Like most of Europe, restaurants in Santorini serve a house a white wine indicative of local plantings. Ask any waiter what the wine is and he’s sure to simply reply, “It’s a Greek wine.” Ask the grape and he will tell you it’s “a good one.” However, you can bet your Euros that it’s the prized Assyritko grape. Although it’s considered a noble grape throughout Greece, it performs best in Santorini. Fresh and dry with smoky minerality on the finish, a glass of Assyrtiko from a good producer pairs seamlessly with the local seafood and Mediterranean herbs. Santorini has also become a popular destination for honeymooners and traveling dreamers, who travel by the thousands to catch a glimpse of the famous sunset over the the white walled caldera. More famous for it’s picturesque beauty than it’s wine, most tourists don’t realize the island makes wine. In fact, Santorini wines are among the best to come from Greece.
During my stay, I took the long and breathtaking hike from Imerovigli to Paris Sigalas in Oia. Along the walk the kouloura vines lined the roads, which resembled giant wreaths. Even in April, I was very thirsty and sunburnt at the end of the 2-hour journey. Salty wind dusted my face and lips. The vines live in these conditions, struggling through the ashy soils and dry conditions. The resulting wine is pure, mineral and refreshing- a tonic to the tourists that is equally alluring as the scenery.
CLIMATE & VITICULTURE
Once an active volcano, Santorini is covered in ashy soils from an eruption that occurred over 3,600 years ago. This massive explosion also split the island into a crescent moon shape with its current archipelago. The island has a Mediterranean climate with extremely low rainfall. In addition to the intense heat during the growing season and overall lack of rainfall, strong winds are also a concern. Due to the extremely dry and windy conditions, the vines are trained in a basket shape called ‘kouloura.’ Irrigation is not utilized, so grapes depend on this method of vine-training to collect sea mist and morning dew for hydration. For steeper vineyards, growers rely on stone terraces called ‘pezoules’ to avoid drainage.
The age of the vines tend to be extremely old, as the volcanic soils have prevented phylloxera from entering the island. Some of the original rootstock dates back 125 years which greatly affects the yields. In general, the yields are about 25 tons/hectare. Compare this to Bordeaux, which averages 50 tons/hectare! Although the Santorini PDO encomposses the entire island, the Western side of the island tends to reserve land for tourism, which is in strong demand (and price). Perhaps more than the threat of dry and windy conditions, Santorini wine’s biggest threat may be the price of real estate.
GRAPES & STYLES
Good growers make the most of these miniscule yields, producing full-bodied, mineral, and focused wines from the Assyrtiko grape. It is often blended with high-acid Athiri and fruity Aidani. The typical style is young and citrus-scented with a smoky minerality on the finish. Occasionally you will find an oak-aged version called Nychteri, which is roughly translated to “working the night away.” This harvested at night to avoid heat and aerobic extraction. Santorini also makes a Vinsanto, alt
hough it’s rare to find outside of the island. The grapes are made in a passito style similar to the influencing Vin Santo in Tuscany. They are partially dried before pressing, which creates a sweet and concentrated wine with nutty aromas.
Red wines are uncommon, but Paris Sigalas makes a blend of Mandilaria and Mavrotragano labeled “M/M.” However, if labeled “Santorini PDO,” the wine must be white and composed of at least 75% Assyrtiko.
Paris Sigalas may be argued as the most influential producer, especially for organic wines. Founded in 1994 in a repurposed tomato factory, Gaia is also leading for quality, in particular with their superior dry white, ‘Thalassitis.’ Boutari is the biggest producer. The boutique winery Hatzidakis makes small quantities of high-quality wine, if you can find it. -AT