Escape to Greece: Truly Unique Wines from Santorini

I have visited many wonderful places around the world, but I have to concede that the island of Santorini has to rank as one of the most spectacularly beautiful. Watching the sun set over the dormant volcano, known as the Caldero, is to experience a little bit of heaven. Crystal clear blue waters, whitewashed houses and churches trimmed with blue provided the perfect backdrop while sipping delicious Santorini wines and enjoying local dishes such as Fava (pureed yellow split peas) or Domatokeftethes (tomato fritters). Since my return I have been cooking up all sorts of Santorini treats to pair with these truly unique wines.

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All About Santorini Wines

Santorini 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.

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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.

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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.

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The People of Santorini

During 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Santorini Wines to Try

As usual, I tasted far too many wines to list here. Therefore I've limited it to the wines I enjoyed most, and which, for the most part are available in the United States. All of these wines are crisp and refreshing and pair amazingly well with all sorts of mezze, shellfish, grilled fish, salads and vegetable dishes. Santorini wines cost between $20 to $25 dollars, great value given the labor involved in cultivating and harvesting the grapes.

2008 Gaia Estate Thalassitis, Santorini - 100% Assyrtiko - Wonderfully minerally, pure and focused. Very crisp with delicate notes of lemon and lime and a hinty of salt and star anise on the finish.

2008 Gaia Estate Thalassitis Oak Fermented - 100% Assyrtiko - 20% acacia wood and 80% oak. Creamy floral aromas with a hint of vanilla. Crisp and fresh on the palate with citrus flavors mingled with creamy spice. Long length and minerality shines through

NV Gaia Retsina - While not from Santorini, I have deliberately included this wine for all those who have tasted Retsina and dislike Retsina. This Gaia example is very well balanced, with just enough pine and lots of fresh citrus fruit. Made from the Rhoditis grape, rather than the more usual Savatiano. Notes of fresh sage, rosemary and eucalyptus.

2008 Sigalas Assyrtiko/Athiri, Santorini - A blend of 75% Assyrtiko and 25% Athiri. More round and soft (yet still has great acidity), than the 100% Assyrtiko. Apricot and white peach notes as well as citrus. Great lingering minerality, We also tasted the 2007, which is still very fresh and bright.

2008 Sigalas Santorini - 100% Assyrtiko - The minerality stands out more strongly, adding texture and structure. Focused, fresh with notes of vibrant Meyer lemon, grapefruit and limes. Very long length and balsamic finish. We also tasted the 2006 ands 2003 wines. The 2003 had already taken on some lovely honey and fusel notes.

2008 Sigalas Santorini Barrel Aged - 100% Assyrtiko - Creamy butterscotch aromas. Crisp and fresh on the palate with lemon cream pie and vanilla flavors.

2007 Sigalas Santorini Red - 100% Mavrotragano - a rare indigenous Greek grape variety. Deep red color with fresh red berry and cherry aromas and flavors with spice and pepper. Medium tannins, but smooth and balanced. Savory finish

2003 Sigalas Vinsanto, Santorini - 75% Assyrtiko and 25% Aidani. Grapes were sun-dried for about 10 days to concentrate the sugars, acidity and flavors before fermentation. Deep color due to sun-drying and long aging. Rich, deliciously sweet with amazing depth of flavor and refreshing acidity. Aromas and flavors of fruit cake, dried raisins, apricots, sultanas and a touch of fig.

2008 Boutari Santorini - 100% Assyrtiko - A medley of citrus fruit - lemons, grapefruit and hints of tangerine peel and spice. Very good minerality on the finish.

2008 Boutari Kallisti, Santorini - 100% Assyrtiko - A lighter, more aromatic and more fruity wine than the previous one tasted. Inviting with lots of zesty lemon and lime aromas and great intensity of flavor on the palate. Would work great on its own or with light dishes and salads.

2008 Boutari Kallisti Reserve, Santorini - 100% Assyrtiko, barrel fermented and aged. Kallisti means 'beautiful' in recognition of the special vineyards from which the grapes are sourced. Buttery, nutty, aromas pave the way for crisp flavors of creamy apple, vanilla and peach. Rich texture. Drinking nicely but needs a few years to fully integrate the oak.

2008 Santo Wines, Santorini - 100% Assyrtiko - Lemony and minerally, with nuances of lime peel and anise. Refreshing and clean.

2008 Santo Wines, Santorini Nykteri - 80% Assyrtiko, and 20% a blend of Athiri and Aidani. For this wine the grapes are harvested at night to keep them as cool as possible. It also received three months barrel aging, that added vanilla and spicy notes to the citrus flavors.

These are but a small selection of the wonderful wines from Santorini. Put together a simple Greek salad, grill some fish and break out a bottle of one of the most refreshing wines that you can find, and escape to the uniquely beautiful Santorini. It has been working for me since getting back!

See also Great Wines from the Peloponnese from last week.

Until next week enjoy!

(Images: Courtesy of All About Greek Wines, Beth Von Benz, Michael Madrigale and Justin Ross)

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Mary Gorman-McAdams, MW (Master of Wine), is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant. In 2012 she was honored as a Dame Chevalier de L'Ordre des Coteaux de Champagne.