Santorini is easily one of the most visually stunning and photographed places on earth. It is an exotic holiday dream and perhaps is Greece’s most valuable tourism asset. Would it be too much to ask that Santorini also produce wines that are as unique and glorious as the place itself? It might indeed seem to be too much to ask. Besides the unlikeliness that such a small, heavily touristed beach location would also, coincidentally, produce great wine there is also the fact that Santorini is, essentially, a barren inhospitable volcanic rock. The island is the curving ridge of the cone of a volcano that blew itself inside out and sank into the sea about 3500 years ago. Windswept, hot and dry there is little to suggest that the vine would survive here at all, never mind produce commercial quantities of wine. Yet the hardiness of the grape and the ingenuity of man are a very formidable combination. And records show that wine has been produced on Santorini since ancient times - likely even before the destruction of the island by the cataclysmic volcanic eruption in 1600 BC.
Even more incredulous is the fact that, not only do the vines manage to eek-out a living on Santorini, they have adapted (with some help from man/woman-kind) to produce very compelling wines - wines that have singular but delicious characteristics. These wines have traits you essentially won’t find elsewhere, they come from indigenous grape varieties and they are rapidly climbing the wine-charts in terms of international awareness. But the life of a Santorini grape vine is precarious (we’ll talk more about the climatic and geographic challenges faced by the vine below) and the pressure of tourist development puts the limited amount of farming on Santorini at risk. Fortunately steps are being taken to find the balance between these two sources of income.
Why Santorini for Wine?
Santorini vines face punishing conditions. Here are the main challenges faced by the grapes and how their adaptation has resulted in powerful and unique wines.
#1. Hot winds pummel Santorini for a good portion of the year and then cold winds take their place. The vine is adapted by growing in a low basket shape, with the vines themselves intertwined like long sticks in a bird’s nest, in order to hunker down and fend off the wind. The yields are low but intensely flavourful.
#2. The soil is poor and is made up of volcanic rock and sand with little organic matter. The vine has adapted by mining these soils for nutrients that give a unique volcanic-mineral quality to the wine.
#3 There is essentially no rainfall on Santorini. In this bone dry climate the vines rely to a significant degree on the dew that forms on their leaves as a result of morning breezes. This small amount of water then drips down onto the soil and - laden with sea salt- provides some water to the plant. This gives a distinctive salty character to the wine.
Santorini’s flagship wine is the Assyrtiko white (although other white grapes like Athiri are also used to make wine). It is currently a bit of an international rock star. If you try a Santorini Assyrtiko you will notice all of the elements described above - a crisp and bright wine but with intense flavours and aromas, minerality and salinity.
Santorini’s signature red (although made in small production and a little hard to find internationally) is the Mavrotragano grape. It produces a fresh, red-fruit inspired wine but with booming flavour, complex aromas and a burly tannic edge. The winemakers of Santorini are getting kudos for this wine but are still finding the best way to tame it. Wine adventurers like to compare it to Nebbiolo of Piemonte and the Langhe.
Who are the Winemakers
Everything about Santorini wines is a bit astonishing and surprising. So maybe its not surprising that great winemakers are drawn to the place. Look for wines from Hatzidakis, Sigalas, Tselepos, Gaia, Vasaltis, Argyros and others. The wines tend to be a bit expensive but the reward on the palate is great. And consider what extremes these winemakers have to go to make wine from this poor bird’s nest-shaped vine?
When to Visit?
Everybody wants to go to Santorini in the summer. You will be far better off in May/June or September/October - unless of course you want to hit the height of the summer party as well as drink the wine!
Photos courtesy of www.winesfromsantorini.com and pixabay