Santorini Wine: From an Eruption to Effervescence

Santorini Wine Tasting

“Every act of creation is first an act of destruction.”

– Pablo Picasso

Each year, nearly half a million visitors flock to striking Santorini. Many come to the legendary Greek island in search of black and red beaches, cool-blue infinity pools, and rugged cliffs speckled with whitewashed buildings. And many, I suspect, are unaware of the island’s intriguing and violent geological history, which shaped its tantalizing cuisine and its unique viticulture. During the last of our ten nights in this paradise of the Aegean, we’d learn about the latter offering, tasting 15 Santorini wines on an excursion with Santorini Wine Tour.

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Initially detecting some timid tasters among the group, our host, sommelier Vaios Panagiotoulas, gesticulated passionately with his hands and offered lighthearted advice, “You don’t have to be a wine expert – just enjoy tonight!”

And so we dove right into the tasting – swirling, sniffing, and sampling, while twisting our tongues around Greek white grape names like Aidani, Athiri and Assyrtiko, red varietals such as Mavrotragano and Mandilaria, and Santorini’s beloved dessert wine, Vinsanto. We also learned about Santorini’s unique growing environment.

One of the Largest Volcanic Eruptions in Recorded History

Santorini’s volcanic eruption 3,500 years ago is said to be one of the largest in recorded history. Some even believe that it destroyed the lost civilization of Atlantis. It dramatically transformed the island into the beauty that it is today and forever altered what could grow there.

“Santorini wines are complicated, with earthy flavors,” Vaios said. “Because of the volcanic activity, there is hardly any organic matter in the soil. But today, the soil is rich with lava, pumice and limestone. As a result of this makeup, Santorini wines are known for having intense mineral characteristics.”

An added benefit of the soil’s unique composition is that vines are largely resistant to the Phylloxera pest. As a result, Santorini grapevines are some of the oldest in the world. They were the only ones to survive the Phylloxera epidemic that ravaged European vines in the 1800s.

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Vaios tossed out the word terroir, a term which describes a wine’s overall growing environment, including its soil, topography and climate. He explained that Santorini is “infertile” since it must endure hot, windy conditions, with little moisture. Traditionally, there is no irrigation. Also, grapes are harvested in August, which is considerably earlier than most other wine-growing regions of the world.

A Unique Cultivation Technique 

To combat harsh growing conditions, Santorini winemakers employ a technique that is not to be found anywhere else in the world. Known locally as kouloura, the vines are trained into a wreath-like nest close to the ground, creating a microclimate for the grapes. Inside this ‘nest,’ the grapes are protected from harsh winds and sizzling temperatures. They are also able to absorb the morning dew. Despite such adaptations, wine-growing on Santorini is still a difficult venture.

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Shawn, holding grapevines which have been pruned in Santorini’s unique kouloura manner.

“Previously, there were more than 40 wineries. Now there are only nine. Six of those are estate wineries, meaning that they produce wine from grapes that they have grown themselves,” explained Vaios.

“Santorini’s climate isn’t good for red grapes, so they became extinct,” Vaios continued. “About 15 years ago, however, three winemakers revived the red grapes. We’ll need more years to see how the reds will develop. They’re considered experimental at the moment, but Mavrotragano is the most promising red.”

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Gavalas Winery: Traditional Techniques & Tasting Questions to Ponder

Our first stop was the traditional Gavalas Winery in the village of Megalochori. Described as “traditional” in its approach to winemaking, the winery has been owned by the same family for three centuries. As we eagerly awaited our first sampling of wine, Vaios led us through the salesroom, plentiful with sepia-toned family portraits, bottles bearing medals, and vintage wine vessels.

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Our walk through the winery’s other rooms illustrated how the winemaking process has evolved over the centuries. Whereas one old-fashioned style fermentation room was characterized by underground vats, the more modern cellars were filled with stainless steel fermentation tanks and oak barrels.

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As Mr. Gavalas popped the corks on the four wines to be sampled, Vaios guided us through the wine-tasting process, suggesting questions for beginning to advanced wine tasters to keep in mind:

  1. Appearance – What is the wine’s color? How intense is it? Is it clear or cloudy?
  2. Smell – Is the wine’s aroma light or powerful, or somewhere in between?
  3. Taste – Is the wine dry or sweet? Light or full-bodied? Acidic? How long is its finish? Three seconds, or as long as eight seconds?

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Keeping Vaios’ advice in mind, we dove into two white wines, one rosé, and one Vinsanto.

  • 2011 Gavalas Santorini–  95% Assyrtiko, 5% Aidani, 13% alcohol. Aged in stainless steel vats. Crisp and simple, with a clear color. Green apple and citrus notes.
  • 2010 Gavalas Nikteri – 100% Assyrtiko, 14% alcohol. Aged for 6 months in an oak barrel. Golden color. Earthy aroma, buttery and honey notes.
  • 2011 Gavalas XenolooMavrotragono, Voudomato & Athiri, 13% alcohol. Aged 8 months in oak barrels. Light, spicy, cherry notes, a bit like a rosé.
  • 2005 Gavalas Vinsanto – 80% Assyrtiko, 10% Athiri, 10% Aidani, 10% alcohol. Aged 6 months in oak. Grapes dried in the sun for 2 weeks. Honey and raisin overtones.

