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Why Wines From Santorini Will Surprise You

The Greek island of Santorini is a visual delight—imagine the circular rim of a volcano almost submerged beneath the Aegean Sea. The circle is incomplete, however, and what remains—a semicircle—faces west toward frequently brilliant sunsets.

This Mediterranean island was born from erupting volcanoes, the most violent in recent millennia—known as the Minoan eruption—having been in the year 1,613 BCE. Spewing ash and pumice decimated the then two-thousand-year-old settlement of Akrotiri—a city with multistory stone homes, as well as systems for water supply and sewage.

That event marked one of the earth’s largest volcanic eruptions in the past 10,000 years. It is estimated that within three days this volcano spewed out 14 cubic miles (60 cubic kilometers) of ash, rock and pumice. That’s almost triple the volume of all five Great Lakes in the U.S. The ferocious eruption darkened northern hemisphere skies for two weeks, and ushered in a two-year long winter.

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It also submerged one quarter of Santorini and broke the remaining land into chunks—now named Santorini, Thirasia, Aspronisi and Kameni Islands. The population of Santorini today is half the 30,000 residents as before that cataclysm.

Grape vines have been cultivated on Santorini since before this eruption. Phoenician sailors who arrived in boats after this fiery explosion carried ample seeds and cuttings, yet found that grapevines were most productive on the rocky soils. Today, some 40 local grape varieties grow on Santorini (though not all are cultivated).

The island’s volcanic soils contain basalt, granite, pumice, obsidian and ash. The high content of silica oxides and metals makes these soils acidic, and imparts low pH and a pleasant mineral taste to wines. Consider white Santorini vintages: generally fresh, acidic, with a hint of salinity and not shy with alcohol.

Yet such excellent taste and structure come at a viticultural cost.

Santorini is blasted by scorching sunlight and raked by violent winds. To bear decent fruit, grapevines need protection. This is accomplished by using the kouloura (basket) method to train vines—where they are coiled and laid low. Grapes grow inside these circles and are protected from winds; leaves that grow above deflect sunlight. On soils not heavily impacted by wind, a second vine training method known as kladeftiko involves making simpler vine hoops.

Rainfall is scant on the island, at about 22 inches (550 millimeters) a year (compared to 37 inches in Bordeaux in France, or 27 inches in Napa Valley in California). Measures to protect vines from water loss (and erosion) include constructed terraces and drystone walls. More importantly, lightweight and semi-porous pumice rocks (colored green, red, black and white) coat the soils. These absorb moisture from the ground and also from sea mists, and later release this water to vines. This process also helps smoothen the ripening of grapes, though yields are generally low.

The unique taste of wine from this island has been respected for centuries. In the late 1500’s and early 1600’s—during the Ottoman occupation—Santorini established a significant trading relationship with Russia, whose residents appreciated high alcohol wines; they also incorporated the island’s sweet Vinsanto wines into their religious ceremonies. Traders obtained timber, wheat, potatoes and household goods in exchange for fermented juice. Once back on the island, sea captains mounted imported Russian chandeliers from ceilings, while Santorini women adorned Russian jewelry. The 1917 October Revolution halted this brisk yet ample trade.

White wines are predominantly made from three grapes: Assyrtiko (the island’s flagship variety) as well as Aidani and Athiri. Red grapes include Mavrotragano and Mandelaria.

While visiting the island, I contacted owner Paris Sigalas of Domaine Sigalas in the far north of Santorini. This third-generation wine producer (and retired mathematician) created his own label 24 years ago, and now owns 81 acres (33 hectares) of vines.

His winery’s most recent project has been to bottle seven different Assytriko wines—each planted and vinified identically, but made from grapes growing on different and dispersed locations on the island. Bottle labels are differentiated by the names of vine sites, as well as different symbols. Sampled side by side—each tastes unique.

Sigalas explained the island’s unique attributes. (Locals refer to the western portion of the island—facing toward the once volcanic cone—as the ‘caldera’ side.)

‘The uniqueness of Santorini wines comes from volcanic soils. Assyrtiko has high acidity. It’s also a really full-bodied wine, and has aging potential for over ten years.

‘There’s a difficult climate situation here. We have few rainfalls. But often humidity comes from the caldera side, from the sea. So, stress for vines is not always high, and Assyrtiko is a vine that can stay heathy in this situation.’

