On the Greek island of Santorini, nobody could believe it. Greece was joining the EU, protector of place names – and that meant Italian wineries would steal their name.
This happened in 1981, so they've had time to come to grips with the fact that sweet wine from Santorini must now be called Vinsanto, one word, to distinguish it from the Italian dessert wine Vin Santo. The Italians simply got there first.
But the Italian name is only a name, whereas Greek Vinsanto is terroir-driven and long-lasting: one of the world's greatest dessert wines. Quality controls ensure that you really can't go wrong with a bottle of Vinsanto – assuming you buy the one with the awkward spelling.
This is not to insult the Italian product; I've had plenty of Italian Vin Santos that I enjoyed. But they're from all over the boot. They can be pink, they can be dry; it's just a name.
How could the EU screw this up so badly? I t turns out that while Italians are not noted for their organizational skills, consider the competition.
Vinsanto now has very specific rules, but when Santorini wineries first petitioned the EU for the designation, even though there were only 10 of them, they hadn't yet come to an agreement. Today a Vinsanto must be made from local white grapes, at least 51% Assyrtiko. But in 1981, Santorini wineries could call any sweet wine Vinsanto, just as the Italians do.
"We sent (the EU) the first sample, and it was red," says Agape Roussas of Canava Roussas.
Santorini wineries were somewhat overconfident that Greek history would prevail. Grapes have been grown continuously on Santorini through a unique method – the basket system – for more than 3000 years.
It looks as primitive as it is: Vines grow in a spiral on the ground, with the grapes often lying right against the sandy, volcanic soil. But it's well adapted to the environment. The vine's leaves protect the grapes from the bright sun and sea salt-laden wind. Nobody else does anything like this, anywhere. It's precisely the reason that place names are protected.
Yet if you look up Vinsanto on Wikipedia, you are directed to a Vin Santo page that has about 3000 words on the Italian wines and exactly four sentences about the Greek ones.
I'll spend a few paragraphs trying to rectify that.
Vinsanto must be at least four years old, and it must have spent at least two years aging in oak barrels.
It can be labeled as a vintage wine, or – like Scotch – it can be labeled by the years it has aged. In that case, it must be multiples of four. In other words, you can buy a Vinsanto 8-year, or a Vinsanto from 2003, but not a Vinsanto 10-year.
The wine can be a blend of vintages, but the age on the label must be the youngest wine used in the blend.
The grapes are dried in the sun for two weeks. Eight kilos of fresh grapes yield just two kilos of dried grapes. This concentrates the flavor, which is why Vinsanto is so intense.
"In Canada they use ice to create dessert wine. Here in Santorini we use the sun," says Charikleia Mavrommati, enologist for Sigalas.
The Assyrtiko grape, naturally high in acidity, keeps the wine fresh for decades. I had a 53-year-old Vinsanto that was rich and complex and amazing.
The wine gets darker, richer and sweeter with more years in the barrel, but it keeps its character.
I found that the 8-year-old versions were significantly more interesting than the 4-year-olds, and these generally cost about $50 for 500 ml. The value/price ratio might peak at about 12 years old, if you can find them.
What do they taste like? On my tasting notes for the Koutsoyiannopoulous Vinsanto 2009, I wrote, "I have a hard time telling some Vinsantos apart, but they've all been good. This one has caramel, some red fruit notes, cola and milk chocolate, with enough acidity to carry the sweetness."
That's not to say there are no variations. Artemis Karamolegos Vinsanto 2004 is spicier than most, with cinnamon and cumin notes. Vinsantos from the Santo Wines co-op are a little thicker and sweeter than others, while those from Argyros Estate were some of my favorites: intense and fresh, with more of those mysterious red-fruit notes that emerge somehow from white grapes.
There was not one Vinsanto I tasted out of about 25 that I wouldn't want to enjoy a glass of, and that's saying something.
The consistent quality across brands could be a product of the fact that almost all grapes on Santorini are purchased from the 1200 growers who make up 20% of the island's 6000 full-time residents. It also should be comforting to consumers: if it says Vinsanto on the label, you can be sure of what you're getting.
That, of course, is exactly what the denomination system is supposed to provide. The EU has many large regrets regarding Greece; here's a tiny one that nobody even notices.