One hundred years ago it is said that there were nearly 100 different grape varieties on Santorini. One can assume that many of those have now died out, but there is still a lot of diversity, and all varieties are supposed to be local. That is to say I was told international varieties are banned, but I am uncertain how local and international are defined and exactly how the ban works. Anyway, here I am only going to discuss the more important varieties on the island – important in terms of volume, inclusion in the Santorini PDO, and quality.
Assyrtiko covers around 70% of the vineyard area, and is the main white grape in all Santorini PDO wine. Konstantinos Lazarakis characterises the grape very nicely his opening sentence on the topic: Arguably the finest Greek grape variety today, Assyrtiko has the rare ability of balancing breadth and power with high acidity and steely austerity. The adjective assertive sums up the grape in one word, and also acts as a good alliterative mnemonic for its name if you are struggling to get to grips with your Greek varieties. As will be seen below, Assyrtiko can be used to good effect in sweet and dry styles, and is also used for at least one sparkling wine. In my opinion it deserves more international attention, which is now starting to be forthcoming. It was, for example, only a month ago that Jim Barry Wines announced the first release of their Assyrtiko. The white varieties Athiri and Aidani are much less common on the island, and serve as minor auxiliary wines to blend into Assyrtiko. Used like that, they tend to tone down the more aggressive nature of the Assyrtiko.
Mandilaria is the main red grape, acounting for just under 20% of the vineyards. It has very dark skins and thus can make very dark wines. On the island this is the most common source of red and rosé wines, and like Assyrtiko is used to make both dry and sweet styles. The red grape Mavrotragano is of little importance in volume terms, accounting for less than 2% of wine production in 2005. But in the 1990s Sigalas caused a stir by releasing a Mavrotragano varietal wine, demonstrating its high quality. Since then Mavrotragano has grown in popularity, and seems to have a good future.
Santorini PDO wines must all be predominantly Assyrtiko, but this can be blended with small quantities of other white grapes, all from Santorini of course. For Vinsanto the rule is that there must be at least 51% Assyrtiko; while for dry styles it is at least 75% Assyrtiko and the balance can only contain Aidani and Athiri. For non-PDO wines on the island, Cyclades PGI is usually used as the designation, which allows a broad range of varieties and styles.
The wine with the oldest tradition, going back to ancient times, is the sweet wine of Santorini now known as Vinsanto. The word Vinsanto is a contraction of vin Santo or vino Santo – literally, wine of Santorini. In turn, the name Santorini derives from Santo Erini (St Irene), the name of the church close to its historical main port. Some suggest that the Italian Vin Santo was named due to its similarity to Vinsanto. There is even a story, probably apocryphal, explaining exactly how that came about. In practice, Vinsanto contains at least 80% Assyrtiko, and this is blended mainly with Aidani, or both Aidani and Athiri. The grapes are harvested late, and left to dry in the sun for 6 to 14 days. This exposure to the sun tends to create volatile acidity, and is a key point of difference with Vin Santo, for which grapes are dried in the shade. Vin Santo also tends to be less acidic and more fruity. The dried grapes are crushed and fermented, largely on their skins, after which they must spend at least two years in oak barrels. Older styles of Vinsanto usually finished their alcoholic fermentation at around 9% ABV, and some of these were then fortified. That is still allowed, though most producers seeking higher levels of alcohol would these days use yeast strains that can take the wine to over 13%.
Nykteri is another traditional style that is still made. This is a dry wine that is predominantly Assyrtiko. Ripe grapes are picked early in the morning, and these are all crushed and pressed the same day. For small-scale winemakers with a limited labour force, this is a lot of work that would continue on into the night, giving the wine its name – Nykteri means night work. After fermentation, the wine is aged in oak, sometimes new oak, for up to two years or so. The result is a premium wine with a high alcohol content, over 13.5%, that can sometimes show a little oxidation from the barrel ageing. When I first read the description of how Nykteri is made, I wondered why it was regarded as so special. Later, I learned about the other traditional style dry wine, Brusco, which means coarse. An understanding of Brusco is really needed to explain why Nykteri is a thing. For Brusco, over the period of a week or so, as the grapes of different varieties and locations become over-ripe, they are harvested and emptied into a shallow vat, one day’s harvest being dumped on the grapes of previous days, a method of working that is clearly more in tune with peasant wine-making than the frantic all-in-one-day Nykteri. During the week, the grapes at the bottom of the pile would get crushed, and start fermenting and macerating, and when the vat was full all the grapes would be trodden. As you can imagine, this is not a recipe for fine wine. The result is wine that is highly tannic, acidic and alcoholic, and probably illustrative of pretty much every wine fault imaginable. Brusco is no longer made commercially but, with the natural wine movement still apparently gaining ground, surely it can only be a matter of time before it is re-invented. I would certainly be up for trying it.
Many Santorini wines are however made in what is best described as a modern style. They are typically fermented in stainless steel, and most commonly they are unfussy wines that are bottled soon after fermentation. But they are certainly not to be sniffed at. In my opinion, Assyrtiko dominant wines made in this style are some of the most exciting on the island, offering beautiful varietal clarity, and pure, intense refreshment. The most obvious words on these labels will most likely be simply Santorini and/or Assyrtiko. You will also see wines that proclaim themselves as oak-aged, wild ferment or reserve, and estate and single-vineyard wines.
For a bit more context, also see my other posts on Santorini. As before, my written sources are Santorini – An Historical Wineland by Stavroula Kourakou, and The Wines of Greece by Konstantinos Lazarakis.