George Gavalas wanted to preserve a piece of his heritage. Even on the tiny island of Santorini, part of the Greek archipelago known for its azure seas and whitewashed buildings with cobalt-blue rooftops, winegrowers were concentrating on a favorite grape variety, assyrtiko, at the expense of others that farmers had grown for centuries. Gavalas wanted to show that modernity doesn’t necessarily mean specialization.
Assyrtiko can be fabulous, and the wines of Santorini are justly famous for expressing this grape’s personality. But Gavalas may have found the B-side song that becomes a hit to overshadow all others. It is composed of grapes called katsano and gaidouria, which now account for a mere 1 percent of the vineyards on Santorini, already a small wine region by any standard. Most that were grown became table grapes, but Gavalas saw their potential in wine.
The Gavalas Katsano, first produced in 2006 (with 15 percent of the blend being gaidouria), is an appropriate flip side to assyrtiko. It doesn’t have the bracing acidity of its more famous cousin, but it sports exquisite balance between sweetly floral aromas and a farm stand of tree fruits, especially apricot and peach. The 2011 I tasted recently was beguiling and delicious, like drinking an orchard without the bees. Each sip was better than the last, and all too soon I found myself staring wistfully at the empty bottle.
Such discoveries are why wine is so compelling to those of us who surrender to its charms. The katsano is new, different and exciting. Chardonnay is global; it grows anywhere. But katsano comes only from Santorini. It offers not merely escapism but escape itself. With every sip I was drawn inward to a cafe along a Mediterranean beach. Yes, fermented grape juice can do that — not just any bottle, though.
This time of year I find myself drawn to white wines from Mediterranean islands as remedies for the intense summer heat. Not all of them are a beach party like the katsano, but many are mini-vacations in a glass. Like Santorini wines, the best are made with indigenous grape varieties that capture the islands’ character and flavor.
Sicily claims a bushel of grape varieties as its own, including the grecanico, inzolia and catarratto grapes in the blend of Tasca d’Almerita’s Regaleali Bianco 2011. It’s a zesty wine with a palate-tingling salinity, suggestive of the sea. Tenuta delle Terre Nere makes a 2011 bianco from the northern slopes of Mount Etna that blends the same grapes with another called carricante. The two wines are starkly different: The Etna is austere and brooding from the black volcanic soil compared with the flirtatious Regaleali. (The Etna is also rare and hard to find, unfortunately.) Grillo is another Sicilian variety that makes for a crisp, refreshing wine; blended with viognier, as in the Feudo di Santa Tresa Grillo Viognier 2011, it becomes voluptuous.
Vermentino is not exclusively an island wine, as it is produced in Tuscany as well as on Sardinia and Corsica and in southern France. Vermentino di Sardegna (Sardinia’s Italian name) is attractively herbal, capturing the scents of grass and brush as well as sea air. The 2011 Costamolino from Argiolas winery is a superb example. In fact, vermentino has recently escaped the Mediterranean altogether. Barboursville Vineyards in Virginia produces a nice example: a taste of the Mediterranean close to home.
And just for the record, I have never been to Santorini, Sicily or Sardinia — except in my imagination, transported by the pop of a cork. Maybe I’ll keep those idyllic images just as they are, no jet lag or travel woes. Just pleasure.