Santorini wines and producers

I feel that any attempt at being systematic in a post on producers and their wines would be too presumptuous after one visit to the island, but I would still like to write a little about what I found and why I am so excited about Santorini wines. So am simply going to let you know what made the biggest impact on me, and hope that you will bear in mind that there are all manner of reasons why an experience may or may not have impressed at any particular moment. YMMV and all that.

If you haven’t seen them already, for a bit of background you might like to take a look at my blog posts that lead up to this one: Santorini as a destination for wine loversSantorini vineyards and vines and Santorini grape varieties and wine styles.

Wine with food

Let’s start with the wines I drank – not merely tasted – in restaurants. This of course is generally the best way to experience wines, and with the highly acidic Santorini dry Assyrtikos it is even more true than for most. With food Assyrtiko shines. Seafood is the obvious choice, and here is the aftermath at Fratzekos Fish Tavern in Perissa. While there is food on the plate I have more important things to do than take pictures.thalassitis-at-fratzeskos

The wine on the table is Thalassitis 2015, a Santorini PDO Assyrtiko wine made by Gaia that retails in the UK for around £18, or €17.00 from the producer. This is bone dry, crisp, sharp, and refreshing. It is intense and powerful, more mineral than fruit, possibly even a hint of Riesling-like petrol, but any fruit is definitely citric – lime, I think. If you want to understand Assyrtiko typicity, without getting confused by oak, oxidation or wild yeasts, this wine is a great place to start.

At another seafood restaurant, Melina’s Tavern, mentioned in my first post on Santorini, we had another Santorini PDO Assyrtiko. This was a 2014 from Boutari. This was not tried side-by-side with the Thalassitis, so I am relying on memory and my tasting notes, but I found the Boutari to be quite similar, and it is good for the same reasons. The differences I noted were that I found it even more difficult to identify the citrus fruit that the wine reminded me of, and there were hints of herbs and spices. I don’t think this is available in the UK, but looking at other Boutari wines I would guess would be a few Euros cheaper than the Thalassitis.

The final restaurant wine I’d like to mention is Gavalas Winery Santorini Natural Ferment 2015, also an Assyrtiko. This too was sharp and dry, but was aromatically more interesting, presumably due to the wild yeasts. Sweet ripe fruit, with a certain richness: orange, peach apricot. And a herby complexity. €16.00 from the producer, of which more later. I recommend the wine, but not the restaurant – Feggera in Megalochori.

Actually there is one more restaurant wine that deserves a mention, but the mention is a bit tricky as it was served to us in a jug, and described as homemade. It was red, thin, acidic and tannic, but alongside food it worked well – a heck of a lot better than the bottled and branded industrial plonk you get in the UK. Was this the Brusca style I wonder? Maybe not alcoholic enough to be Brusca. Get it at Tzanakis Tavern in Megalochori, where there is the friendliest welcome, and a group of local men eat and drink every day. And where every so often an incongruous bus-load of tourists is delivered for an evening of typical Greek food.

