There is a trio of reasons why I am a Santorini white wine lover. First, I am an acid junkie; second, I am a mineral junkie; third, and most importantly, I am Greek.
Most people know Santorini as the island with the crazy nightlife, cliffside hotels and restaurants and a bucket list sunset. It has become so popular that during tourist season its population swells from 15,000 to 1.5 million. That said, the island is no longer a one-trick pony when it comes to raking in the euros.
Today, the new cash explosion comes from the vine, specifically the Assyrtiko grape, which accounts for 95 per cent of the island’s grape terrain. Its hallmark is copious amounts of acid, minerals and body; in fact, Assyrtiko-based wines contain enough extract and power that they pair not only with seafood, but also with heavier meats such as pork and veal. You may think that the Santorini sun has affected my judgment in this matter, but don’t knock it before you try it.
It is this same strength which helps to define the island’s signature dessert wine — Vinsanto. After grapes are harvested, they are left to raisin under the Mediterranean sun for eight to 12 days. Once dried, tiny droplets of hyper-concentrated nectar are collected and a slow fermentation starts. The resulting nectar is a brilliant balance between richness and briskness, with the best versions able to age for decades.
The only real downside to the grape is its natural propensity for low yields, which may be good for quality but translates to less revenue.
Santorini has become so popular that it is now the tip of the spear for the Greek wine industry. Sommeliers, globally, have gravitated to it, and many regions and producers are riding Santorini’s star power, when doing trade events, as a means to elevate their own stature.
Needless to say, Greek wine sales are one of the few bright stars in a moribund Hellenic economy.
Give or take a century, the island of Santorini has approximately 3,500 years of grape-growing history. The defining factor that influenced its terroir was a volcanic explosion, circa 1650 BC. It collapsed the middle of the island into the sea, creating the now famous caldera (and its fabulous views) and giving rise to the myth of the lost city of Atlantis. The volcanic ash and lava that encapsulated the island destroyed all organic vegetation and left a permanent terrain, which resembles a pebbled moonscape.
With a terrain of volcanic rock and a Mediterranean climate, it may be hard to believe that any form of agriculture can grow on the island. But, in fact, capers, sweet baby tomatoes, fava beans, split peas, white eggplant and, of course, the vine, all thrive here.
How does this happen? It is all about seawater. Strong breezes are always present on the island. This wind drives the nightly fog over the porous vineyards, which in turn gives the gift of life. The same seawater is also said to give a singular saline quality to the wines.
It is also because of the high winds that the unique basket/crown vines are the method of viticulture. Being that the terrain is full of sand and small rocks, necessity requires that the grape clusters be protected within the braided crown. If not, the shoots and grapes would be tattered by the high-speed projectile pebbles, as well as sunburnt. It should also be noted that because there is no phylloxera or other parasites, all vines are planted on their own roots, some of which are now 500 years old.
Starting in the early 1700s, the many families that owned vineyards built Canavas (caves) so they could produce and sell wine to the locals. Needless to say, they became very popular with the neighbours. Those wines were high in alcohol and maderized/oxidized due to the grapes being picked at the point of desiccation and fermented at Mediterranean temperatures. This de rigueur style lasted until the 1980s when Boutari, a goliath of Greek wine, introduced the concept of early harvesting and temperature-controlled stainless steel fermentation. This helped to preserve the freshness and purity of the wines, ushering in a style that was soon emulated by all producers.
If Boutari is the one who introduced this modern style, it is fair to say that the guardian of island viticulture is Santo, the island co-op. With over 1,000 members, their task is to preserve and advance the island’s terroir. Realizing that they have something special, and taking a chapter out of the New World winery experience, they opened the current winery in 1992, on the cliffs of Pyrgos. Without hyperbole, it is one of the most impressive wineries you will ever visit. Here you will encounter superb hospitality, magnificent tasting flights, and food pairings with other island offerings such as baby tomatoes, capers and fava, all while enjoying the breathtaking view of the caldera from the massive terrace.
The profitability of ecotourism has not been lost on other producers. Argyros and Sigalas, two of my favourites, have small but friendly tourist shops; Koutsoyannopoulos has created a wine museum that illustrates the history of island winemaking; and Karamolegos is the only winery with a restaurant, Aroma Avlis. The chef hybridizes traditional and modern foods and techniques to create stellar dishes served by a friendly and knowledgeable team.
Santorini has become a victim of its own beauty. While visiting the island in early summer, I had the chance to talk to many restaurant and hotel owners. They told me that for the first time ever, they had run out of local wine for the tourists. Surprised, I decided to ask a few wineries why. Their oversimplified response was that in the past two years, tourism has increased 25 per cent and exports 30 per cent. But for the real answer, one has to go back about 50 years.
In the 1960s, when foreigners started to arrive en masse, many landowners gave up their grape heritage and began to build accommodations and restaurants for quick and easy cash. Even worse, when the Santorini airport was constructed in 1972, over 20,000 square meters of vines were grubbed up. So, when Assyrtiko’s star started to ascend a decade ago, most growers/producers were caught short-handed, and today they’re still playing catch up. However, during this mad scramble to meet demand, European law has reared its ugly head. Brussels only allows for a one per cent vineyard expansion per year for any given wine region. So, the producers/growers of Santorini are now petitioning the powers that be to allow the acreage which was converted to landing rights to be planted elsewhere on the island. The general feeling is that this will come to pass … one day. Also, a petition to UNESCO to stop urban development is in the works, so as to protect the singular vines of the island.
As a way to attenuate shortage, many producers have increased their prices, which are still insanely cheap, especially for the quality of the wines. Currently, the price per kilo of Assyrtiko is hovering around two euros — the highest for any Greek grape. Considering that the breakeven point for a finished bottle of wine is 4 euros and that most Santorini retails between 18 and 25 dollars, it only makes sense that prices continue to gravitate upwards.
