Santorini has been producing wine at least since its Minoan days, more than 3,500 years ago. Its sandy, mineral-rich (but potassium-poor) volcanic soils, lack of organic material, intense sun, high heat, strong northerly winds and lack of water (with moisture during growing season coming almost exclusively from the night air) stresses its old wines (most well over 50 years) and produces very low yields and austere wines. The vines are, in fact, so stressed that Santorini wineries have developed a unique pruning technique, called “kouloura”, to deal with the conditions. This entails knitting vines together into baskets that help the grapes retain moisture and protect them from the heat and the wind.
Assyrtiko is the island’s premier white grape and the island has a special designation (PDO) for dry white blends of at least 75 percent Assyrtiko, with smaller percentages of Aidani, Athiri and sometimes, other local grape varietals. The resultant wines are typically complex and austere with high levels of acidity and alcohol. Aidani and Athiri, meanwhile, add aroma to and tend to soften the wines in which they are blended.
Many of the wineries also produce a premium form of Assyrtiko called Nychteri, that is made from late harvest (generally late August, rather than early August when most Assyrtiko grapes are harvested). These grapes are harvested at night (when the grapes have the most juice) and the free-run juice (no pressing) goes directly into large, old, neutral oak barrels for three years, before being bottled as a premium, high-alcohol (15 percent) premium wine.
Although the vast majority of the island’s grapes are white, some vineyards are growing relatively small quantities of red grapes. These are primarily Mandilaria, which produces a light, dry red, and occasionally roses and sweet wines. Some vineyards are also increasingly production of Mavrotragano, another local red varietal that produces a deeper, richer, more concentrated, earthier wine than does Mandilaria, with more structure, more tannins and greater ageability.
Although the island is primarily known for its dry wines (especially white, but also some red), it also makes some lovely sweet, Vinsanto wines where sugar is concentrated by trying the grapes in the sun. Most ofthese Vinsanto wines are made from white grapes, with a PDO available for those that are made with a minimum of 51 percent Assyrtiko. Some also make a moderately-sweet red wine called Mezzo from sun-dried Mandilaria grapes.
Although we had Assyrtikos from a number of producers at dinner, we had formal tastings at
At Boutari Winery, we began with a brief, but informative tour that began in the vineyard, where we learned about and saw the extreme growing conditions that the grapes must endure and how both the grower and the vines adapt to the extreme growing conditions. The grower by spacing the vines far apart, by weaving them into baskets and leaving extensive leaf cover, both to retain moisture and to protect the grapes from the sun and the wind and by placing fog-absorbing pumice rocks near each vine. The pumice rocks release water that the vines use. The vines meanwhile, simultaneously drill 40-60 meters into the ground to find any available sub-surface water and develop a large system of shallow roots to pull in the water retained from nighttime fog. The soil also plays important roles both in protecting the vines (as by providing so little organic material as to prevent phylloxera from taking hold and killing the vines) and nourishing them (as with its low pH and by providing all essential minerals except potassium).
We then took a quick tour of the barrel room with its stock of old, 95 percent French and 5 percent American neutral, low-toast, oak barrels.
We then tasted seven of their wines, where particularly enjoyed the crisp, minerally, 100 percent assyrtiko-based 2017 Santorini Boutari, and see wine’s the ageability, the phenomenally smooth, rounded, but still mineral-intense 1999 vintage! Just as interesting, the 2008 Selladia, whose blend of 40 percent assyrtiko, 30 percent aidani and 30 percent athiri provides a fruity, floral nose and adding an interesting cinnamon tones, while retaining the minerality, saltiness, structure and light tannins of the assyrtiko. As was the case with virtually all our tastings, we were less impressed by the oaked, dry white whites, including the premium Nychteris and totally unimpressed by any of the reds that we tasted. Also, as was the case with most of our tastings, we fell in love with the incredibly, concentrated, honey-sweet, moderately-oaked, but still minerally, highly-structured dessert wines—especially the white (primarily assytiko-based) Vinsantos (this one aged for 12 years) and to a somewhat lesser extent, the red (mandalaria-based) Abeliastos (this one 10 year). But for all the enjoyable and interesting wines, the taste and the memory of the almost 20 year-old, 1999 assyrtiko will remain with us for and a year.
