Santorini Wine: History, Vineyards, Varieties & Tasting Notes
The famous Santorini Wine. You know about it, you have probably tasted it or maybe you dream about tasting it in a setting like this one:
Besides the views and sunsets that are essential to enjoying your wine while you are in Santorini, would you like to know a bit more about it? Here is the story behind the legend.
Let's start from the beginning.
Driving around Santorini, especially the center and southern parts of it, you`ll ask yourself the most common question:
What are these bushes you see everywhere around you?
And trust me you do see many of them.
It`s quite difficult to imagine that this is actually a grape vine. You see, vineyards here don’t look like the ones in Napa, Tuscany, Bordeaux or Spain. Santorini vineyards are rather unique. There are only a few places around the world where you could find something similar to this.
There is a reason vineyards in Santorini are this way. And we will come back to that.
But first, let`s start with a quick stop in a typical Santorini vineyard. While looking at this so called bushes, let’s go through the history one of the most important wine making regions of the world.
Santorini Wine:The History
Santorini is the oldest vineyard in Europe. It is actually the only one that continuously produces grapes for more than 3000 years. Sounds fake but let`s see why.
The first inhabitants of Santorini arrived on the island around 3000 BC. It was a very advanced civilization, as they lived in two and three-story houses, had storage rooms, drainage systems etc. What is important is that they also appreciated wine. And they produced wined back then.
The vineyards of Santorini were all destroyed when the island was buried under a thick layer of lava during the Minoan Eruption of 1640 BC. A new soil was created around 1200 BC. After that, and over the years, different inhabitants tried to cultivate a variety of plants in Santorini. However, grapes were the only ones that survived.
An insect called phylloxera came to Europe roughly around the 19th century and destroyed every vineyard. Only a few vines remained, like the one in Etna (Italy) and the one here in Santorini (Greece). In the case of Santorini, the grapes survived due to one simple fact. Santorini soil mostly consists of pumice, lava and volcanic ash, which made it impossible for phylloxera to survive.
You can learn more about the history of Santorini here.
why are vines in Santorini shaped this way?
This way of pruning is ancient and unique and was developed based on the climate conditions and equipment old farmers had available back in the day. The sandy soil, in combination with the strong winds during spring and the sunlight during summertime would make it impossible for any typical vine to survive. Pruning the vine like a basket “shelters” the grapes that grow on the inside of that basket and ensures they are protected against the wind and the sun. This basket is also known as “kouloura”.
How do we water the grapes in Santorini?
Actually we don't. And this just another factor that makes Santorini vineyards so unique. There is no irrigation. Well, there might be in some vineyards, but it is mostly for young vines. In any other case, nature is taking care of the required humidity. How does that work?
Well, the climate in Santorini is Mediterranean with mild winters and cool summers. There are strong north winds during the summer that could last for more than a month. The evaporation of sea water, often covers the island with mist so this is an easy way for the vines to get some water.
Still, it is not enough so as we say the roots are getting stressed which then leads to stronger and more concentrated taste of the local wines.
Santorini Wine:The varieties
Based on experience, when you ask consumers if they prefer white or red wine, red is usually the winner. I would hate to disappoint you, but welcome to Santorini: the island of white wines.
Well, there are some interesting reds but the star here in Santorini is a really unique grape named Asyrtico. Asyrtico covers the biggest part of the island, roughly 80%. There are two other varieties in Santorini named Aidani and Athiri. Of course there are others that are cultivated more rarely, but the above three (Asyrtico, Aidani and Athiri) participate in a blend giving us the classification PDO Santorini which stands for Protected Designation of Origin.
I know that readers of this article may search for some tasting notes about local wines, but I`ll get into that after explaining why these wines are so unique.
Santorini Asyrtico Wine
As I`m always saying, it all starts from the soil. Nowadays we can find Asyrtico cultivated in quite many other parts of Greece as well as Australia but wines made from this Santorini grapes have three major characteristics:
- High Minerality
- High Acidity
- High Alcohol
As simple as that and always depending on the wine making process, Asyrtico can give us aromas that no other grape can. Stainless steel fermentation is filling up the palate with sharpness minerality and crispiness as well as some citrus aromas versus oak fermentation that brings out smoky aromas, dry fruit and nutty taste.
