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Santorini & Greek Wine Varietals

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By Cori Solomon
Vineyard practices are fundamental to the process of making wine and also the outcome of what we ultimately decide to drink. Across the world, these methods vary because of soil conditions and climate. One of the most unusual vineyard practices I discovered while visiting Santorini, Greece.

Santorini

Santorini is perched high above the sea, approximately 900 feet. Access to the island is by ship and a cable car ride up to the top of the island cliff. The architecture, whitewashed cubical structures give the island a very clean modern appearance. In a way, it reminds me of the adobe homes one finds on a Pueblo in New Mexico. The only difference is the sandstone hues with brown accents versus Santorini’s crisp white facades often decorated in blue trim, especially the domed roofs.

Santorini is one of the Cyclades Islands located in the Aegean Sea. Its crescent-shaped formed by a volcano, known as the Minoan Eruption that erupted over 3600 years ago. Following the volcanic eruption, a Caldera formed, which today becomes part of the beauty one observes while visiting Santorini.

Grape Growing in Santorini

Before discussing Santorini as a wine region, one must understand Greece has over 300 grape varietals, and the majority of these varieties are indigenous to the country. Greek wine comes from twenty-three regions with Santorini being one of them. 

Santorini’s climate is Mediterranean with extremely gusty winds. If the grapevines utilized the typical vine training systems of growing in rows on trellis used in the United States, there would be a tremendous loss of grapes due to the winds. The canopy would be left unprotected.

Instead, the grapes grow in an unusual way. The vines are trained to grow low to the ground. Unstaked, the vines create a wreath like basket shape, also known as a giristi. This shape protects the grapes from both the winds and the sun. As the vines grow, they are woven into a basket with the grapes facing inside towards the basket’s center. The leaves cover the grapes protecting them from the sun. This method prevents burning. This bush training method of growing grapes is called Koulara. Since the region has never suffered from phylloxera, the vines are self-rooted.

Because the soils are composed of volcanic ash and rocks, it gives Santorini wines nice acidity. Santorini is one of several wine regions explicitly known for its volcanic wines. The vineyards are dry farmed. The flagship grape of Santorini is Assyrtiko, an indigenous white grape. The following indigenous grapes, Athiri, and Aidani in the whites and Mandaleria and Mavrotragano in the reds, also grow on the island.

The PDO, Protected Designation of Origin Santorini designation was established in 1971. The wine must contain at least 75% Assyrtiko to be a PDO Wine and often combines Athiri and/or Aidani with the Assyrtiko.

Nykteri is another form of a PDO wine utilizing at least 75% Assyrtiko.  Typically, either Athiri and/or Aidani are added as additional elements to the wine.  Although similar to Assyrtiko, Nykteri, which means, “the night” is harvested at night before sunrise to avoid the heat. Pressing of the grapes also occurs at night.  Essentially Nykteri is the wine of the night because it is created at night.  While the wine can be vinified in steel or oak, it must age at least three months in oak.

Santorini Winery Santo Wines
Wine Cellar at Santo Wines

Vinsanto is a PDO sweet wine created from sundried grapes.  The wine is similar to an Italian Passito.  Vinsanto is made up of mostly Assyrtiko at least 51% with the remainder being Athiri and Aidani.  Vinsanto is an amber-colored wine that has flavors of apricots and honey.  The wine must age no less than 24 months.  

The red wines of Santorini are usually designated PGI, Protected Geographical Indication.

Visiting Santorini

A visit to Santorini includes some of the most spectacular views and going wine tasting on the island involves sipping wine and enjoying the panoramic views.  The atmosphere is relaxed, and when I sat sipping wine, I was enamored by the beauty and serenity of the ocean around me.  It is breathtaking, and something not to be missed when visiting the island.

