Each year, nearly half a million visitors flock to the striking island of 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.
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.
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.
Santorini’s 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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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:
- Appearance – What is the wine’s color? How intense is it? Is it clear or cloudy?
- Smell – Is the wine’s aroma light or powerful, or somewhere in between?
- 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?
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 Xenoloo – Mavrotragono, 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.
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 Argyros – Assyrtiko (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.
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.”
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.
- 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?
- If you’re looking for a cozy studio apartment in which to stay while in Santorini, we enjoyed the Rhapsody Apartments (affiliate link) in Imerovigli. Owner George was helpful and friendly, even going so far as to share with us delicious Santorini zucchini from his own garden. We loved the apartment’s quiet location, yet walkable distance to Fira, the island’s public transportation hub.
- Need more inspiration? This link contains an index of all my posts from Greece.
Disclosure & Thanks:
Santorini Wine Tour hosted us for this wine-tasting excursion.
We’d like to an extend an extra special thank you, or ευχαριστώ πολύ, to our guide Vaios, for sharing his vast knowledge and enthusiasm for Santorini wine. We also appreciated that driver Stefan ensured that we got to each tasting spot safely and comfortably.
Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved. Video footage is courtesy of my husband, Shawn.