Santorini Nychteri Wine
Another typical Santorini wine is called Nychteri. Nychteri comes from the word "Nychta" and means “night” in Greek. In the past, they were peaking the grapes during daytime and pressing them at night trying to take advantage of the lower temperatures. It`s quite different nowadays.
For Nychteri, farmers make a late harvest so that grapes start getting dehydrated which then leads to a higher sugar content. They actually need these sugars to be converted into alcohol because this type of wine must contain a minimum of 13% vol or 26 proof.
Santorini Vinsanto Wine
Apart from the dry wines, Santorini is also famous for the sweet ones. I`m not a dessert wine person myself, but in that case I wouldn't say no to a glass of Vinsanto, the typical sweet wine of Santorini. The sugar content of this wine sounds like a nightmare to people who don`t like sweet wines or to those who are on a diet. Vinsanto has roughly 220gr of sugar in each liter- but again this is where Asyrtico makes a difference. Due to its high acidity, it balances the feeling of the sweetness in the Vinsanto.
Grapes that are meant to make Vinsanto, will be late harvested - way more than the ones that are used for Nychteri Wine- and will then be left in the sun for more dehydration and for the sugar content to rise. This process varies between wine makers, so very simply the more they stay in the sun the higher the sugar. That is why there are some Vinsantos that reach almost 300 gr/liter! After fermentation, Vinsanto ages in oak for a minimum of 2-3 years.
Pairing Santorini Wine
Generally speaking, Asyrtico makes wines that need food. And there is a wide range of food that Asyrtico can make an excellent pairing with. So wide that I can easily suggest an "All Asyrtico" dinner that can start with a sparkling version as a welcome drink and then continue with a stainless steel fermented one. The second one would make a great pairing with raw oysters, charcoal grilled fish, fried seafood. If you choose an oak aged or fermented, then you could make a lovely pair with some meat dishes. Especially for Nychteri, which quite many times behaves as a red wine, red meat dishes would be a great pairing.
What`s left? Dessert of course. Reading the above details about Vinsanto, anyone can think that you could also skip dessert. Yes, Vinsanto is sweet, but Asyrtico with it`s high acidity makes a perfect balance in the palate. Try to pair Vinsanto with caramel based desserts, baklava or bitter chocolate. If you don`t like desserts? Even better. Walnuts and blue cheese or prosciutto with dry figs make a really amazing pairing.
Santorini Wine Tours
If you would rather have someone to show you around the wineries and the vineyards, then you could also book a wine tour. You will find plenty of wine tours in Santorini to choose from. The main difference to keep in mind is that some tours include a professional guide (usually a sommelier) that will talk you through everything you need to know about Santorini wine and will be with you in each wine tasting, while others basically provide you with a driver that will drop you off to a couple of different wineries and the stuff there will give you some basic information.
Bottom line is if you want to learn about Santorini wine, choose a tour with a guide. If you are only in it for the drinking part, then a driver will do the job.
Further more, there are also options between a private and a semi private tour. It`s realy up to what you are looking for. In a semi private you can meet new people from all over the world. By the end of the tour you may end up dining and drinking with them. If you are feeling social, it is a great way to make new friends. As far as wine enthusiasts or more advanced consumers, a private tour would give you more opportunities on learning and tasting plus maybe some extras.
Here are some websites you can check out if you are looking to book a wine tour:
Santorini Wine Tours & Cooking Classes
Last but not least, there are wine tours that are combined with a cooking class. If you are a foodie or you want to learn about the food culture of Santorini, do your research and book. You will learn how to make fava, tomato balls and other yummy traditional dishes. Ingredients might not be the same, but the cuisine in Santorini is in a way similar to cucina povera - kitchen of the poor ones- in Italy. They had to be inventive to feed themselves with whatever they had available from the land and we did the same using the limited variety of vegetables that grow on Santorini.
Where to buy Santorini Wine
You can purchase your wines in the wineries or any supermarket in Santorini but I would suggest buying from the wineries. Prices are a bit cheaper, bottles are way better stored and of course you have the opportunity of shipping. Check with each winery to find out a distributor close to you. You can also buy Santorini wine online- for example here.
That's all. Hope that was informative and helpful for you. I learnt a lot while researching this article as well.
A very special thank you to Dionisis Bithas for sharing all his wine knowledge and helping me out with this.
See you soon,