Santorini is a stunning island. It is obviously different to most other Greek islands because of its huge caldera and the two, very photogenic islands in the middle of that caldera. Paleo Kameni and Nea Kameni (the burnt islands). As well as the sister island of Thirasia.
The cliffs facing the caldera are the real reason people flock here to see the villages clinging the volcanic rockface in a tapestry of white and blue that is uniquely beautiful. The houses are dug into the mountainside creating spaces and alleyways that are begging to be explored.
The sunsets are a subject for a whole article on their own merit.
The island is essentially the lower slope of an ancient volcano that exploded violently 3500 years ago leaving behind its final slope to the Aegean Sea in the east and the cliffs towards the caldera to the west.
In all of this marvel and beauty there is also a thriving and sometimes conflicted wine industry.
Santorini is located in the south of the Cycladic Archipelago, between the mainland of Greece and Crete. Despite the fact that the island resembles a volcanic desert and the soil, called Aspa by the locals, is more like granulated cement than a nourishing soil, the ancient traders brought vines here from all corners of the Mediterranean. According to some accounts, over 100 grape varieties existed on Santorini (Greek name Thira) at one point.
The chief of them all was always the Assyrtiko. Known for centuries by the locals to produce the real, signature white wines of this island. Full of rich minerality, saline with trademark acidity. Its power and ability to age well in oak, travel well and show well, whether young or oxidised, to various degrees, made it the local’s favourite.
The top Assyrtiko, or the cream of the crop is known as Nykhteri, or the nightly one, as traditionally, producers harvested their best vineyards at night, trodden the grapes and started fermentation without waiting for other plots, creating wine of elegance and power.
The island is very windy most of the year. The Maltemmi wind that batters the rest of the Aegean, finds no opposition on Santorini’s treeless landscape. Vines can cope with wind but the little volcanic granules bombard and damage the grapes. The solution the ancient Thireans found was to weave the vine into a basket, to shelter the bunches inside. The local name for these baskets is Koloura.
The Koloura is a clever solution, not only against sand blasting winds but also they serve as a unique irrigation method with the help of Mother Nature. Rainfall on the island is on average 200mm annually, with hardly no rain at all from May to October. However, fog rises most mornings from the caldera, forming dew that gathers on the vine leaves and drips
from the basket shaped vine straight down to its roots. The koloura then shades the ground to keep the moisture in the soil. Natural drip irrigation and moisture protection. Genius!
Wine was made here for centuries on a small, family owned farm-wineries called Canava.
Until the 20th century most wines were shipped in bulk to the mainland or consumed on the island. Very few bottled and labelled their wines prior to World War II.
The devastating earthquake of 1956 created mass migration to mainland Greece and abroad. Some say that two thirds of the island’s original population left because of the disaster.
The big change came in the late 80’s when the forward thinking Boutari company decided to invest in Santorini and built a modern winery near Megalochori. With modern equipment, young and talented Oenologists and new plans for the old vineyards, Boutari revolutionised the island’s attitude towards its prized possession, the Assyrtiko.
The first step was to convince the local farmers to harvest a whole month earlier, from the middle of September, in most cases, to the middle of August.
Fruit was often picked over ripe, producing alcoholic, unbalanced wines.
Boutari recognised that the organoleptic treasure in Assyrtiko is its acidity and fresh aromas. The locals thought the outsider Boutari, didn’t know what he was doing. It took a shrewd move to make them follow his request. In conversation with Petros Vamvakousis, then a young Agronomist at the new Boutari Santorini outfit (now GM at Venetsanos winery) he told me that the price of a kilo of Assyrtiko grapes in the late 80’s stood on 15 Greek Drachmas, the equivalent of 4 Euro centime. (The price of an average glass of Assyrtiko today would get you 200 kg grapes back then!). Mr Boutari offered overnight a price of 100 Drachmas. 660% increase! The locals thought he was actually crazy, according to Mr Vamvakousis. Crazy or not, with that kind of price, they followed the man’s request to the letter, thus transforming the island’s wine culture forever.
Boutari was soon followed by others.
Other vines feature alongside the famous Assyrtiko. Aidani, Athiri, Thrapsathiri and Gaidouria are the main white varieties, while Mandilaria, Mavrotragano and Mavrathiro are the noted reds although those are not as prominent as the whites.
With growth in popularity and pressure from tourism, a worrying trend of abandoning vineyards and building much more lucrative hotels has been observed on Santorini for the last 15 years. Some estimated that from a total vineyard area of 1000 hectare (2500 acres), half will be gone within a decade, if no action was taken. The Greek government intervened and protected the vineyards of Santorini in a law that passed in 2017, prohibiting any building work to be carried out on a declared vineyard. The problem, as is the case often in Greece, is that without declaring their plots a designated vineyard, many land owners are keeping their options open for future sale of the land.
Any substantial loss of the Santorini vineyards will be a cultural disaster for the global wine heritage.
In spring 2019 I visited Santorini and conducted a few interviews with leading figures in the island’s wine industry. The quality and passion I encountered astounded me. So much so, that it is just a matter of time before I see myself travel there again, to continue and expand on the conversations. In the words of George Menachoilias, owner of Oia Vineyart, each one of the Island’s producers bring a piece of the jigsaw into the picture that is the Santorini wine scene. So Santorini ‘series two’ is definitely on the cards!
I had the good fortune to catch Paris Sigalas for a chat about his life before and after becoming a leading wine maker. A true poet and philosopher. Conversation here.
Konstantina Chryssou from Hatzidakis winery recorded with me a heartfelt conversation. Talking about the pioneering spirit of starting a winery, the tragic loss of her husband and the new generation taking over with respect for the legacy left by him. Conversation here.
Petros Vamvakousis from Venetsanos winery. The General Manager of this small but stunningly beautiful winery told me all about the Santorini wine industry from his point of view. Conversation coming soon here.
George Menacholias from Oia Vineyart. A passionate wine bar/ Gourmet-Deli owner, stocking every wine label produced on the island and proud of it. Chatted to me about the thriving wine scene from the Sommelier perspective. Conversation here.