Smoked Eggplant Ice Cream in Santorini and a Wine to Match

July 9, 2012

Eggplant ice cream seems a bit far-fetched in the world of frozen desserts, but smoked eggplant ice cream sounds absolutely crazy. Yet, somehow, it was delicious on its own and downright magical with a chocolate mousse. Is there a wine to go with that? Absolutely! I wish I could take credit for the pairing, but I have to leave that up to a very special and historic sweet wine produced on the island of Santorini. I was able to experience this pairing on a press trip sponsored by Wines from Santorini, and while I knew there were many white wines to discover and enjoy, I have been a bit transfixed by one wine in particular: Vinsanto.

You may have heard of an Italian dessert wine, Vin Santo*, but Vinsanto (one word) is a different and unique sweet wine that predates the Italian wine that's so nice for biscotti-dipping. Vinsanto, as in "Wine of Santorini", is made by drying indigenous Assyrtiko grapes out in the sun for about two weeks. (Most of the grapes going into Vinsanto will be Assyrtiko; you may also see a couple of other grapes involved, Aidani and Athiri.) The remaining grapes more closely resemble raisins, and the resulting highly concentrated, sweet juice that remains is put into wooden barrels for a minimum of two years before it can become Vinsanto. Some wineries use traditional-sized oak barrels for aging their Vinsanto, while others, like Gavalas Winery, use huge, 80-year-old Russian (!) barrels.

What is so striking about Vinsanto is that while it has an incredible amount of sugar packed into each sip, it finishes with a remarkable liveliness. This is because the Assyrtiko grape has so much acidity (taste a fresh, dry white from the most recent vintage you can find to appreciate how bracing they can be) that as you finish a sip it cleanses away most of  that sweetness, leaving a kind of  lemony zest, orange-peel flavor. But, lovers of sweetness, there is still plenty of decadent toffee, caramel, butterscotch,and coffee notes to savor. Younger versions of Vinsanto are even lovely served chilled on their own; it's remarkably nice to just sip a small glass even without food.

But when you're enjoying chocolate mousse with smoked eggplant ice cream also, as I neglected to mention, topped with a mille-feuille filled with smoked eggplant pastry cream (because clearly one cannot have enough cream-based sweets redolent with the flavor of smoked eggplant), Vinsanto really sings. The smokiness of the eggplant combines with the bitter chocolate notes of the mousse to really bring out a roasted coffee flavor in the wine. It's one of those unexpected delights of food and wine pairing where 1+1=3. This dessert was the conclusion of a lunch full of many memorable dishes at Selene, a restaurant with a gorgeous view and a location chosen for its close proximity to local farmers and winemakers. Most of Selene's food suppliers are within a ten mile trip of the restaurant.

vinsanto santorini wine

And while Vinsanto is a pleasure in its youth, this is a sweet wine with a remarkable capacity to age. I had the distinct pleasure of tasting a Vinsanto from 1959, spending over fifty years in a barrel until being bottled last year. All that time in a wooden barrel had concentrated both its color and flavor. It reminded me of a really excellent, old balsamic vinegar, with the kind of sweetness that made me want to pour it over some pancakes. Hearty thanks to George Koutsoyiannopoulos of the eponymous Koutsoyiannopoulos Winery for sharing this rare treat. Below the tasting room is a wine museum, with a touch of cluttered kitsch, that is clearly a labor of love. I really enjoyed viewing the antique winemaking equipment and tools scattered throughout the museum, which you come across as you wind your way through the underground labyrinth. (It would be a godsend during a scorching hot day on the island.) One of the coolest things I came across was this pre-WWII, manual wine bottle corker:

vinsanto santorini wine

It's hard to overstate how unique Vinsanto is to the wine culture and history of Santorini. Vinsanto is also flat-out delicious, and a fascinating wine that showcases the transformative powers of aging. It's remarkable that the same Assyrtiko grape which produces a racy, dry white wine can, when sun-dried and barrel-aged, make such a compelling and complex dessert wine.

The distinct, dry white wines of Santorini also have a great variety of styles and flavors. And to see how Assyrtiko grapes are grown is one of the most unforgettably unique vineyard experiences in the world. Look for an upcoming post covering the white wines of Santorini. Because all that sun, seafood, and soaking in picturesque views requires some well-chilled refreshment.

vinsanto santorini wine

*When the Turks gained control of Santorini in the late 16th Century, the Venetians took the name "Vin Santo" back with them to Italy. The Italian version, produced in Tuscany, is made from different grapes which are dried indoors.

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