Another Santorini winery that illustrates the history of island viticulture is Estate Argyros, located at the center/south portion of the island. This was founded in 1903 and includes 300 acres (120 hectares) of ungrafted vines that were not decimated by the phylloxera louse in the 1800’s. One set of vines is two centuries old, and none are treated with herbicides or chemicals. Again, the taste of Assyrtiko shines through in their white wines—with aromas and tastes of tropical fruit, salt, minerals, honey and sometimes a hint of herbaceousness.

Although Santorini red wines are typically not as distinct or brilliant as whites, there are distinct exceptions (Domaine Sigalas is renowned for excellent reds). Typical reds are made from Mavrotragano and Mandilaria grapes. These are often aged in oak and can have deep, rich flavors that can include those of licorice and cinnamon. (International grape varieties are referred to as ‘xenoloa,’ which basically means ‘stranger.’)

Santorini is also renowned for its excellent Vinsanto wines—made from late-harvest, sun-dried white grapes and aged for at least two years in oak. These can include rich flavors of rum, sultanas, plums and menthol.

Where to Visit:

Before departing for Santorini (or Greece), you will need to fill out an online Covid-19 questionnaire at least 24 hours before the flight departs. An approval letter will then be emailed to you at midnight before the day of your journey; you must present this at check in, or will not be allowed to board.

It is worth renting a car to explore the island. These are reasonably priced. For accommodation, Fira bustles with visitors and traffic; Oia is a picturesque village with pastel painted restaurants and winding alleys; it can also be tourist riddled.

Consider staying at a more traditional village, such as those located in the south of the island, which are less crowded. The village of Megalochori—with clanging church bells and quiet winding alleys—includes Art & Wine Gallery and Restaurant Alisachni (which means spraying sea foam). This includes excellent dishes (consider prawns with ouzo, or octopus with fava caramelized onions) as well as a list of 35 Santorini wines.

For lunch dining, consider seafood near the black sands of Perissa beach at a restaurant such as Tranquilo. If seafood is not of interest, try a midday Greek breakfast of fried eggs and feta cheese with a glass of Santorini wine. If you drive to the southern lighthouse (Pharos) there is not only a breathtaking view of the ocean and curling land, but also a small outlet serving delicious food for excellent value named Charoula Canteen. Sample a pork souvlaki (grilled, skewered meat) together with a Volkan lava rock filtered Greek pilsner, made with Santorini honey and the essence of citrus medica leaf (first imported to Greece from Persia by the army of Alexander the Great). Alternatively, consider include Psaraki Restaurant above the Vlychada harbor in southern Santorini—where you can enjoy grilled amberjack fish and oregano potatoes with a small pitcher of Assyrtiko wine.

It is also worthwhile visiting the wine museum created by winemaker G. Koutsoyannopoulos. You can self-tour the below ground exhibits using an audio device. This museum provides an overview of the island’s geography and history regarding winemaking. One screen includes a two-and-a-half-minute graphic movie showing the volcanic origins of the island. When finished, you can sit and sample their wines.

The island’s most prolific visitors are Americans—though few were able to visit this year. Overall visitor numbers are still low, which make this a good time to visit.

Below are tasting notes for various Santorini wines. Many other island wineries are also producing excellent vintages; the limited scope below is due to a relatively short visit.

These wines score, on a subjective 100-point scale, from 95 to 98 points.

Domaine Sigalas. 7 Villages: Pyrgos. 2018.

This 100% Assyrtiko grape white wine includes aromas of vanilla and orange liqueur and in the mouth is round and structured with a hint of salinity.

Domaine Sigalas. 7 Villages: Akrotiri. 2018.

This 100% Assyrtiko white wine has sweet aromas that include tropical fruits such as grapefruit. In the mouth the taste is balanced, confident and has a light touch; includes tastes of orange liqueur and salinity.

Domaine Sigalas. Kavalieiros. 2018.

This 100% Assyrtiko white wine originates from grapes growing at about a thousand feet (300 meters) above sea level which age on lees for 18 months in stainless steel. The image on the label shows a hunched older man, but when inverted shows a traditional mask—an idol of the location of Cyclades. Aromas include those of candy corn and sea salt, lime and grapefruit. In the mouth this wine includes rich, textured minerality as well as layered flavors of honey and hickory. The length includes a taste of peaches. Consider pairing this beautiful wine with crabs, shrimp and linguini.

Domaine Sigalas. Mavrotragano. 2018 (red).