I also had the opportunity to sit down with Steve Kriaris, president of Kolonaki Group, Canada’s largest importer of Greek wines, to get his point of view. According to Kriaris, “the size of the Santorini market in North America will double in the next 5 years — if not triple! Everyone from hotels to high-end restaurants keeps buying Santorini wines. As imports go, Santorini wines have increased by 20 per cent plus year over year for the last five years and overall pricing has increased 25 per cent in the same time frame. I also foresee prices continuing to rise because of three reasons — the cost of grapes, the popularity of the region, and suppliers taking advantage of this trend.”
I then asked if he felt that the price bubble would burst. His response: “not yet, but the truth is that the markets are almost at their limits. The suppliers just don’t realize that yet. It’s the learning curve that is about to happen.”
Hopefully, it won’t be too much of a learning curve because Santorini and Greece deserve a better sunrise.
92 Santo Wines Santorini Assyrtiko Grand Reserve 2012 ($30)
I have the highest respect for this co-op, which represents close to 1,000 growers, as it always turns out bang-for-the-buck wines. But now they have taken it to the next level with the introduction of this beauty, which blew me away! From 100-year-old vines and aged in partial new oak, it features a golden colour and a huge bouquet of toast, peach, bay leaf, honey, golden apple, spice, resin and white flowers. The same flows over onto the taste buds where Assyrtiko’s telltale crystalline/saline acidity carries the long finale. A wild ride in the best possible sense!
92 Hatzidakis Santorini Assyrtiko de Mylos Old Vines 2014 ($60)
This single vineyard Assyrtiko spent 12 hours on its skins to give more depth before fermentation started via natural yeasts. Full bodied, it exudes yeast, golden apple, ripe peach, lemon, pineapple, toast and spice. An extended finale and thick texture make for a wine that will work with steak or lamb.
92 Karamolegos Winery Vinsanto 2006 ($35)
Simply put, this is a brilliant stickie! The dark amber colour heralds the bergamot, black tea, mint, raisins, orange marmalade and dried prunes. The 252 grams of sugar is held in check by the fresh acidity. There is one heck of a long finish, which allows for drinking by itself at the end of the meal or with baklava.
91 Argyros Assyrtiko Santorini 2014 ($21.95)
From one of my favourite producers comes this pristine white with telltale aromas of white peach, citrus, salty rock and honey. The same carries over onto the concentrated palate and is joined by brisk acidity, which puts everything into proportion. It is still tightly wound, so hold for a couple of years and then drink until 2022.
91 Domaine Sigalas Santorini 2014 ($24.95)
Without a doubt, Paris Sigalas is a master of Assyrtiko. I had the opportunity to do a mini vertical of this wine (going back to 2008) while visiting the winery this past summer. All wines were impressive, especially the 2008, which reminded me of a salty Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru. The current offering is still tightly wound, but at this early stage, there is peach, mint, minerals, apples and citrus, all built on a full-bodied frame. Assyrtiko’s intense acid will ensure great longevity. Hold for at least 2 years before opening and then drink until 2024.
91 Hatzidakis Mavrotragano 2013 ($50)
Mavrrotragano, an indigenous red of the island, only accounts for 2% of all plantings. Regardless, it is a high-quality varietal, and growers are starting to plant more. This intense rendition pumps out the dark cherry, raspberry liqueur, plum, tobacco, spice, cocoa and graphite. Concentrated and long, it will age well for 5 to 6 years. A must try!
90 Assyrtiko by Gaia Wild Ferment 2014 ($29.95)
Partially fermented in new French and American oak via natural yeasts, this brilliant white doles out aromas of toast, smoky minerals, cream, apple, flowers, apricot and peach. The palate contributes spice and saline acidity. Roast pork or salmon was made for this wine.
89 Argyros Atlantis White ($18.95)
This perennial bang for the buck Santorini wine is a blend of 90% Assyrtiko, 5% Aidani and 5% Athiri. It doles out peach, honey, herbs, pear, mineral and floral notes. Elegant, the flavours echo long, with crisp acidity giving lift.
89 Gaia Thalassitis Santorini ($27.75)
Made from 80-year-old vines, this aromatic rendition exudes minerals, apple, lemon, white flowers and pear. Tangy with great length. Drink over the next 5 years. Pair with a simple grilled fish drizzled with olive oil and fresh oregano.
89 Domaine Sigalas Mavrotragano 2013 ($50)
Three different pickings ensured a natural alcohol of 14.5%. The cocoa, smoke and spice from new French oak aging has meshed with the dark plum, sweet cherry, violets and earth qualities of the Mavrotragano grape. Full bodied, there is excellent length and enough tannin to age for 8 years.
89 Karamolegos Winery Nykteri 2014 ($20)
Nykteri means ‘night-work’ and references the fact that the grapes were harvested and crushed in the evening so as to avoid excessive temperatures and ensure freshness. Karamolegos’s rendition was aged in new oak for 3 months and serves up a bouquet of peach, bergamot, lemon, vanilla and mineral. The palate is expansive with creamy notes adding extra depth. Splendid length.
88 Boutari Santorini ($16.95)
A straight up, well made Assyrtiko with a perfume of peach, honey, apricot, bay leaf and lemon. The palate adds touches of white pepper, grapefruit and green elements. There is very good length and it is ready to drink.
88 Santo Wines Santorini Assyrtiko 2014 ($18)
Santo’s entry level white is the pure essence of Assyrtiko: citrus, white peach, white flowers and crushed volcanic rock. Fine length and crisp acid make for a great partner with fried calamari or sushi.
Top image: ARTEMIS KARAMOLEGOS