A couple of producers

The first one I’ll mention is Santo Wines, which is the Santorini coop. But it is not just any old wine coop, it is large, and has been hugely influential in supporting growers on the island, and in promoting Santorini wine in the rest of Greece and abroad. To make your mark in export markets you need to be able to supply good quality wine in large quantities, and Santo Wines is geared up to that task. It is also geared up to cater for the wine tourist, with large seating areas indoors and outside, in the shade and in the sun, where you can drink wine and eat light food. Apparently it can get busy in summer, but when we visited in October there was plenty of space. It is modern, smart, and the views are stunning.santo-winesThey have a large range of wines, but I shall mention just a couple. The first is, I believe, a style that is unique to Santo Wines: a sparkling Assyrtiko, made using the traditional method. Ours was of the 2013 vintage. This is maybe not as good as some of the other wines I mention here but – put it like this – it is one of the few wines I squeezed into my aircraft hold luggage to bring back. Minerally apple nose, again almost Riesling-like, highish acidity, and dry. If you’ve been following my tasting notes so far, you would expect nothing less of Assyrtiko, but add to that the fizz and you get an amazingly refreshing drink that would work well as an aperitif, or to drink with seafood. I actually first tried this at breakfast in a village in Northern Greece, and I liked it then too. It’s €23.00 at Santo Wines. You can pick up some seriously good stuff for that price in the Champagne region, so it is not exactly a bargain, but how many opportunities does a British wine geek get to drink sparkling Assyrtiko? The second wine I bought at Santo Wines was not cheap either: €70.00 for 50cl of 2004 Vinsanto. 85% Assyrtiko 15% Aidani, aged in oak for 3 years, 6 in tanks, bottled in 2013. I tasted this as a sip in the Santo Wines’ shop, along with a few other older Vinsantos, some cheaper and others more expensive, and this was by far the one I preferred most. Sadly no tasting notes for these older Vinsantos, but the 2004 would undoubtedly have a good whack of volatile acidity, as that is one of the things I look for in these wines.

xenolooThe other producer visit I’ll cover here is Gavalas, which has an equally pleasant tasting area, but one that is very different to Santo Wines. It is in a quiet and cool winery courtyard, in the centre of the village of Megalochori. The deal is that you can taste as many wines as you want, but pay one or two Euros (actually €1.65 or something like that) for each wine. My wife and I tasted all 10 wines they had available and, as the pours were generous for a tasting, we shared a glass. I’ve already mentioned their Natural Ferment Assyrtiko, so the wine I’d like to describe here is Xenoloo 2015. It is a blend of three relatively rare grape varieties – 50% Mavrotragano, 45% Voudomato and 5% Athiri. This pale ruby wine is intense and fresh on the nose, with red fruit aromas. I thought it maybe had a touch of brett stink too, but whatever it was the effect was positive. Very sharp, and quite tannic, in the mouth. Another purchase for hold luggage at €14.30. The Mavrotragano 2015 was also good, but that was a barrel sample.

Other wines that stood out

Another couple of other Vinsantos I really liked were Agyros 1992, and Gaia 2005, at €55.00 and €35.00 for 50cl from their respective producers. They were both quite volatile, with good raisiny flavours, and sweet of course, but I thought the Gaia was sharper, fruity, and with more volatile.

vassaltisAt Vassaltis, their 2015 Santorini Assyrtiko impressed all four of us at the tasting table – see label image with the reflection selfies of its admirers. Like many Assyrtikos, this was highish in acidity had great minerality, and I at least thought it had a little whiff of petrol. But unlike many Assyrtikos, this was not so aggressive, and had a gentle elegance – something that perhaps came from the 6 months of lees aging. This was a true stand-out wine for me, and I made sure a bottle of it accompanied me home. €17.00 from the producer. We also tried the 2014 by the way, which was Vassaltis’ first attempt at this wine, made with no added sulphur. To me this tasted overwhelmingly of Riesling-petrol, and was not nearly as successful. Another memorably good wine however was their Aidani 2015. This was lowish in acidity, gentle, floral and perfumed. A lovely wine, but only available at the winery as a mere 700 bottles were made. It was on sale at €19.50.

In our Boutari tasting, which actually did not include the Boutari Assyrtiko mentioned above, their Selladia 2013 impressed most. This is from a Boutari estate on the island, and is a 50/50 blend of Assyrtiko and Aidani, and was another bottle I bought – for €15.55 – to bring back with me. Apart from giving it a good score, my notes from Santorini were even briefer than usual: it was a bit like an Assyrtiko, but more muted rounded and full. However, the bottle I opened at home allowed me to find more words. On the nose, intense, fresh, honey, peach and apricot, with a certain lactic note. Medium high acidity, and dry. In addition to what I got on the nose, there was also some lime on the palate. I was intrigued that this wine appeared to be simultaneously sharp and soft, the softness coming from the lactic character.

