The island of Santorini rises sharply out of the Aegean Sea. Its narrow, red, black, and white sand beaches hug the island while blue accented, glaring white buildings cling to its steep cliffs. If you do an image search for ‘Santorini’, you usually find just these sorts of images. Its startling beauty has made it one of the most visited and photographed islands in the world.
However, there’s more to the group of volcanically created islands that make up Santorini than a good Instagram post. For the wine enthusiast, Santorini presents a fascinating study in terroir and its effect on wine. Some of Greece’s most famous, recognizable, and sought-after wines are born in this volcanic desert where viticulture is likened to making wine on the moon.
Santorini has a semi-arid climate with Mediterranean influences which means it has dry and warm summers and gets just enough rainfall to take it out of official desert categorization. The island only gets an average of 14.6 inches of rain a year, little to none of which falls during the April to October growing season.
In addition to the lack of rainfall, Santorini and its Cycladic neighbors also contend with the etesiae (or ‘meltemi’). The estesiae are strong winds that blow across the Aegean Sea during the growing season. While strongest in the afternoon, they can last for days without a break. The winds often reach speeds of between 28 and 74 knots (gale-force) and often force yachts, ferries, and other small boats to dock.
Soils on Santorini can be broadly described as dry, volcanic sands but they are in fact quite complex. The volcanic sands, young by geological standards, lie over layers of schist, limestone, lava, and ferric (iron) dusts. The soils contain little to no organic matter and do not retain water well making it difficult for even poor soil loving vitis vinifera to flourish.
Phylloxera, that pesky louse that decimated vineyards around the world and continues to scourge vines not grafted on resistant rootstock, has never come to Santorini. Nor will it. As phylloxera is enemy number one to vine roots, its own Kryptonite is sandy soil. Santorini sees you, phylloxera, and it’s not worried.
Kouloura vs Kladeftiko
This wind-swept island with its poor soils and lack of rain does not present a hospitable environment for agriculture of any sort. Even if one finds a way to overcome the soil and water issues, the winds are so strong that vegetation over 1.6 feet high has little chance of, literally, standing up to those winds. To combat these devastating gales, viticulturists on Santorini have historically employed a unique training system: the basket vine. While the outside wines get stripped of leaves, inside leaves and grape bunches are sheltered from the winds and protected from sunburn and sandblasts. The shape also helps trap morning humidity and mists providing rare and precious moisture to the developing fruit within, especially important as there is no irrigation available for the vineyards.
There are two main training styles: kouloura (basket) and kladeftiko (small ring). The kouloura, used largely for Mandilaria and Mavrotragano grapes, starts life as a goblet. The most robust cane is selected to start the basket, then a second cane is wrapped around it, and a third around that, and so on to form the basket. While it also starts as a goblet, the kladeftiko, largely used for Assyrtiko and Aidani, is very different. Rather than using canes to form one large basket, in this system, the goblet maintains several branches and long canes are bent into small rings and tied to one of the main branches. Without its leaves it looks a little like a drone.
Working with these training systems is a specialized skill and contributed to the Santorini Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) wine region’s 2018 inclusion to UNESCO’s National Index of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
While Assyrtiko is largely associated with Santorini, it is not the only grape on the island. But it is a good place to start when talking about the island’s grapes.
Assyrtiko has a powerful character and makes complex and stunning terroir-driven wines that uniquely balance high alcohol (often 15.5% abv) and high acidity. It can display stone or tropical fruit along with edges of citrus and its distinct flavors of rocks, salt, and sea. Assyrtiko can be incredibly austere in its youth and the better wines benefit from two to three years of bottle ageing. More and more wineries are testing the limits of Assyrtiko now and wild ferment it, age wines on the lees, raise it in oak, and of course there is also Santorini’s famous Vinsanto sweet wine made with Assyrtiko.
About 40% of Greece’s Assyrtiko plantings are on Santorini with additional plantings on other islands and the mainland.
Aidani often plays a supporting role to Assyrtiko in both dry and Vinsanto blends but has enough character to stand on its own. An aromatic grape, it offers more perfume than Assyrtiko with jasmine, peach, and tropical fruits like lychee and melon and a creamy palate. A thick-skinned grape, some producers are experimenting with not only wild fermentations but also extended skin contact for varietal Aidani wines.
While not well-known, Athiri is one of the oldest varieties planted in all the Aegean islands. Usually found in blends with Assyrtiko but a few producers make varietal wines with it. The grape is fruity but not aromatic and presents citrusy notes of lemon, grapefruit, and lemon blossom as well as stone fruit.
Originally a Cretian grape, Mandilaria is found all around the Eastern Aegean, including Santorini.
Deceptively deep in color, Mandilaria wines tend to be rather light-bodied but the tannins can be very aggressive. Equally earthy and fruity, Mandilaria wines have flavors of red and black fruits, particularly cherries and plums, in addition to herbal and earthy notes like licorice.
Santorini’s other main black grape is island native Mavrotragano. This promising variety makes deeply colored wines with high alcohol and enough tannins that you may want to let it bottle age for a few years. Fruity, floral, and mineral the wines offer up berries and cherries along with violets, spices, and minerality.
The thought of islands and island life often evokes lush images of tropical flowers, sandy beaches, fruity cocktails, and easy “beach sipper” wines. And while many of the towns on Santorini are oh-so-Instagrammable with their charming, blue-shuttered white buildings and domed churches, life on Santorini is not of the easy-sipping style and neither are its wines.
Santorini offers a wide range of wine styles from early drinking to ageable, simple to austere, light to full-bodied, and bone dry all the way to the island’s famed and luscious vin santo. Greek wine exports are on the rise and their wine (especially Santorini Assyrtiko) is getting easier and easier to find abroad.
The island is rugged and challenging. The next time you open a bottle of Santorini wine, imagine yourself not on a sandy beach watching water lap up on the shore, but high up in the craggy landscape of a volcano where only grapes dare to grow. Pierce the island’s picturesque shell and you’ll find people with the grit and heart to make a serious life on a volcano. So, too, are the wines they produce, serious and soulful.