Domaine Sigalis winery, located on the island’s north coast is known for its many fine wines. And it provided the first, and one of the very few Aidanis (a flowery, but dry 2017) and Nychteris (a wonderfully balanced and integrated wine with citrus and subtle oak, while retaining the grape’s minerally, austerity–although as a very steep 51 euro price) that we enjoyed. And of course, we loved the 20-year aged, 75 percent assyrtiko-based Vinsanto and liked (albeit with some reservations over its sugar level–300 grams/liter compared wth 280 for the Vinsanto).
But even more than the wines, Sigalis provided us, as well as the entire Santorini wine industry, with a wonderful education courtesy of its innovative “Seven Villages” program. Under this program, the winery selected its best 2016 assyrtiko grapes from seven vineyards, each located in a different village across the island. It used natural yeasts and gave each the same vinification and aging treatment, with minimal intervention. It then packaged all seven as a horizontal tasting across the seven regions. In addition to being an interesting marketing tool this experiment provided a great service to consumers and to the island’s entire wine industry. It, for the first time, provided something of a benchmark by which one could systematically explore the differences among many of the island’s similar, but subtly distinct terroirs.
After independently tasting, taking notes on and ranking each of these wines on our own (where we were, in almost total agreement), we discussed our impressions with our host. We spoke about the characteristics of the wines and the terroirs that we preferred (all in the northern villages of Imerouglis, Vourvoulis and Oia and those that we less favored (especially Megalochori and Akrotiri) and, on the basis of our preferences, he “insisted” that we sample the winery’s premier single-vineyard, 100 percent assyrtiko, a 2016 (the same year as from the Seven Village tastings) Kavalieros, the vineyard from which from Seven Villages Imerouglis came. This wine remained in its stainless steel tank, on its lees for 18 months (compared with 12 months for the Imerouglis) before being bottled. A rich, smooth rounded wine that maintains the intense minerality, saltiness and balanced acidity at very reasonable (or its quality) price of 38.60 euros.
While our Boutari and Sigalas tastings provided a very good foundation for understanding Santorini wines (not to speak of some lovely wines in and of themselves), our Argyros tasting provided a bachelor-degree-level tutorial by Evangelos Beris, the winery’s Production Director and a PhD whose “day job” is Adjunct Professor of Oenology at the University of Athens.
Our instruction began with an overview of the island’s winemaking history, its unique climate, volcanic soils and mineral composition (including the lack of potassium and how that results in acidic, low pH wines and the high levels of tannic and low levels of lactic acid), drainage profiles, very old vines and their root structures (which access both deep and surface water) and much, much more.
We began our tasting with a 2017 Aidani that when we expressed disappointment with the subdued nose and lack of fruit, Evangelos surmised that cork may not have fit properly and then opened another bottle (very nice with floral nose, peach-like taste) to provide a comparison and the impact of corking. Then onto a mini-vertical (2017, 2016 and 2014—with apologizes that the original 1903 winery didn’t have storage room and they were only able to begin retaining older vintages after their 2016 move into their current facility) of the winery’s highest-volume Santorini Assyrtiko, where we had a chance to see how and over what timeframe the initial lemon/lime and green apple fruit begins to fade, how the wine’s classic minerality and saltiness develop and how it gains in complexity and balance.
We then moved into some of the Old Vine Estate wines such as the 2016 and 2014 Estate Argyros (in which 80 percent is aged for six months in stainless and 20 percent in neutral oak) to highlight the grape’s earthy tones, and the 2016 and 2015 Estate Argyros Oak-Fermented (100 percent for six months in neutral oak) to bring out more nutty, buttery the vanilla notes and to smooth the finish. These wines, in particular, are bargains at 20 euros and 22 euros.