apiliatisFinally a couple of Sigalas wines. I liked their Mavrotragano 2014 a lot, but again my notes were very brief: intense, aromatic, bright red fruit, medium high acidity, medium tannin. In conjunction with a very good score, that does however give me an impression of the wine – it was that combination of intense bright red fruit with acidity and tannin that made it so lip-smackingly good. It would have been €35.20 at Sigalas – if they had any left to sell that is, which they didn’t. The other wine I’m going to mention is Apiliotis 2009. This is 100% Mandilaria, and a red naturally sweet wine made from grapes that have been sun-dried for 10-12 days, and then oak-aged for at least 24 months, 9.0% ABV, and €27.00 for 50cl. On the nose, this was intense, volatile, and carried notes of cherry. Highish acidity and with detectable astringency, it was smooth and very sweet. I rarely like sweet red wines, but this won me over with its edginess.

Santorini is not the place to look for wine bargains. It is expensive by Greek standards, and not really cheap by any standards. But there is excellent quality to be found, and the wine has much to offer that is special and unique to the island. It is definitely worth exploring. And all that really applies to the rest of Santorini too.

(To be meticulous about following my own rules, I should disclose that I was given special treatment during the visits to Santo Wines and Boutari, for which I was very grateful, and was not charged for anything there apart from bottles of wine I wanted take home. Everything else on the trip was paid for in the normal way.)

Santorini grape varieties and wine styles

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.iliana-vines

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.

vinsanto-wineThe 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-wineNykteri 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.

assyrtiko-wineMany 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.

Santorini vineyards and vines

465px-santorini_landsatSantorini is not a big island. The size of the airport runway in this satellite image will give you a quick intuitive feel for its size. To put numbers on it, the main island  is around 15 km from North to South, and 10 km from East to West.

With around 1,000 ha of registered vineyard, 1/9 of the islands’ total area is given over to vines. But in the main vine-growing area – the Western part of the Southern half of the main island, excluding most of the Akrotiri peninsular – over 50% of the land is vineyard.

It was no accident that we chose to stay in Megalochori, which is very central in that area, and within walking distance of four wineries. Around Megalochori, I got the impression that any land that was at all fertile contained vines. Even scruffy patches of land between buildings, and gardens attached to houses seemed to be pushed into vineyard service. Indeed, most vineyards are owned by small growers who sell their grapes to the co-op (Santo Wines) or to privately owned producers. Some vineyards are owned by the estates that produce wine, but that is not so common.

The image below shows some countryside between the villages of Megalochori, by the cliffs of the West coast, and Pyrgos, a few kilometres inland. Pyrgos is the white village on the leftmost hill on the horizon. Here there are vineyards and very little else. Note the stone walls and terracing used to protect vines from the strong winds on the island, and vineyards from wind-related soil erosion.

Even in this important viticultural region of the island, the land looks barren and the vines stunted and sad. OK, this was well after the harvest in early October, and I have read that in the summer the vines give a pleasing green colour to the landscape. Also we should of course judge vineyards by their fruits rather than by how pretty they look, and on that basis Santorini vines can hold their heads high.

santorini-vineyard
The vineyard soils (if that is the right word) contain very little organic matter. They mainly consist of sand-like pumice particles, and small fragments of pumice, with the occasional chunk of volcanic rock as shown below: black basalt, and rocks with red oxides and yellow sulphur compounds. This soil is áspa – a solid, compacted version of what I have just described – that has been tilled to the depth of 50-65cm to create something that vines can get a foothold in.

The surface of the vineyards is dry for the vast majority of the year, but apparently the pumice is very good at retaining water, so several centimetres below the surface the soil is permanently moist, from dew and the very little rain that falls. The vines spread their roots horizontally to collect this water in the layer of soil, though roots are also sent down through the solid áspa. Irrigation is not used on mature vines. There are no rivers on the island, and water is too precious to use in the vineyards even if it were desirable. For human use, some coastal towns get supplied with brackish water from a desalination plant, while other places get deliveries of water by tanker. Even with the moisture-retaining properties of the pumice, it is necessary to have widely separated vines to ensure each one gets enough water, and this results in low yields of the order of 20 hl/ha. Sometimes hollows are dug for each vine, with a small mound of earth around each hollow, in an attempt to both capture the dew and protect the vine from wind, and the basket-pruning described below serves the same purposes.