Made 100% from the Mavrotragano grape, this wine spends 18 months in partial new oak. Aromas include licorice, cinnamon, red fruits and menthol. The taste includes deeply rich textured juice with flavors that include maple syrup, cinnamon and blueberries. Impressive.

Estate Argyros. Cuvée Monsigniori. 2017 (white).

Made from 100-year-old Assyrtiko vines grown on two plots, this spends nine months on lees in stainless steel. Beautifully balanced aromas include those of fresh bread, salt and honey. In this mouth this is a delicate meld of tropical fruit and salinity.

Estate Argyros. Cuvée Evdemon. 2017 (white).

The word ‘Evdemon’ basically means good spirit. This exceptional 100% Assyrtiko is made from 100 to 150-year-old grapes that come from the highlands of Pyrgos. The grapes are cultivated biodynamically and the wine is aged in 25% French oak. Their 2016 vintage was sold within 10 days and customers are limited to six bottles. Aromas include honey, salt, lime and grapefruit, and the taste is that of a three-course meal—with a gorgeous, honey-lime mouth feel.

Estate Argyros. Vinsanto. 2012 (sweet).

White grapes are late harvested and sun dried on mats for two weeks, then pressed and fermented in stainless steel. They are then aged in cement vats for three years, and then in old barriques for four years. Fruity aromas and tastes that include those of rum, chocolate, sultanas and dark plums.

Estate Argyros. Vinsanto. 1996 (sweet).

This ‘meditation wine’ includes aromas of chocolate and caramel and similar tastes, but also includes a hint of the taste of salty Dutch licorice.

These wines score, on a subjective 100-point scale, from 91 to 94 points.

Hatzidakis Winery. Skitali. 2017 (white).

Aromas of fresh lime, marmalade and dill. In the mouth an assertive and delicately bold wine with a taste of candied oranges, candy cane and truffles. Beguiling, serious juice.

Domaine Sigalas. 7 Villages: Imerovigli. 2018.

This 100% Assyrtiko white wine includes aromas of butter, honey and fresh flowers. Gorgeous taste of lime, honey, fresh bread and a length that includes gooseberry flavored acidity. Easy drinking.

Domaine Sigalas. 7 Villages: Oia. 2018.

This 100% Assyrtiko white wine includes aromas of oranges and a hint of treacle, kiwi fruit and grapefruit. In the mouth—tropical fruits, salt and bread.

Koutsoyannopoulos. Orange Wine Experimental. 2017.

Sweet aromas of oranges, sherbet and white pears. In the mouth, the acidity is complemented with the taste of oranges and dark plums.

Gavalas Winery. Santorini Dry White Wine. 2019.

This 100% Assyrtiko wine is made from 50-year-old vines and is fermented and matured in stainless steel and spends eight months on lees. This wine has high acidity and can age for six to ten years. Aromas include grapefruit, lime and a slight hint of honey. In the mouth the taste of honey is more pronounced and layered and comes with salinity—a beautiful combination. Think energetic Pinot Gris that is less rounded.

Gavalas Winery. Nyxtepi. 2019.

‘Nyxtepi’ means ‘night wine’ because traditionally these white Assyrtiko grapes were picked and delivered to the cellar by the end of a day—when it was still hot in the evening—before being stomped. This wine spends eight months in lightly toasted French oak. Aromas are sweet and open—think bubble gum and flint. In the mouth the wine is rounded and honeyed.

Gavalas Winery. Vinsanto. 2012. (sweet)

This sweet wine is made only from white grape varieties and must—per appellation—include 51% Assyrtiko. However, most winemakers use more of that grape to increase acidity to balance the sweetness. The grapes are sun dried for two weeks until dehydrated, and spend a minimum of two years in oak—in this case large Russian foudre casks in the cellar that were made between 1910 and 1920. These large casks are neutral, but also porous so they provide an oxidative character to the wine. Aromas include those of burnt caramel and rum, dried figs and plums. The taste is of smoke, rum, treacle and sultanas.

Gavalas Winery. Eight. 2019 (white).

This blend of Assyrtiko and Sauvignon Blanc includes a blast of fresh lightness on the nose: acidic with citrus zest.

Estate Argyros. Assyrtiko. 2019.

Made from grapes picked from 120-year-old parcels all over the island, this wine spends three months in stainless steel and includes aromas of grapefruit and other tropical fruits, as well as salt and minerals. In the mouth this includes very precise salinity as well as Viognier like tropicals. Think lemon/lime layer cake. This can cellar for five years.

Source: Forbes – Business

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