Santorini 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.