All About Santorini WinesSantorini wines are in my opinion quite unique. It is a miracle that the vines survive the 100 degree summer temperatures, drought and harsh drying winds from the sea, However, indigenous grape varieties and unique viticultural cultivation methods have enabled the vine to not just survive , but to transcend into a wine that is truly a manifestation of the volcanic soils of Santorini. The vineyards of Santorini are also unique in that phylloxera, the vineyard pest that has ravaged most of the winegrowing world, has never struck. Therefore all the vines are on their own roots, with many dating back a few hundred years. The absence of clay in the soils protects the vineyards from phylloxera attack, as this little 'beasty' needs a minimum of 5% to complete its lifecycle. Santorini wines are mainly white, and made from three indigenous varieties - Assyrtiko (a-SEER-ti-ko), Athiri and Aidani. Assyrtiko is the noblest and most important variety, accounting for about 75% of the island's vineyard plantings.
Vineyards are scattered all over the island, and are unlike any other vineyard you have ever visited. No neatly trellised vines to be seen anywhere. Instead to combat the climatic conditions, the vines are trained and pruned in a basket shape, within which the clusters sit where they are protected from the harsh drying winds. The basket shape also helps retain moisture from the morning fog, providing 'irrigation' for the vines during the dry, hot summer. Assyrtiko wines are remarkable for both their refreshing crisp acidity, and huge minerality. Aromas and flavors are a medley of lemons and limes, with a spicy balsamic kick on the finish. Some people may find the 100% Assyrtiko wines a little austere, because they are so minerally driven (think of all that volcanic soil). If so, try the blends. Here Assyrtiko is blended with the less austere and more fruity Athiri, to round out the fruit and soften the palate.
Santorini white wines are essentially unoaked (though most producers have experimented with oak), and are best drunk young, as the Greeks themselves advocate. That said, during my visit I tasted a vintage vertical of Santorini wines, dating back to 1997, that clearly demonstrated that the wines can and do age well, gaining lots of honeyed and fusel note complexity. As well, as the dry wines, Santorini is also famous for Vin Santo. Many people associate Vin Santo with Italy. However, the name and the wine originated in Santorini. It is a delicious sweet wine made from sun-dried Assyrtiko grapes and aged for a minimum of three years in cask before release.
The People of SantoriniDuring my trip we visited a number of Santorini producers. First up was the large cooperative on the island: "Santo Wines." With 1000 member growers, Santo Wines is a very important player on the island. Grower vineyard plots are tiny. Overall on the island there are only 1400 hectares of vineyard split between as many growers. We were warmly welcomed at Santo wines by Stella Kasiola and the Santo Wines winemaking team, and we tasted through a selection of their excellent wines. These included a 100% Assyrtiko, a blended Santorini wine, a Grande Reserve Assyrtiko (aged in new oak for 12 months), as well as a special treat: a red wine made from the rare indigenous black variety Mavrotragano.
Next stop was to the famous Domaine Sigalas, whose Santorini wines are gaining great recognition in the United States. Owner Paris Sigalas proudly walked us through his beautiful vineyards, explaining in detail the complex basket system, and how back-breakingly laborious these vines are to cultivate.
Following the visit to the vineyards, we tasted through his fabulously refreshing wines, and then enjoyed some more over a delightful lunch of assorted mezze, octopus and succulent grilled fish. One of my favorite pairings was his 2008 Domaine Sigalas with delicious tomato fritters. Having digested lunch we headed to visit Gaia Estate, where we met with Yiannis Parakevopolous, who is one of Greece's most famous, internationally known winemakers. Bordeaux trained, Yiannis also devotes a lot of his time to mentoring the next generation of young Greek winemakers.
Yiannis is involved in a lot of experimentation and research on the grapes and wines of Santorini. One of his more unusual wines is a 'Wild Ferment" Assyrtiko, which is made using only native wild yeasts. Not so unusual in other countries, where viable wild yeast populations are plenty. But in Santorini, such populations are extremely rare. Gaia is also experimenting with acacia wood as an alternative to oak for aging, finding that acacia gives a more floral note to the wines. Gaia Santorini wines are widely distributed in the United States. The name Boutari is probably as important to the Greek wine industry as Mondavi is to California. With wineries and vineyards all over Greece, Boutari is one of the three largest players. At Boutari we were so warmly welcomed by export director Tselios and their Santorini winemaker Ioanna Vamvakouri, who talked about their work with the grape-growers all across the island, and the differences between certain vineyard sites and their philosophy for making Santorini wines, while we tasted through their 100% Assyrtino, Assyrtiko/Athiri blend, oaked aged wines and of course Vin Santo. The visit was capped by a special symposium and vertical tasting, where we tasted Assyrtiko back as far as 1996. While usually best appreciated when young, it proved yet again that Assyrtiko wine can certainly age.