Greece has over 330 grape varietals with many of those varieties being native to the country. Greek wine comes from twenty-three regions, including Santorini. Recently while aboard the Celebrity Cruise Ship Reflection, we stopped in Santorini. Knowing Santorini's wine reputation, I decided to visit two wineries and learn more about Santorini wineries and winemaking on the island.
Tasting wine on Santorini will wow anyone because the tasting rooms offer the most spectacular panoramic views I have ever experienced.
Santorini, one of the Cyclades Islands located in the Aegean Sea, is configured in a crescent shape. The island consists of the remains of a volcano, known as the Minoan Eruption, that occurred over 3,600 years ago. When the volcano erupted it formed a Caldera, which in turn became part of the beauty one glimpses while visiting Santorini.
Santorini takes its name from Saint Irene, an old cathedral in the village of Perrisa. Its capital of Fira sits perched above the slopes of the island. Santorini’s other significant town, Ola, is considered the island's oldest settlement.
The architecture—whitewashed cubical structures—gives the impression of a clean, modern appearance. It almost reminds me of the adobe homes on a New Mexico Pueblo. The only difference is that the buildings in Santorini are crisp white, often decorated in blue trim, especially on the domed roofs.
Because the towns that populate Santorini lie over 900 ft above the sea, those traveling to the island, especially if arriving by ship, must take the cable car up to the top of the island.
Grape Growing in Santorini
The climate in Santorini is Mediterranean with very gusty winds. Because of the winds, grapes grow in a unique way. They must be trained to grow low to the ground. Unstaked vines create a wreath-like basket shape that protects the grapes from the island's winds and heat.
As the vines grow, they are woven into a basket with the grapes facing inside the basket’s ring. The leaves cover the grapes, protecting them from the sun and preventing them from burning. This bush training method of growing grapes is called Koulara. The vines are self-rooted because phylloxera was never an issue in this region.
The soils are composed of volcanic ash and rocks giving the wines nice acidity. The wine region of Santorini is one of several areas known specifically for their volcanic wines. The vineyards are dry farmed. Assyritiko, a white indigenous grape, is the flagship grape of Santorini. Wineries also grow the following indigenous grapes: the white Athiri and Aidani and the red Mandaleria and Mavrotragano.
The PDO Santorini designation was established in 1971. To be a PDO wine, there must be at least 75% Assyrtiko with the remaining consisting of Athiri and/or Aidani.
Nykteri is another form of a PDO wine utilizing at least 75% Assyrtiko and the difference being either Athiri and/or Aidani. Although similar to Assyrtiko, Nykteri, which means “the night,” is harvested at night to avoid the heat. It is also pressed at night. While the wine can be vinified in steel or oak, the wine must be aged 3 months in oak.
Vinsanto is a PDO sweet wine created from sun dried grapes. The wine is similar to an Italian Passito. Vinsanto contains mostly Assyrtiko, a minimum of 51%, with the remainder being Athiri and Aidani. This amber colored wine typically displays flavors of apricots and honey. The wine must be aged no less than 24 months.
The red wines of Santorini are usually designated PGI.
My visit to Santorini included visits to Santo Wines and Venetsantos Winery. Both wineries offer the most magnificent views. I loved the backdrop for photographing the wines. Not often does one get the chance to take pictures of wine bottles set against such exceptional breathtaking views.
A Visit to Santo Wines
Today Santo Wines, a cooperative winery established in 1947, is the largest producer of wines on Santorini. In 1992, the current gravity flow state of the art winery was constructed.
Nikos Varvarigos, the winery’s oenologist, led my winery tour and tasting. One senses Nikos is a very soft-spoken family man, who is passionate about the wines he creates.
Some of the wines sampled at Santo Wines that left a memorable impression:
- Sparkling Santo Brut: A traditional method sparkling wine created from Assyrtiko, displays aromas and flavors of peach and citrus. I found a light tropical wine, perfect to toast in the gorgeous views.
- Santorini Assyrtiko Grande Reserve: The grapes come from a 100-year old vineyard and are harvested later in the season. The wine ages 12 months in oak barrels followed by 12 months in the bottle. With aromas of brioche, pear, caramel and honey one finds similar flavors on the palate.
- 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 of Bordeaux, the wines bigger texture and structure differs from most Greek reds.
- Vinsanto Santorini: I sampled the 2009, which is aged 36 months in neutral oak. The wine reveals aromas of brandy, dried apricots, caramel and anise and flavors of prune, raisin and anise.
A Visit to Venetsantos Winery
Probably one of the oldest and first industrial winery on Santorini, the Venetsantos family built the Venetsantos Winery in 1947. Parts of the winery resemble a museum. Some of the old winery equipment still exists making it fun imagine the Greek process of making wine years ago.
A pipeline leading from the winery down to the sea allowed the wine in days gone by to be loaded directly onto a ship for exportation. Constructed on a cliff, it enabled the winery to create its own natural gravity flow. Wandering through the labyrinth of tunnels scattered along the various levels of the winery I felt as if I might get lost until I found an alcove currently used for aging the wine in barrels.
In addition to their Assyrtiko wines, three wines stood out at Venetsantos.
- Anagallis Rosé: A Rosé blending Mandilaria with Assyrtiko and Aidani. The wine features aromas and flavors of Strawberry and cherry.
- Mandilaria: With flavors of cranberry and blueberries, this grape is more difficult to grow and is harvested later. The grapes are dried in the sun for one day. After vinification the wine ages for 3 years with the majority in oak barrels and the rest in stainless steel.
- Liastos 2008: This unique wine uses the Mandilaria grape to create Vinsanto. Venetsantos calls this wine First Bottling. The grapes are dried in the sun for 5 to 12 days. The wine delivers aromas of molasses, dried prunes and figs. This full-bodied rich wine displays flavors of molasses and berries.
The Santorini Wineries Experience
Wine tasting in Santorini represents discovering and exploring the island’s indigenous grapes as well as getting an introduction to volcanic wines. I loved visiting both Santorini wineries, but if time only permits visiting one winery, I highly recommend Santo Wines because the winery offers a nice rounded portfolio showing the essence of the wines produced in Santorini.
Note: As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with accommodations, meals and other compensation for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.