wine-searcher.com / Santorini Wine
Santorini is a Greek island in the southern Aegean Sea, 70 miles (113km) north of Crete. Geologically, the island is all that remains of an ancient volcanic cone, whose eruption created the cliffs and lagoon around which the Santorini tourist trade thrives. Although it also produces red wines from Mandilaria and Mavrotragano, the island is best known for its crisp, dry whites and sweet vinsanto, both of which are based on the island’s flagship grape variety, Assyrtico.
Refreshing, crisp and aromatic, Santorini’s dry whites are arguably the island’s most promising modern-day wine style. These mineral- and, citrus-scented wines are made predominantly from Assyrtico, with a little Athiri and Aidani. Oak-aged examples are a little more complex, bringing a hint of nuttiness and spice from their time in barrel.
The most complex of Santorini’s dry white styles is the Nykteri, made from overripe grapes given skin contact during the early stages of fermentation, and then barrel aged for between three and 10 months. They are named for the Greek term for ‘working all night’, as grapes were traditionally harvested at night to avoid the complications that arose from the day’s heat. Nykteri wines are noticeably richer than standard Santorini white wines, and offer a certain whiff of exotic fruit and honeysuckle.
Red wines take a back seat on Santorini, even though dark-skinned varieties account for around 20 percent of the island’s total vineyard area. The key grape is Mandilaria, but the local Mavrotragano wines attract a disproportionate amount of attention and praise. Santorini’s red wines are typically deep crimson in color, with soft tannins and fruit-forward flavors. There is often something a little smoky, over-ripe and «Amarone» about them.
Sweet Vinsanto is perhaps Santorini’s most significant contribution to the wine world. This rich dessert wine combines acidity and intense sweetness with aromas of dried citrus peel, figs, apricots and sticky toffee pudding. The name Vinsanto can be traced back to the 16th Century, when wine was exported from the island in barrels branded as wine (vin) from Santorini (Santo). Although often mis-translated as «Holy Wine», it is quite distinct from Italian «Vin Santo«. In 2002, the European Union granted Santorini exclusive rights to the name «Vinsanto», although Italy may still use «vin santo».
Santorini Vinsanto wines are still produced in the traditional method. In line with the appellation laws, the wines are at least 50 percent Assyrtico, with smaller percentages of Athiri and Aidani. After harvest, grapes are left to air-dry in the sun for one to two weeks, before undergoing a long and slow fermentation. They are then barrel-aged for several years, and the wine will typically take on darker, amber colors. Another variation, Mezzo, is less sweet than Vinsanto and has not achieved appellation status.
Santorini is effectively a volcanic desert, with limited rain throughout the year (almost none during the growing season) and strong, warm, westerly winds. Over the centuries, Santorini’s vignerons have learned to space their vines widely, and train them into a spiral, crown-like form to protect them from the hot, dry winds. These «basket» vines can be seen in vineyards all over the island.
The island’s warm, dry climate means that vine yields are universally low. The island’s vineyards give small harvests of high-quality grapes with naturally high levels of sugars and acidity. Another significant advantage of the dry, sandy soils is that they are almost entirely free of phylloxera, which cannot live in fine-grained, loose-structured soils.
Vineyards and wine form an important, traditional part of culture on the island (whose official name is actually Thira), but is increasingly threatened by the island’s ever-expanding tourism industry. The profitability of Santorini hotels, restaurants and night clubs has forced land prices up significantly in recent decades, making winegrowing a less-attractive commercial prospect.