Savouring Santorini: A trip to Greece's Premier Winemaking Paradise

By, Mira Mentz

This year, we went to the volcanic island of Santorini for an educational visit. Prior to travelling there, the extent of my knowledge of its famed wines was admittedly limited. Sure, I knew it was nestled in Greece and produced wines made from the intriguing Assyrtiko grape (which I'd enjoyed in the past). The unique basket-shaped training method for the vines had also piqued my interest. However, that was the extent of my understanding – a mere glimpse into the remarkable world of Santorini's winemaking.

When I got there, I was in awe to see what the island had to offer.

The training team boarded a plane at Gatwick on a very early and cold Monday morning, heading to sunny and warm Santorini in April. Our hosts, Santo Wines, were ready to unveil the island’s beauty, history, and of course, the incredible wines produced on its volcanic  soils.

It was three days of eye-opening wine education; unlike anything we had experienced before. We encountered completely new and unique concepts and practices in Santorini’s winemaking, some perhaps not yet described in detail within the pages of wine books. Here are a few that stood out:

The vineyards are unlike anything you have seen before.

As we drove through the winding roads, we stopped at what looked like semi-barren land dotted with hardy shrubs. It turned out that those these were vines trained low to the ground and wrapped in a basket shape. We learned that this unique vine training method, called ‘Kouloura’, is used to shield the grapes from the incredibly strong winds, which, in some years, can reach up to 65 km/h.

Phylloxera who??

We are all aware of the dreaded root louse that destroys vineyards. Because of this, most vines in other regions are grafted onto phylloxera-resistant rootstock. However, in Santorini, the vines are ungrafted because the soil is 90% sand, as well as pumice, lava, and volcanic rock – and phylloxera cannot survive in sand. As a result, since it was never able to invade the vineyards of Santorini, some vines in the region are between 200and 300 years old.

The vines multiply.

Remember that most vines affected by phylloxera cannot create new plants through propagation because they need to be grafted onto phylloxera-resistant rootstock. But, in Santorini, this is not an issue because each vine can easily create new vines using a technique called layering. This involves burying a long stem from the mother plant under sandy soil, with the top end sticking out. After a while, roots will form from the buried stem, and then it can be cut away from the mother plant, resulting in free new vines!

Assyrtiko is a magical grape.

You may or may not have heard of it, but it’s definitely worth trying! The Assyrtiko grape is PDO Santorini, along with fava beans and their local juicy tomatoes called ‘tomataki.’ The grape retains its high acidity and sugar during ripening and the wine has lots of flavour intensity of lemon, floral, and mineral characteristics which all contribute to Assyrtiko being able to age for 10 to 15 years. We tried a range of styles from zesty and fruity, to wines with great texture from lees ageing, and experiments with concrete eggs and clay amphora, to blended, oak-aged, richer styles with skin contact labelled as “Nykteri”. And that’s just the dry styles. Santorini is famous for their local Vin Santo, a sweet dessert wine made from Assyrtiko grapes dried in the sun to almost raisins and then aged oxidatively in French oak barrels for more than three years. Santo even produces a 20-year-old Vin Santo! So, as you can see, Assyrtiko isn’t just any white wine; it has many different expressions and there is one for everybody to appreciate.

 If you’re interested in planning a trip to the island, then Santo Wines is a must visit; as the wines and the unique viticulture, and geography of the Caldera are incredible.

I could talk about the wonders of Santorini for days, but the best way to get to know the wines is to taste them.

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