Wine began to delight “the Theran heart” as early as the beginning of the second millennium B.C. and ever since the cultivation of the grape has been the main source of revenue on the island. In antiquity, the Santorini wines were coveted and exported throughout the known world.
The history of vine cultivation goes back to prehistoric times when it appears to have been brought into the Aegean by Phoenician merchants. Excavations in Akrotiri have revealed vases and amphorae which confirm commercial transactions dealing with wine in before the eruption of the volcano.
Today the vineyards of Santorini are the oldest in the country and among the oldest in the world; they stand out from other European vines in that they are propagated from rootstock and not from cuttings. Thanks to the island’s soil and weather conditions, the insect that caused the phylloxera, which destroyed most of the vineyards of Europe in the late 19th century, could not survive there and Santorini’s vines survived intact.
The well-deserved reputation of Santorini wines today is due the inimitable pairing of a superior endemic variety, Assyrtiko, with the island’s unique ecosystem on the island. The volcanic soil peculiar to Santorini can absorb a lot of water and nourishes the plants with nighttime dew.
To protect their vines from prevailing strong northerly winds, vine growers developed a very unusual cultivation method that has been in use for thousands of years: They twist the vine so that it grows into awreath almost like a large nest within which the bunches of fruit can ripen unaffected by harsh winds and sandstorms. This system also creates a cool microclimate in the summer months.
Extra protection is provided by low dry-stone walls built with petrified lava.
Santorini OPAP wines (Wines with Appellation of Superior Quality) are considered the most interesting and characteristic Greek wines on the international market today. Healthy competition among local wineries led Santorini wines, dry, Vinsanto and the until recently unknown varieties like Mezzo (demi sec) and the dry reds Mavrotragano or Mandilaria to be considered “jewels” by specialists and consumers alike.
Until the late 1980s, traditional local wines were typically made using old-fashioned techniques. The most important varieties were the white Assyrtiko, Aidani, Athiri and the red Mandilaria and Mavrotragano, as follows:
Brusco, a red wine composed of both white and red grapes (Mavrotragano, Mandilaria, Assyrtiko) with 14% -16% alcohol content. It gets its name from the Italian word brusco meaning rough and severe.
Nychteri, a white wine from the Assyrtiko variety. Grapes are picked early in the morning while it is still fresh and cool and pressed on the same day. This kept the vintners busy till late at night, whence the name – nychta means night. The must was left to ferment in wooden barrels.
Vinsanto, a sweet wine which is served as a liqueur. The traditional method of making it called for the ripe grapes to be spread out in the sun for two weeks to encourage the production of sugar. The name stems from either the Venetians who considered it a holy wine though according to others it comes from Vino of Santorini. Vinsanto was in much demand in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance and was drunk not only because of its rich taste but also for its nutritional value.
The past 30 years have seen a revolution in wine producing in Santorini. Wine growers like Boutaris, the Union Cooperative and Sigalas to begin with, followed by other producers, introduced many changes. These included major investments in new equipment and installations, restructuring, much earlier harvests, hiring important oenologists as consultants and increased emphasis on marketing. The result is that Assyrtiko most sought-after Greek wine in the world, and has been named one of the four “ambassadors of modern Greek wines according to a national strategy plan for exports, along with Moschofilero and Agiorgitiko from the Peloponnese and Naoussa’s Xinomavro.
Assyrtiko, the flagship of Santorini wines, comes in three versions: Simple Assyrtiko which has exuberant colours, high acidity, cool metallic tastes of lemon, lemon blossom and citrus; Assyrtiko aged in oak barrels which lend an aroma of dried fruit, vanilla and apricots; and sweet Vinsanto made the traditional way except that it is now aged in oak barrels that give it a taste raisins, honey, coffee, fresh figs and plums.
There is no doubt that apart from all the other reasons for visiting Santorini, it stands out as being of particular interest to wine lovers. Many of the finest wineries are open to the public and offer tours and tastings in the old atmospheric vaulted “kanaves”.