines in the sandy, volcanic soil, and sure enough, they grew.

Argyros Estate has been producing wine on the island since 1903, and is now run by the third generation of the Argyros family, Mattheos Argyros along with his father, Yiannis. When Yiannis took over the winery in 1974 it was primarily a bulk operation, selling wine to whomever would buy the cheap grapes. The early Seventies were a hard time for winery owners on the island, many of whom were seeing that their land was worth more to real estate developers than as productive vineyards, given the burgeoning tourism industry. Rather than selling, however, Yiannis took the opportunity to purchase the best vineyard parcels on the island, and quietly assembled what is now the 55 acre family estate. During this time he also made radical changes to the wine production regimen, reducing yields, modernizing the winemaking technology, and focusing on quality rather than quantity.

The winery now produces some of the best wine on the tiny island, and is known especially for its Vin Santo, which is aged for 14 years (the current release is 1984), and is topped up, solera-style with a little wine from new vintages every year. According to some, this is Greece's most sought-after dessert wine.

In addition to their Vin Santo, the winery produces a red wine and several white wines, the latter of which have been gaining increasing international acclaim from critics. The whites are made from a combination of indigenous varietals such as Asyrtiko, Aidani and Athiri which grow on sandy volcanic hillsides. Most of the estates vines are between 50 and 60 years old, but some vines are believed to be as old as 300 years, at least according to the oral history of the islanders.

This particular wine is a combination of all three of the white varietals and is vinified partially in stainless steel and partially in oak, and is aged partially in oak before release. This is an unusual practice for these varietals whose flavors are easily blunted by the oak influence.

Tasting Notes:
Light gold in the glass, this wine has an intriguing nose of flinty minerality combined with scents of old parchment, paraffin and a light piney note. In the mouth it is gorgeously balanced with a smooth silky texture but a bright, knife edge acidity and flavors of paraffin, hints of papaya, and a lovely lemon aspect that surfaces in the finish. One of the better Greek whites I have ever had.

Food Pairing:
It's hard to imagine a fresh seafood dish this wouldn't go with, but I would love to pour it with grilled calamari over grilled bread with olives

Overall Score: 9/9.5

How Much?: $20

This wine is can be tricky to find. Some of the other whites, which are also excellent are available for purchase on the Internet. Argyros is imported by Sotiris Bafitis Selections in Washington, DC.

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