The best food pairings for assyrtiko
There are few grapes that bring Greece to mind like Assyrtiko, the saline wonder of the Cyclades. But what do you pair with it? As often, the answer depends on the winemaking style and terroir, because there is not one Assyrtiko (I should know, I recently tried 80 of them.)
What to pair with Santorini and Santorini-like dry Assyrtiko
This is the canonical take on the variety, all salt and lemon and Aegean breeze, from producers like Hatzidakis, Tselepos, or Gaia in Santorini, and Volacus in Tinos. You’d struggle to find a white better suited to Greek cuisine.
Fiona has wisely recommended courgette fritters for this in the past, and she is spot on. Assyrtiko is a natural match for almost any take on fried vegetables, from tempura to pané. Its platonic match, however, is fried seafood. Greece has something like six varieties of small fish, deep fried and eaten whole, all of which seem to show up as "smelt" or "anchovy" in online dictionaries. Naturally, bigger types of fried fish also work (e.g. mackerel in the summer, red mullet in the winter). It is similarly great with other seafood, think shrimp, prawn, or squid. (This year I must have cooked this calamari recipe by Greek super-chef Akis Petretzikis around 10 times.) Fritto misto is also a natural, if not geographic, match.
More off-piste, many people have it with roast lamb and lemony potatoes, or even kleftiko. I am not the biggest fan (I'll always reach for a Xinomavro first for lamb), but it does work. I much prefer it with roast chicken with lemony potatoes, though the chicken must be really good – proper Assyrtiko doesn’t do bland. I also have it regularly with papoutsakia, a moussaka-like dish with fried aubergine stuffed with beef mincemeat and topped with mornay. It might sound counter-intuitive going for a white, but the mincemeat should be cooked with minimum tomato and the spices are more Middle Eastern (cinnamon, clove, maybe a hint of allspice) than Italian, while the mornay is made with sharp and salty cheese (usually kefalotyri, similar to pecorino, or the milder kefalograviera – its etymological parent gruyère makes a good alternative).
Speaking of moussaka, the more creative Greek chefs seem to have reinvented it in recent years to make it more like a ratatouille, topped with beef mincemeat and bechamel sauce – another excellent match. Stuffed peppers and tomatoes, a Greek classic, also work well, especially in their "gialantzi" (i.e. meat-free) version.
Greek salad, all acidity from the tomato, sharpness from the onion, saltiness from the olives, and tanginess from the feta, obviously goes without saying. Have some sourdough handy to mop up the olive oil and tomato juices.
Santorini Assyrtiko with some age and/or oak fermented
“Aged wine” tends to conjure images of dusty cellars and hyphenated surnames, but most Assyrtiko peaks at 5 to 7 years, so "some age" isn't as daunting here as elsewhere. When talking about top producers like Argyros, Karamolegos, Sigalas, or Vassaltis, you're looking at noble wine, which needs similarly noble food.
The first match Greeks would recommend is roast or BBQ-ed fish, anything from bigger wild sea bass & sea bream (above the 1kg mark) to the kings of the Aegean, white grouper and dentex. As the last two are rarely available in the UK, you can think of other rich white fish, such as halibut or turbot. Dover sole cooked meunière is as close as I would get to something fried.
Stuffed roast squid also works wonderfully well (I do a version with bulgur and herbs, maybe a bit of onion or bell pepper if the fancy strikes me), as does roast octopus (popular in Greece served with a yellow split pea mash). Seafood risottos (e.g. with cuttlefish ink paste, with prawns, with langoustines) are all excellent matches, as is black spaghetti with scallops, a particularly good combination if you plan an Italian-style dinner for two with primo and secondo.
Finally, a pro tip: fine Assyrtiko that has just started to go (i.e. past peak, but still alive) is a brilliant match for sushi, especially sashimi.
This is a Santorini specialty, a rich and concentrated take on Assyrtiko, with much less (or no) salinity, which, to my palate, is more off-dry than dry. Most producers make one, but Santo’s is better value for money than most.
This is the rare take on Assyrtiko that is not so much at home in Greek cuisine as further afield. The mix of sweetness and acidity makes it a great match for many Asian dishes - think of what you would serve with premium off-dry Riesling, but better.
Assyrtiko from the Greek mainland and other Islands
Assyrtiko plantings have exploded the past decade all over the country, so speaking of a “mainland” style is a bit tricky, covering so many terroirs and so many styles. You can find anything from sparkling Assyrtiko (not entirely unlike an English sparkling wine), to orange/natural/resinated Assyrtiko, to heavy, intentionally oxidised Assyrtiko.
In broad-brush terms, mainland Assyrtiko is more fruity and less acidic, less unique but (much) gentler on the wallet. Anything you would serve with a fruitier Albariño, you could serve with most of those. They are also excellent with some classic salads, such as Niçoise or Chicken Caesar.
Assyrtiko from islands outside the Cyclades, like Crete or Chios, seems to hover somewhere between the Santorini and mainland styles, so it’s a good alternative if you find Santorini too intense or too expensive.
Very popular in Greece, though under-the-radar abroad, this is a blend where Malagousia is meant to provide the sweetness, while Assyrtiko contributes intensity and structure. The result is offer sweet and sour, which I confess rarely works for me, but everyone else seems to like it. Gerovassiliou's Estate white is the originator of the blend, and still the leading example of the style.
To my mind, this style is an ideal aperitif, while I have also enjoyed it with some fruit with a bit of acidity (think under-ripe peaches or nectarines). People seem to be happy with it with watermelon and feta salads and I can see that working, but as I don't eat watermelon with feta, I’m unable to provide first-hand experience.
Interestingly, the most success I've had with this style foodwise, was a Japanese-inspired salmon-and-kale rice bowl, and I suspect anything down that direction would work too.
Assyrtiko is responsible for one of the great sweet wines of the world, Vinsanto (not to be confused with Italy’s Vin Santo and Vino Santo). The best examples are a very serious affair (when I’m rich, I’ll organise a comparative tasting of Argyros 20yo Vinsanto against Chateau d’Yquem), so some walnuts or a small piece of high quality dark chocolate is more than enough. Young and simpler takes are a great match for caramel- or toffee-based desserts (sticky toffee pudding would be a treat), or some cakes (the Italian Torta della Nonna comes to mind). The mid-range (aged 6 to 8 years) is marvellous with the myriad baklava-style sweets, which I so adore, being sweet enough to match the syrup, but with an acidic kick that cleanses the palate – and into the next sweet I dive!
See also Peter's piece on Why Greek Wines go with more than just Greek Food
Fried anchovies by Orlio at Shutterstock.com
View from Santorini by Santorines at shutterstock.com
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