The vines of the island are generally very healthy, and get little chemical treatment apart from a dusting of sulphur – something that in this volcanic setting could arguably be considered part of terroir anyway! As mentioned in my previous blog post, phylloxera cannot survive in the Santorini soils so vines are left on their own vinifera roots, and cuttings taken directly from existing vines are used in new vineyards. Layering – propagation by bending a neighbouring cane into the ground to allow it to put down roots there – is sometimes used to fill gaps in old vineyards. Many vines are very old, and it is not unusual to find mention of 50 year old vines on back labels, or even 150, without these facts being trumpeted on the front of the bottle.

santorini-rocks

There are two traditional pruning methods on Santorini. These have various names in Greek, but I shall call them basket, and goblet-with-loops. They are both methods of pruning bush vines, and both keep the vine relatively low and sheltered from the wind. Before I describe each in more detail, I will just comment that many of the vines in the vineyards I walked through around Megalochori and Pyrgos did not seem to conform to either pruning system – they were all low bush vines, but the shoots just seemed to be allowed to radiate outwards along the ground. Maybe it was just me, the particular vineyards, or the season, but I found these vineyards difficult to relate to the ranks of basket-pruned vines you will see if you do an image search on the Web.

Basket pruning is by far the most usual of the two traditional systems on Santorini. According to contemporary accounts, it was common in the Eastern Mediterranean in ancient times, but as far as I know it is now unique to Santorini. The starting point for basket pruning is a sturdy trunk with three or four short spurs close to the ground. In the winter, one strong shoot on each spur is selected and cut to a length of 60-80cm, and the others are removed completely. The selected shoots are then bent round and twisted with each other to form a horizontal circular shape close to the ground, and become the canes for the next season’s growth. The following year, the strongest shoots from those canes are selected, and woven round to provide another layer to the basket. Thus the basket is built up, getting higher and slightly wider year by year. After 20 years or so, the basket is cut off, the spurs throw out new shoots, and the process is repeated. Below is a basket with only a few years growth.

santorini-basket

Goblet-with-loops pruning is less common, and mainly used for Assyrtiko vines as this method gives more exposure to the wind and Assyrtiko grapes have the protection of thicker skins. Also, this variety has very flexible canes that can be bent in all weathers, and in early winter. It is also be used with Mandilariá, but the harder canes of that variety are more difficult to bend, so the loops are usually longer and not as tight, and they are formed on damp days in early spring when the sap has started to flow again. As with basket pruning, the method requires a vine trunk with a few spurs, though the image below suggests the trunk need not be sturdy for this method. Two shoots on each spur are selected, and the others removed. One selected shoot is pruned to leave 2 buds, and the other with 10-15 buds. The longer cane is bent to form a vertical loop, and tied back onto the spur. One such loop can be seen in the centre of the image below, though this is a lot shorter than the supposedly ideal length, and there is only one in total on the vine. The looped cane provides the main grape-bearing shoots for the growing season, and is removed in the following winter. Meanwhile, the two shoots that come from the shorter cane provide the starting point for the next season.

santorini-loop
That’s all on Santorini vineyards and vines. I have already mentioned a couple of Santorini grape varieties with little explanation, but I shall cover these and other local varieties in more detail in my next post. Written sources are Santorini – An Historical Wineland by Stavroula Kourakou, and The Wines of Greece by Konstantinos Lazarakis. Other information came from Iliana Sidiropoulou of Santorini Wine Trails, who was our wine guide for a day. Errors and misunderstandings, as usual, are doubtless my own.

