Peering out across the ancient caldera into the Agean from just about any spot on top of the beautiful Greek island of Santorini, you could be forgiven for mistaking the place for the edge of the world.
And when I say “beautiful” I don’t mean beautiful in the “my backyard garden is beautiful” sense of the word; I mean beautiful in the “top ten most beautiful places on planet Earth” kind of beautiful. It might be the edge of the world, but after spending any appreciable amount of time on this one big photo-op of a rock, you might also be forgiven for literally treating as the world’s edge, in so far as never wanting to travel any farther ever again.
If you’d been here in Minoan times, it very well may have seemed like the end of the world, if not its edge.
It was during this time, some 3,600 years ago, that the caldera as we know it today – possibly the world’s largest, stretching some 18 kilometers – was largely formed, the result of an eruption so massive that it has been linked to the sinking of Atlantis and the parting of the Red/Reed Sea during Moses’ flight from Egypt.
The resulting spew of earth and volcanic matter covered Santorini in almost 50 meters of volcanic rock and ash; for a few hundred years afterward, nothing could live there.
The effects of that massive and violent eruption are still felt today – they are directly responsible for the uniqueness and potential of Santorini’s wine.
Of course, you could get a similar overview from a history book, brochure, or Wikipedia; the difference here being that I spent several days on Santorini last week, walked those stony, ashy vineyards, and tasted my way through the direct impact of the islands soil and climate…
That wine can be made at all on this gorgeous rock is a bit of a miracle. Nothing much grows naturally here, there is practically no rain to speak of, and moisture visits the island’s plants primarily by way of evening mists, which presents a unique challenge for vines needing water. Fierce winds buffet the island from pretty much every direction, which present a rick of shutting down the vine during flowering. The sun is skin-bakingly hot, which can cause heat stress and sunburn for wine grapes.
But this is where miracles happens, coupled with human ingenuity: the volcanic, pumice-filled soil helps to first drain and then deeply retain the moisture provided by those overnight mists; vines are trained in a unique wrapped-basket style known as koulara (see inset pic from Domaine Sigals), creating a protective area for the grapes to develop with protection from the wind and sand along with some shielding from the sun by way of leaf cover; the volcanic soils prevent many pests (such as phylloxera) from gainaing any foothold; the buffeting winds help to prevent mildew and fungus, and regulate the temperature enough to preserve acidity in the grapes.
The koulara viticultural method also works to reduce yields naturally and add complexity to the fruit, since the nutrients need to travel the long coiled distances of the old vines to reach the fruit. And no one knows exactly how old some of the indigenous vines are on Santorini. After about 75 years, yields on the vines become so low that they are lopped off, with a new vine developing from the indigenous rootstock – best estimates are that this process has been done at least five times in recorded history, which makes those vine roots really old by any reasonable standard.
As you might expect from a culture and area where wine has been made for an estimated 5,000 years, viticulture on Santorini is not an orderly process. Vines are not planted in neat rows, but are closer to field-blend mixtures strewn over small (1 hectare on average) plots (see inset pics from Domaine Sigalas and Hatzidakis for the general idea). With rootstock hundreds of years old in some spots, there’s little chance of moving anything. Harvest (typically taking place in early August) is literally back-breaking work, requiring long hours of hunched-over hand-picking under the blistering sun.
Is all the miracle and crazy, hard work worth it? Generally, yes.
Santorini has two indigenous stars when it comes to wine, all white – Assyrtiko (a grape, usually made into various styles of varietal wine) and Vinsanto (literally, “wine from Santorini” – a sweet wine appellation made in an ancient style from sun-dried grapes, consisting primarily of Assyrtiko blended with Athiri and Aidani).
At it’s worst, Assyrtiko is an astringent, acidic brute that can have its citrus and floral qualities overrun by aggressive use of oak. At it’s best, Santorini Assyrtiko is world-class, with an acidic backbone that can see it through to long periods of aging after which characters of petrol, nuts, and honey develop – and none of it requires oak to give complexity
(though in some of the better cases, an oaked Nykteri style can add roundness and additional complexity).
Vinsanto is a similar mixed-bag. Poorer examples are tooth-achingly cloying (yes, even for me). The best are a captivating mix of sultana, espresso bean, caramel, and sweet spices that (thanks to their acidity, oxidation and long periods of barrel-aging) can survive and develop for several decades. At Estate Argyros, I tasted through several decades of Vinsanto developing in oak barrels, and got to witness the unique transformation of the wine, which starts out fresh, grapey and vibrant, moves to an almost sherry-like character, and after 15-20 years starts to take on rich and luscious caramel complexity. The best were among the better sweet wines I’ve ever had.
It’s important to note that none of the wines I tasted in Santorini rocked my world to its foundations, but there is no doubt in my mind that excellent, world-class wines are being made there (for reviews, see last week’s twitter mini-review round-up – this week’s will contain a few more). To me, this was clearly evidenced in the amount of wines that I “graded” in the “B” range – a few were better (some excellent, especially a few noteworthy Vinsantos), a few were worse (the island’s reds, such as Mavotragano, in particular are harshly tannic and mostly an acquired taste), but none of them were total dogs, either. That level of quality and consistency is noteworthy for an area of very small production and limited volumes of export outside of its home country and region, and suggests that the incentive to produce wines of higher and higher quality is driven by passion more so than profit.
More to come on why these world-class wines are becoming endangered, with views on the topic directly from the winemakers’ mouths.
For now, I leave you with a over a view of the caldera that is responsible for so much of this little island’s magic, from atop Santorini’s modern co-op SantoWines.