As the weather starts to cool in the southern hemisphere and the first few crisp mornings remind us winter is on the way, I decided that today was an apt time to take you on a journey to the picturesque land of never-ending summer, the Greek Islands, and more specifically to one of the most unique winemaking regions of not only Europe but the world; the island of Santorini. This island is mainly known for resorts and holidays, but it has a thriving wine industry, producing wines that match perfectly to the convivial, holiday vibe of the island.
Santorini has an absolutely fascinating history in general, dating back several millennia; however I’ll stick to the wine production side of things to keep this on topic. The island, known in antiquity as Thera, was inhabited by the Minoan peoples for centuries until all that came to an abrupt end with the volcanic eruption of the whole island, which killed everyone on the island as well as many inhabitants of the surrounding islands. The eruption is thought to have occurred sometime between 1640-1540BC and went for around 20 years, so it’s pretty safe to say not much went on in this area for a while. Rocks from Thera’s core have been found 60km away, and this catastrophic event is thought to have inspired several Greek myths. When the dust settled however, the entire landscape of Santorini had changed, with the whole centre of the island blown out, with just a crescent moon shape of the outer island left, which is what the island still looks like today. Records show that when people moved back they grew grapes and made wine but this was never of any major importance. Santorini’s importance was much more about strategy than agriculture.
Being located almost exactly in the middle of mainland Greece, Crete and Turkey, and with a Hephaestus-designed safe harbour in the crescent-moon shape of the island, Santorini became a valuable strategic location to build a fortified town. It was part of the Byzantine Empire for much of the dark ages, until the Christians sacked Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) in 1203-4 as part of the Holy Crusades, giving Santorini to one of the major houses of Venice as a reward for their assistance in the taking of the city. The Venetians were the first to try out the suitability of Santorini (at least in the modern era) as a wine region, as they were already used to warm summers and managing disease in humid environments. They made the wines of Santorini famous through the 15th and 16th centuries, producing wines prized for their rich sweetness and high alcohol, and therefore able to survive long sea voyages. The Ottoman Turks brought Islam to the island in 1579, though they quickly realised the grapevine was one of the only crops that could survive this unique climate, so grapes kept being grown, and were turned into wine once more when the island came under Greek rule after the Greek war of independence in 1821.
Now I said Santorini was unique, and in truth all wine regions are unique, but this island takes it up another level. The whole island is effectively a volcanic desert- an environment not usually high on the winemakers list of ideal sites. This means Santorini is very dry, and the only vines that survive need to be drought-resistant. Interestingly due to the highly acidic volcanic soil, the whole island is totally free of the Phylloxera pest which cannot breed in this environment, meaning all vines are planted on their own rootstock- exceedingly rare in Europe! Finally there is the constant wind which while a boon for sailors, has forced the grape growers of Santorini to take a novel approach to viticulture. The traditional training method of vines on Santorini is into what is known as a ‘basket’, known locally as koulara, which is where the shoots in spring are wrapped around in a circle around the central trunk, creating a low and compact form of bush vine. This method protects the berries from the winds while increasing the structural integrity of the vine itself, as well as creating a sheltered environment for morning dew to form, which is the main way these vines get watered! This training method greatly lowers yields due to lack of space and means that grapes must be harvested by hand. Eventually this continual wrapping of the arms around the trunk chokes the vine, and it must be removed by being cut from its roots, which have dug too deep to be easily pulled out. Another young vine is grafted onto these roots and the process continues, but this unique process means that some roots on Santorini are around 400 years old! All these unique factors together mean that winemaking is not necessarily easy, and is becoming less appealing every year, especially with the high prices on land due to the popularity of the island as a tourist destination. Many winemakers have hung up their secateurs and moved into the hotel business, though it is this same tourism boom that has reinvigorated life into this rugged region with its unique varieties, as many visitors to Santorini prefer to drink the local drop. Speaking of which…
Almost 85% of wine made in Santorini comes from one variety; Assyrtiko. This comes in a range of styles, though by far the most popular is the unoaked dry style, which is a perfect match to freshly-caught seafood, sheep and goats milk cheeses or just on their own whilst sitting by the pool. These are usually bone dry with citrus and mineral aromas, sharply acidic (due to the low pH of the soils) and with fairly warm alcohols around 14.5% due to the abundant sunshine. Some oak-aged examples can be found on the island, which are more nutty and complex, though this style is rare today. An even more interesting and traditional style of white is known as Nykteri, made from grapes harvested late in the season which have developed more sugar and complexity, which are then given skin contact during the early stages of fermentation, and then barrel aged for between 3 and 10 months. The word comes from the Greek term for ‘working all night’, as grapes were traditionally harvested at night to avoid the day’s heat. Nykteri wines are noticeably richer than the standard dry whites, and have more exotic fruit and honeysuckle aromas. Red wines aren’t that popular on this warm, sunny island (big shock there!), with only a handful of reds made from the native Mandilaria and Mavrotragano varieties.
The most famous style of Santorini wine across the globe however is Vinsanto, a high alcohol, partially oxidised and sweet style similar to those wines that made this island famous 500 years ago. Whilst many consider this name an imitation of Italy’s Vin Santo (Holy Wine), the name Vinsanto can actually be traced back to the 16th Century, when wine was exported from the island in barrels and sold as wine (Vin) from Santorini (Santo). This style of wine is made by air-drying the grapes after they are harvested for 1-2 weeks so that the constant wind desiccates the berries and concentrates sugars, acids and flavours. The grapes are then slowly fermented until the yeast naturally dies off in the minimum 13.5% alcohol, leaving plenty of sugar and a lot of balancing acidity. The wine is then aged oxidatively in barrel for several years to further gain complexity and its distinctive amber colour, as well as its aromas of dried citrus peel, figs, apricots and sticky toffee pudding.
Buyer and Seller of the Bottles