Estate Argyros: Experimental Techniques & A Greek Lesson 

Arriving at Estate Argyros in Episkopi Gonia, under grey skies uncharacteristic of Santorini, we were cheered by Greece’s blue and white flag flitting in the wind above the winery. Established over one hundred years ago, Estate Argyros is run by a fourth generation winemaker.

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Sampling the bouquet of a Mavrotragano, considered to be Santorini’s most promising red grape.

After passing through a courtyard with an antique wine press and a birdcage containing a vocal occupant, we headed upstairs to a terrace with a view of the surrounding hills. Here, we sampled three white wines, one rosé, one red, and two Vinsantos. While tasting, Vaios switched from enology to linguistics, teaching us the Greek word for Cheers – Yamas! 

  • 2012 Estate Argyros Aidani – 100 % Aidani, 12.8% alcohol. Aged in stainless steel vats. Peach and green apple notes. Similar to a Sauvignon Blanc.
  • 2011 Estate ArgyrosAssyrtiko (their ‘heritage grape’), 13.2% alcohol. Aged 6 months in French oak. Citrus and ginger notes. Stone aroma. Light.
  • 2010 Estate Argyros – 100 % Assyrtiko, 13.5% alcohol. Aged in new French oak, 150 year old vines. Rich golden color. Oaky, with hints of frankincense and buttery popcorn.
  • 2012 Atlantis Rosé, 80% Assyrtiko and 20% Mandilaria, 13% alcohol. Fruity and aromatic. Hints of rose petal, strawberries and raspberries. Light and refreshing.
  • 2010 Estate Argyros Mavrotragano – 14% alcohol. Aged 18 months in oak. Astringent. Needs aging.
  • 2003 Vinsanto Mezzo – 14% alcohol. Barrel-aged for 5 years. Amber color, caramel-orange flavor. Lighter and fruitier. Grapes dried in sun for 6 days.
  • 1990 Vinsanto – 13.5% alcohol. Aged in oak barrels for 20 years.  Prune, fig and toffee notes.

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Domaine Sigalas: Modern Techniques & “Happy Vines” 

A serpentine road criss-crossing through a lush agricultural area led us to Santorini’s northernmost village Oia, and to our final stop, Domaine Sigalas.

“Sigalas was founded in 1991 by a mathematician turned winemaker. Unlike the other wineries, the grapes here are irrigated and trellised, making the grapes less stressed as they grow,” explained Vaios.

For the rest of the evening, Vaios referred to Sigalas’ more relaxed grapes as having come from “happy vines.”

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I instantly fell for Sigalas’ ambience and happy grapes. For one, it was situated in a plush, green vineyard. There were also whimsical touches: corks tied onto ribbons, blowing in the evening breeze; small carafes filled with red geraniums; a curious, black and white dog with floppy ears looking on as our group mingled and tasted. Plates of traditional Santorini products like capers and caper leaves, tomato paste and Cycladic cheese rounded out the delightful flight of wines – two whites, one red, and a dessert wine.

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An accompaniment of traditional Santorini cheese, capers, caper leaves and tomato paste.

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  • 2012 Sigalas Assyrtiko-Athiri Santorini PDO, 75% Assyrtiko; 25% Athiri, 14% alcohol. Has bubbly texture similar to champagne. Citrus notes.
  • 2012 Sigalas Santorini Barrel PDO – 100% Assyrtiko, 14 % alcohol. Aged in new French oak barrel. Honeysuckle flavor. Similar to a Riesling.
  • 2011 Sigalas Mavrotragano PGI. Smooth with vanilla-pepper notes.
  • 2004 Sigalas Apiliotis – 100% Mandilaria. A dessert nightcap. Grapes dried for 7-9 days like a Vinsanto, though technically not one because it’s made with red grapes and not white grapes. Cherry and sour cherry notes. Thick texture.

Where in the World?

Thanks & Disclosure: 
 

ευχαριστώ πολύ/ Many thanks to the Santorini Wine Tour for hosting us on this fun afternoon of wine tasting! Vaios’ vast knowledge and enthusiasm for Santorini wine made our excursion educational and fun, and we were quite relaxed knowing that driver Stefan would get us to each tasting spot safely and comfortably.

These words, experiences, images, and opinions are entirely my own. Video footage is courtesy of my husband, Shawn.

Photography & text © by Tricia A. Mitchell . All Rights Reserved.