Since the winery prefers not to make a Nychteri, we then moved onto, and concluded with a vertical of Vinsantos, learning how the 12 days of sun-drying and multiple years of barrel aging so reduces and concentrates the wine that it takes five kilos of grapes to produce a single 500 milliliter bottle. Our tasting began with a four-year barrel-aged wine and progressed through a 12-year and ultimately a 20-year. Although we enjoyed the nose and the palette of the four-year on first taste, we rapidly succumbed to the cartelized honey, raisin, fig and butterscotch notes of the 12-year (which, by the way, earned Santorini’s first 98 point rating from Robert Parker) and to the way in which the 20-year old wine take on deeper coffee, cocao and some leather tastes.
As incredible as many of these wines are in and of themselves, they, like all wines, take on different characteristics when paired with food. So Argyros provides the food to complement them. More accurately, they rolled out a feast. These included raw clams, sea urchin and smoked trout to bring out and to complement the saltiness of the wine, five types of cheese to show how the fat cuts the acidity, a slightly spicy salami and a neutral ham, tomato and fava dips, and three types of bread. And with the Vinsantos, came a platter of dried fruits, nuts, blue cheese and a plate of custom, Austrian-made chocolate that perfectly complemented the 20-year old dessert wine.
An amazing tasting!!!
The marketing director, meanwhile, filled us in on some of the particulars about the winery, including its size (400,000 bottle per year), and how its combination of its own and contract vineyards gives it control of roughly one-eighth of the island’s assyrtiko grapes. As for distribution, unlike the case with most Greek wineries, about 70 percent of its production is exported and the vast majority of its Greek sales are in Santorini—direct to customers, fine restaurants and high-end bottle shops. The small amount that goes to the rest of Greece is to restaurants and a handful of high-end bottle shops.
Artemis Karamolegos, an 180,000 bottle per year winery, has been producing wines for more than half a century. We tasted five of their wines. Although we aren’t fans of their flowery ands acidic aidani or their spicy, peppery and tannic mavrotragano red, we enjoyed two of their assyrtiko-based blends (both 90 percent assyrtiko with the remaining 10 percent consisting of combinations of athiri and aidani). These wines were its six-month stainless tank-aged 2017 Santorini, its highest-volume wine which tastes of green apple, lemon and mineral, and the high-altitude (400 meter), late harvest Nykreri, which spends 10 months on the lees in oak, another 16 months in stainless and a final four months in the bottle. This balanced, wine combined the assyrtiko minerality with green fruit and a smooth finish. And how to finish off but with a delightful taste of assyrtiko-based (with 15 percent aidaini) Vinsanto; in this case, grapes from 100+ year-old vines that sit in neutral French barrels for eight years. Delicious with a taste of dried fruit, almonds, caramel and chocolate.
This winery/wine history museum/art gallery is a tiny winery that produces a mere 70,000 bottles per year (plus 200 bottles of distilled Raki), almost all from purchased grapes. It is, however, more than a winery. It is housed in a 200 year-old winery/distillery through which it offers tours. This includes the stone vat into which the winery used to drop its grapes and a below-ground stone tank into which the free-run juice flowed and was fermented.
Another room has another underground tank into which the pumice (from the initial vat) and added water is stored and a bronze still that distills this mixture into 40 percent alcohol Raki. Or, they can add anise to the mix to produce Ouzo. Piece of original art, meanwhile, are displayed throughout the facility. An interesting perspective of how Santorini wines and distillates used to be made before the introduction of modern equipment and techniques.
We ended the tour with a tasting of a flowery 2015 Aidani, a 2015 a pleasant St. August assyrtiko, an oaky, but very smooth 2012 Nychteri that was aged for three years in barrels and another five years in the bottle and a slightly oaked 2012 assyrtiko reserve, all of which surprisingly spend five months in the barrel. Not surprisingly ended with a 12 year-old, assyrtiko-based Vinsanto and seven year-old mandalaria-based Nama red dessert wine. Although all the wines were credible, we didn’t think they quite stood up to some of those from our previous tastings.