Santo Wines

Established in 1947 as a cooperative, Santo Wines is the largest winery and producer of wine on Santorini. In 1992 the current gravity flow state of the art winery was constructed.  Nikos Varvigoros, Santo’s chief Oenologist, although very soft-spoken is exceptionally passionate about the wines he creates.

Wine to discover at Santo Wines

Sparkling Santo Brut: A traditional method sparkling wine created from Assyrtiko displays aromas and flavors of peach and citrus with a light tropical flare. 

Santorini Assyrtiko Grande Reserve:   Grapes come from a 100-year old vineyard and are harvested late in the season.  The wine ages 12 months in oak barrels followed by 12 months in the barrel.  The wine exhibits aromas and flavors of brioche, pear, caramel, and honey.

Kamenh:  The grapes, 100% Mandilaria are sun-dried for several days before vinification and aged 24 months in oak barrels.  With aromas and flavors reminiscent to a Bordeaux wine, I found the texture and structure bigger than many other Greek reds. 

Vinsanto Santorini:  This dessert wine ages 36 months in neutral oak.  The wine reveals aromas of brandy, dried apricots, caramel and anise and flavors of prune, raisin, and anise.

Canava Chrissou

Canava Chrissou specializes primarily in wines from the Assyrtiko grape.  Winemaker Yiannis Tselepos joined forces with the Chryssou family.  Yiannis is known for his wines in Mantinia and Nemea but with this venture has spread his wings to Santorini

Wine to discover at Canava Chrissou

Laoudia: Laoudia means the holes where wild hares nest and the name my favorite wine from this winery. Perhaps these nesting holes can be found in the single 100-year old vineyard that provides the Assyrtiko grapes for this wine. The grapes are over-ripened when harvested. The fermentation and aging occur in amphorae.  After aging for eight months on the lees and the wine then matures another ten months in the bottle. All these factors make this Assyrtiko unique and special. Atypical for Assyrtiko is the depth I found in this wine. I thought the wine aged in Oak. The wine delivers citrus flavors and bright acidity.

Venetsanos

Constructed in 1947, Venetsanos appears to be the oldest winery on Santorini.  It also represents the first industrial winery on the island.  I loved wandering through the corridors and tunnels of this old winery.  It resembled a museum with displays of old winery equipment. In days gone by a pipeline lead from the winery and traversed to the sea, allowing the wine to be pumped and loaded directly onto ships.  The winery’s construction into the cliff created a natural gravity flow.

Santorini Koulara
Bush training vines called Koulara

From the time of my first visit, the winery has a new winemaker, Christos Kanellakopoulos, who is infusing new life into the winery and wine production.

Wine to discover at Venetsanos

Anagallis Rosé:  Featuring aromas and flavors of strawberry and cherry, this Rosé blends Mandilaria with Assyrtiko and Aidani. 

Mandilaria: With flavors of cranberry and blueberries, this grape is considered difficult to grown and often is harvested later.  The grapes are dried in the sun for one day.  After vinification the wine ages for three years,  part in oak barrels and the rest in stainless steel.

Liastos:  This unique wine uses the Mandilaria grape to create a Vinsanto.  Venesantos calls this wine First Bottling. The grapes are dried in the sun for 5 -12 days.  Liastos delivers aromas of molasses, dried prunes, and figs.  I found a full-bodied, rich wine displaying flavors of molasses and berries.

Other Santorini Wineries

Although I did not have a chance to visit other wineries, I recommend visiting, Argyros, Art Space, Boutari, Gaia, and Sigalas.

About Contributing Writer Cori Solomon

Cori Solomon, an award-winning writer/photographer in Los Angeles, can often be found traveling with her dogs in tow. Her blog, The Written Palette focuses on travel, art, food, wine, and pets. Cori’s background is real estate.  Also, being an animal artist, her articles utilize the art palette both visually and verbally. Cori is Director of the International Food Wine & Travel Writers Association and LA Wine Writers. 

Note: Common to the wine industry, this writer received a hosted visit and wine tasting at Gruet. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure.

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