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28 Comments on “Santorini Wine: From an Eruption to Effervescence

  1. Hey Tricia. When we were in Santorini, we had a small studio in Thira which was perfect. As an added perk, the owner provided a bottomless pitcher of white wine each day. The wine really was quite nice, and after questioning the owner, we discovered that it was made by his father. It certainly made for a wonderful happy hour on our balcony. ~James

    • James, your apartment’s owner shared wine with you, and ours shared tiny zucchini from his own garden. Between the two of us, we could’ve had the start of a lovely Greek feast! :)

      Throughout our time in the Balkans, we were impressed that most everyone is a winemaker. You and Terri are such a Renaissance pair. Have you tried your hand at it?

  2. Enjoyed reliving our wine touer with you Tricia! We loved the white wine too, although I don’t remember which one it was :-)

    • Madhu, it sounds as though you really enjoyed that white wine! :-) Did you visit many wineries?

      I’m hoping we’ll be able to find something that comes close to the Assyrtiko that we so enjoyed. It was the perfect hot summer day wine. Surprisingly, it had a pretty high alcohol content.

  3. Great post Tricia, OMG makes we wanting to go back to Greece again, I had been in Santorini many many years ago, back than when it was not overcrowded from tourists, what a wonderful island than…… what a lovely picture of you…..Kalimera or Kalispera for you,,,,Kalinichta for me……

    • Cornelia, I saw some images of Santorini in the 1970s or 1980s, and was surprised to see how much it’s been developed since then. It makes me wonder about the other lesser-known islands…

      Glad you enjoyed these golden hour photographs, and looking forward to reading about your adventures here in Germany and beyond.

  4. I love this post. The colors, the flavors – so refreshing – and the close-up photo of the young plant is fab! I can easily imagine an entire day there feeling in the moment and place during every minute.

    • Maria, I’ve read a few accounts of how travelers spent time spent in Santorini, and many echo what you said – that they somehow felt at home, and in the moment there.

      Like you, I also loved that colorful deep shrimp-colored plant. It offered such a nice burst of color against the stark whitewashed buildings, and blue water. Guess we’ll just need to move to a place that can grow such pretty flora!

  5. We really must tour together one of these days…I love your style! Your photos are beautiful too – takes me right there.

    • Anita, thank you, and that would be great fun! Given our shared urge to wander, I wouldn’t be surprised if we meet up soon. :) We’re not sure where the rest of the summer will take us. For now, we’re enjoying visiting my parents in Germany. As a cyclist, you’d love the beautiful bike trails here! My father’s been avidly taking to them whenever the weather permits.

    • Glad the post brought back fun memories of your wine tasting experiences down under, Mark. :) Having seen a bit of American and European wine country, I’d like to visit wine spots in NZ, Chile and South Africa too. Cheers. :)

  6. Winemaking interests me alot so I found your post very interesting. The grapes for these wines are grown in harsh conditions. It must have been very interesting to taste the wines that were made from them.

    Have a glass for me. Cheers!

    • Gerard, we’ve visited several wine-growing regions around the world, but Santorini’s environment is certainly the most unique. I wonder if you’d be able to locate some Santorini wine in NYC and enjoy it on a hot summer’s day? Domaine Sigalas had one of my favorite types of wine from the trip (a white Assyrtiko) but if you like red, you might enjoy a Mavrotragano.

      • Thank you for your suggestion. I’ll try looking for some. If I get to taste one I’ll let you know.

      • It’d be interesting to hear your thoughts, Gerard. You must have a great variety of fun wine at your fingertips given your location!

  7. Great article Tricia ,with very interesting details and beautiful photos…as an habitant of Santorini I respect very much your work…

      • Thank you..This is my second year…As I am a manager of an hotel on Santorini (on the village of Pyrgos) most of the visits that I do on the island are at the end of the tourist season , end of November…

      • We spent an afternoon in Pyrgos – such a nice village, with a pleasantly laid-back quality about it. We visited Santorini in May, but I can only imagine how crowded it is right now! Lucky you that you can explore it during the true off season.

  8. My kind of tour! I learned about “Yamas!” while clinking glasses of raki. Fun but a little strong for my taste. I didn’t sample many wines while visiting Crete. I’m trying to imagine a mineral essence…Great images as always, Tricia!

    • Ruth, ah, I agree about the Raki! We encountered variations of it throughout the Balkans, and my mouth is on fire just thinking about it. :) The wine, on the other hand, is another story. Regarding the mineral essence, think bubbly, earthy, effervescent. Since we’ve been back ‘home’ we’ve read that some in the region describe the wines as having a “petroleum essence”, which I think it a rather unpleasant way to describe such good wine. We found the mineral touch to be quite nice on a hot day though.

  9. Loved your pictures! We loved the Santorini wines…..don’t have too many pictures though. Boutari was our favourite.
    However, Milos was our most loved island!
    Greece is one place that I would want to visit again!

    • Sonia, sounds as if you did a bit of Greek island hopping? Our Santorini experience definitely whet our appetite for more. A new friend just mentioned the other day that her skipper friend took her to numerous remote Greek islands, and this tickled at our sense of wanderlust. I don’t recall having tried any Boutari – did you find yourself most drawn to their red or white wines?

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