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Santorini: Greece's Great White Wine
By Ed McCarthy
Oct 11, 2011
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It is ironic that one of the oldest wine-producing countries in the world--with evidence of winemaking going back 6500 years--is now undergoing a renaissance for its wines.  But Greece fell on hard times over the years, and its wine industry did not really begin to flourish in recent history until about two decades ago, when the Greeks, with help of modern viticultural know-how, really began to make fine wines.  Also, Greece’s traditional respect for education has helped its wine industry; a very high percentage of Greek winemakers and oenologists have studied in the best wine schools around the world.

Greece today has become a hotbed for interesting, previously-unknown wines made from grape varieties that are mainly indigenous to Greece.   This small country has uncovered well over 300 different varieties, second in the world in this category only to Italy.  Principal among them is the Assyrtiko variety, grown on the island of Santorini.  Greece now ranks 13th in the world in wine production, just behind Chile.  This is rather extraordinary for a country smaller than the state of Georgia.   

Greece has always possessed the natural endowments for great wine production:  Variable, temperate climate; plenty of mountains and hillsides; a variety of soils, including volcanic soils on its islands.  Although Greece produces both white wines and red wines, about sixty percent of its wines are white.  Red wines are catching up, and soon might make up half of its wines.  Even though its red wines are very good, for me Greece’s two most important wines are white:  The indigenous, aromatic, delicate Moschofilero, grown high in the Peloponnese Mountains, and the dry, minerally, assertive Santorini, made from the Assyrtiko grape variety and native to Santorini--the one island in particular which stands out for its wines.

The beautiful island of Santorini sits south of Greece’s mainland city of Athens, and north of Crete, in the Aegean Sea.  About 3,600 years ago, one of the largest volcanic eruptions ever recorded took place here, and what remains is the volcanic island of Santorini, with its black volcanic rock.

The rich, volcanic, minerally soil of Santorini has become a great source for vineyards to produce superb wines.  Santorini’s finest wine--and for me one of best dry white wines in the world--is simply called Santorini.  Some wineries choose to put the grape variety on the label; others just call the wine Santorini.  Assyrtiko is now grown in other parts of Greece, but the best examples of this variety definitely come from 12 producers on Santorini.

The unusual aspect of the Assyrtiko variety in Santorini is that, even though it grows in a southern Mediterranean  location,  it has the bracing, high acidity, structure, and dryness of a cool-climate variety.  The volcanic soil, high altitude of the mountainous island, and strong winds play a dominant role in creating a most unusual terroir.  The winds are so strong that the Assyrtiko grapes must be protected; the vines are entwined in a basket-like shape to shield them from the fierce winds.

Vines that survive under brutal growing conditions often produce strong, well-structured wines, and this is definitely the case with Santorini wine.  It is a white wine with the power and structure of a full-bodied red.  It is bone dry, very assertive, with mineral and citrus notes.  It can age indefinitely.   I have tasted over twenty-year-old Santorini that not only showed any signs of excessive aging, but had also developed more complexity of flavor.

Because Assyrtiko is high in phenolic compounds, it can be susceptible to oxidation, and must be made carefully, and stored in a cool environment. 

The phylloxera louse, which has caused so much havoc in European vineyards, is not present on Santorini.  The island’s volcanic soil prevents the spread of phylloxera.  As a result, old vines thrive on Santorini, another plus factor for making fine, age-worthy wines.

Most Santorini producers also make a second white wine, where one or two indigenous grape varieties--Athiri and/or Aidani--are blended, up to 25 percent, with Assyrtiko.  The resulting wine is a bit fruitier and less bone-dry than the 100 percent Assyrtiko.  A sweet wine, Vinsanto, is also produced on Santorini island from dried, raisined grapes.  Yes, the same name as the Italian sweet wine, but residents of Santorini will tell you that Vinsanto originated on their island, and migrated to Italy--like many other varieties now thriving in Italy.

Most Santorini is aged in stainless steel only, which I believe works best. One of the most notable producers, Domaine Sigalas, produces two Santorini wines, one aged in older oak barriques.  Actually, the talented Paris Sigalas has succeeded with both styles.  His barrel-aged version does have its following.

The greatest threat to Santorini wine is the popularity of the island itself.  The beautiful Santorini island has become a popular tourist destination.  Hotels and guest houses have made severe inroads into the island’s vineyards.  During the past century, Santorini has lost two-thirds of its vineyards.  Hopefully,the current popularity of Santorini wine will slow down further impingement of its vineyards.

Of the twelve producers making Santorini wine on the island, Boutari is by far the largest, best-known in the U.S., and most established.  Its wines, imported by Terlato Wines International, can be found throughout the country.  The other eleven producers, in alphabetical order, are the following:

Antoniou Winery
Argyros Estate
Gaia Wines
Gavalas Winery
Hatzidakis Winery
Heliopoulos Vineyards
Koutsoyannopoulos Winery
Canava Roussos
San..Torini Winery
SantoWines Winery
Domaine Sigalas

Four Santorini producers stand out to me for the excellence of their wines,
Gaia, Domaine Sigalas, Hatzidakis, and Argyros.  You can’t go wrong with the Santorini wines of all four producers.  The two producers that receive the most critical acclaim, and justifiably so, are Domaine Sigalas and Gaia (pronounced YAY –ah).

No winemaker has done more to preserve Santorini’s vineyards than Paris Sigalas, who founded his winery in 1991--just about the time that Greek wines began their revival.  Sigalas is also the only Santorini producer I know who saves his older vintages, and so a vertical tasting of his wines is always a possibility on a visit to the winery.  Sigalas has also done vertical tastings of his Santorini in the U.S.  You cannot help but like the man, and his enthusiasm for his wines.

Gaia Wines was founded in 1994 by winemaker/oenologist Yiannis Paraskevopoulos and his agronomist partner.  Paraskevopoulos is perhaps Greece’s most respected winemaker.  After his university studies in Greece, he spent five years studying in Bordeaux, and earned a Ph.D.  He returned to Greece and became the country’s most renowned consulting oenologist  and head of Greece’s most prestigious university oenology program.  Many emerging winemakers in Greece have been influenced by Paraskevopoulos.

One of the secrets of the excellence of Gaia’s two Santorini wines is the low yields of its vines.  The wines have enormous concentration and lots of minerality.  Gaia’s Thalassitis Santorini is its larger-production wine (about 100,000 bottles produced annually).  It is fermented in new barriques for five to six months.  The wine is so huge and concentrated that it can handle the new oak without a problem.  Gaia’s newer Santorini, called Gaia Assyrtiko “Wild Ferment,” uses native yeasts.  Thirty-five percent of the wine is fermented in oak.  Both Gaia Santorini wines are great, but I do prefer the Wild Ferment.  Both Sigalas and Gaia Santorini wines retail in the $18 to $22 price range, and are excellent values for such superb wines.

Santorini Assyrtiko wines are not for everyone’s palates.  Some tasters might find them to be too dry, too high in acidity, or too assertive.  I happen to think they are among the finest white wines being made today.