Santorini as a destination for wine lovers

Arguably Santorini’s biggest attraction is the view over the volcanic caldera. We arrived after dark, but when we woke up and stuck our noses out of the bedroom we saw it for the first time, and I took this picture. The two closest islands are the peaks of the volcano, while the distant island and Santorini itself represent the volcano’s edge. Nearly 4,000 years ago most of it collapsed into the sea, causing a tsunami that destroyed the Minoan civilisation in Crete some 100 miles away. It is often said that the caldera view is best from the resort of Oia; we were staying just outside the considerably less touristy Megalochori, and ours was pretty good too.

santorini-caldera

santorini-pyrgos

Visual clichés are not difficult to find on Santorini, but that does not necessarily make them any less attractive. This church is in Pyrgos, a village within easy walking distance of Megalochori, and close to the highest point of the island. It is another of the more traditional villages, but has considerably more tourist impact than Megalochori. Perhaps a good thing, as there is a better selection of restaurants, including some of the best on the island. Quite a few more-exclusive hotels too. But being more inland it lacks the much sought-after caldera view, at least the one you get directly from the cliff top. On the other hand you do get a 360° view of the whole island.

Santorini has archaeology too. We spent a leisurely two or three days visiting the two main sites, and the archaeological museums in Fira. Pictured below are some of the Akrotiri excavations of a Minoan bronze age settlement. The town was destroyed by volcanic eruptions around 1627 BC, the ones that also finished the Minoan civilisation in Crete. The site could be described as another Pompeii, both in the sense that it was a town destroyed yet preserved by a volcano, and also in terms of its archaeological significance. There is already a large covered area that has been excavated, but that represents only a small fraction of the town.

santorini-akrotiri

Close to those excavations is a small beach (yes, Santorini has beaches too, if you like that sort of thing) with a few restaurants. There we ate seafood, including this fried squid. Which brings me to the subject of food, and a good deal closer to why wine lovers in particular will like Santorini. Our experience with restaurants was very mixed. It seemed that Santorini tourists are quite happy to throw a lot of money at fancy restaurants that offer stylish, but poorly conceived and executed, food. However good places do exist, and also simple unpretentious family run operations with basic food at a fair price. The squid was eaten as Melina’s Tavern, which is definitely at the better end of the spectrum.

santorini-squid

santorini-wine

There is a lot more to Santorini wine than the Assyrtiko grape, but this variety is the lead player. Various styles of it can be found on the island, but a good quality wine that sees no oak contact is its purest expression, and the Gaia Thalassitis pictured here is an excellent example. Intense, with sharp and steely minerality, but also full-bodied and powerful. Even early in the morning as I type this, the thought of that small plate of squid with a glass of Assyrtiko is making my mouth water.

We did not see the vineyards at the most attractive time of year, but they are nevertheless probably best described as interesting rather than beautiful. I have never seen such barren vineyard soil before – pumice stones and dust, with the occasional lump of volcanic rock, and practically no organic matter.

Vines are widely spaced, to allow each one to find enough water, and pruned very low to prevent wind damage. Basket pruning is the style that usually gets mentioned, and you can see examples in the foreground of the image below. No phylloxera here, so every vine is on its own its own roots. Old vines are common, with many labels claiming vines over 50 years old, and some over 150 – truly pre-phylloxera. Expect more on Santorini vineyards, vines, varieties and wines in future blog posts.

santorini-vineyard

Are there any downsides to Santorini as a tourist destination? Well, it is not the cheapest place in Greece. However, by UK standards, even with a weak pound, I would not say it is particularly expensive either. Also, I am told it gets very busy in the Summer, especially when receiving visits from cruise ships, but in early October nothing seemed particularly crowded. The weather is a bit more of a risk at that time, but we still had maximum temperatures of 23-26ºC, and saw no more than a few spots of rain.

Santorini has so much to offer as a destination for wine lovers. If you haven’t yet been, you should at the very least seriously consider a visit. I don’t know why I left it so long.