Island Wines: Santorini—The Caldera
Matt Stamp MS
We sommeliers want authentic things and we are atavists. We celebrate the old man on the mountain, not the shiny consultant on the valley floor. Traditionalism is the only virtue. But wait…if you want to see total authenticity, you have to go remote—to those secluded places where the WiFi is spotty and traditions can continue, mostly unimpeded, in real isolation. On far-flung islands dotting the Aegean, the Mediterranean, and the Atlantic, small cradles of the vine offer some of the most untouched examples of historical viticulture anywhere in the world. Like Darwin’s finches these vines and the wines they produce are pure reflections of their environments. So, onward to our destination: the caldera of Santorini.
Amidst the Cyclades Islands 250 miles north of Crete, Santorini’s dramatic black seaside cliffs rise like castle walls to nearly 1,300 feet above the blue Aegean. The island’s crescent shape surrounds the submerged, collapsed caldera of the Thera Volcano, which last erupted sometime around 1630 BC. That eruption, one of the most powerful on record, sent shockwaves through the ancient world. Over 13 cubic miles of magma shot upward with cataclysmic force.
Scientists speculate that the volcanic eruption created a tsunami that engulfed the Minoan civilization on Crete, and even reached the shores of Egypt, giving birth to myths ranging from lost Atlantis to the biblical plagues. That eruption covered the island in tephra (volcanic ash), burying the Minoan colony of Akrotiri and its two- and three-story buildings like flies trapped in amber. Fine white ash and black and red basalt rocks litter the island’s vineyards today. From Oia’s bleach-white houses carved into the upper reaches of the caldera rim, where modern hotels now inhabit the labyrinthine cliff-side settlements, one surveys two small, uninhabited “burn islands” at the center of the sunken caldera—flat black masses that emerged as recently as 500 years ago, reminders of the slumbering volcano beneath.
Santorini is a desert amidst the sea. There is little rainfall during the growing season, and there are no rivers. The crumbly, porous volcanic soil is rich in mineral nutrients but impoverished in organic matter, and a near-total lack of clay mounts a bulwark against phylloxera. For centuries, if not millennia, growers have coiled their vines in the traditional koulara basket shape. The vines huddle close to the earth, protected from the island’s fierce winds, shading their grape clusters from the brutal summer sunshine.
These un-grafted vines of Santorini—or at least their root systems—may be the oldest in the world. Winemaker Yiannis Paraskevopoulos of Gaia explains, “After 80 to 100 years of growth, the already low yield drops dramatically. It is then when the growers will totally ‘decapitate’ the old vine at the level of the soil. The root system…will quickly generate a new plant from a dormant bud.” As this may occur five times during a vine’s life span, roots reach deeply into the soil. And when a new vine needs to be planted, growers bury a cane from an existing plant into the ground. Once it forms roots, it is severed from the mother plant. This does not result in tidy rows. On the contrary, mature koulara vineyards have a haphazard, wild, undomesticated look.
Winemakers speak of three-dozen indigenous varieties on the island, from noble Assyrtiko to the rare, tannic red grape Mavrotragano. Assyrtiko performs spottily on the Greek mainland, making softer, less chiseled wines, but on Santorini, it fashions powerful and phenolic white wines with pronounced alcohol and acid. The island achieves this through some combination of intense sun, distinctive soil, meager moisture and briny sea air.
When unencumbered by the more approachable, tropical-flavored Athiri, Santorini PDO Assyrtiko can be ageworthy, with water-stressed fruit gaining Riesling-like petrol notes after 3-4 years in bottle. Assyrtiko is prone to oxidation, and some producers historically crushed (by foot) at night. This nychteri (“night work”) style is now codified as a dry white of at least 13.5% alcohol, barrel-aged for at least three months. High levels of alcohol characterize most historic Santorini styles, including nychteri and the skin-fermented, astringent white and red Brusco wines. Only when tourists arrived en masse in the 1980s did a clamor for lighter styles shift alcohol levels downward. The older styles mimic the severity of the environment.
Only 11 wineries exist, and the growers—a dwindling breed—manage vines designed less to maximize fruit quality than to keep viticulture from dying out altogether in Santorini’s inhospitable environment. The island’s best wines, from top-quality dry Assyrtiko to sweet, decades-old vinsanto, are powerful, gripping, and fierce. They are never undemanding. They reflect their place of origin, but not in a way that suggests black sand beaches and bikini-clad tourists; rather, they provide a vinous glimpse into Santorini’s past—and the will required to live in such a beautiful, terrible place on the caldera’s edge.
PUBLISHER’S NOTE: For additional information on Santorini, see Matt Stamp’s in-depth article at guildsomm.com –JT
Reprint from TEXSOM presents SOMMELIER Volume 000, pages 16–19
Hero picture: Traditional Planting in Santorini Vineyards (Courtesy of Domaine Sigalas)