(Published in The Scotsman 7 September 2013)
By Rose Murray Brown MW
Making wine on an island might sound like an idyllic way of life, but it is certainly never easy.
On one of the wine world’s most fascinating islands, Santorini in the south Aegean sea, water is so scarce they collect the morning dew. The ferocious hot winds are so devastating they have to dig holes to shelter the vines. Now with a thriving tourist industry, land prices have skyrocketed threatening some of the island’s age old pre-phylloxera vines.
Anyone who has been to Santorini (or Thira as it is officially known) will remember it as a distinctively beautiful volcanic island with its famous red, black and white beaches – and its giant central lagoon surrounded by steep caldera cliffs. Arriving by cruise ship, ferry or plane and holidaying by the coast, you might be blissfully unaware that there are no rivers at all on the island – and every drop of rain that falls (rarely in summer) is collected.
It might be a hot parched dry land, but vines on this unique Cyclade island, 200 km south east of Greece’s mainland, have adapted well since C17 BC with the local’s special viticultural training system. Post and wire vine trelling would not last long here. Vines in Santorini’s 1,400 hectares of vineyards are all planted wide apart - and cleverly coiled low to the ground into low spiraling vine baskets with grapes hanging inside to protect them from the hot blasts of sandy wind and make the most of that morning dew moisture.
With well-drained volcanic soils, vines have proved resistant to the devastating phylloxera louse. The volcanic soils also give fabulous minerality to its wines and the ‘aspa’ volcanic ash also adds iodide salty aromas. Yields here are low struggling to reach 2 tonnes per hectare and no machinery can be used, so understandably the wines are not cheap as everything has to be done by hand or using donkeys.
However, with such a hot dry climate, lack of summer rain and brisk wind to blow away pests and diseases, Santorini is proving an ideal place for organic production – not just grapes - but other vegetables that the island is so famous for, particularly tomatoes, eggplants and cucumbers.
The island was an active volcanic region 3 to 4 million years ago, but most recently the deadly 1956 earthquake destroyed vineyards and many small wine producers left for the mainland. Since then, much of its plantings have been centred in the more sheltered south of the island, with plantings up to 330 metres, with wine production dominated by the Santo Wine co-operative.
Recently Santorini has been hitting the headlines for its dry whites made from ancient rare indigenous white grapes: Assyrtiko, Athiri and Aidani. A little red Mantilaria and Mavrotragano are also grown here. However, in the old days, it was the sweet wines that attracted sailors to stop at Cyclades’ most southerly island.
In the Middle Ages, crusaders and merchants used to stop off at the island on their way to Constantinople or Venetian markets. C13 Italian merchants are believed to have christened the island Santo-Erini, which is how it became Santorini. The wine which attracted them here was a rich sweet wine – Vin Santo, the sweet wine took the first part of this island’s name. Producers making this sweet vin santo (holy wine) today, still use traditional methods of sun-drying grapes for 15 days with a minimum of two years oak maturation, although the best have six or seven years oak maturation.
Out of the island’s dozen producers operating today, the most exciting are boutique wineries, Sigalas, Argyros and Hatzidakis – both of whom now sell to UK supermarkets. Argyros is the one of the oldest, founded in 1903, who own just 35 hectares here – but their Atlantis wine range is now available in Marks & Spencer. Sigalas, founded in 1991, on the Oia plain make interesting reds. However my current favourite producer is Hatzidakis (see their vineyard pictured), more recently founded in 1997, who make by far the best dry whites and dessert wine on the island.
Haridimos and Konstantina Hatzidakis’ family always owned vineyards on the island, mainly at Pyrgos Kallistri, on the road to the monastery of prophet Ilias. After the 1956 earthquake, their parents left for the mainland and vineyards were neglected. The Hatzidakis are now focusing on reviving age-old techniques and introducing organic viticulture.
If you are planning a trip to this island, visitors can now enjoy the new Santorini wine route which weaves its way through the vineyards of this dormant volcano around the island’s twelve producers.
SANTORINI TASTE TEST
ATLANTIS 2011 Argyros
£10.49 Marks & Spencer
Shrill acidity and citric fruit notes make this an unusual aperitif: made from all three white grapes Assyrtiko (95%) with the remainder from Aidani and Athiri.
ASSYRTIKO 2012 Hatzidakis
£9.95-£13.75 The Wine Society; Waitrose; Oddbins
Clear winner in our taste test for its strong citric scents, very dry salty notes and vivid minerally undertones. An all-round palate pleaser for those who like crisp, but full, dry whites.
AIDANI ORGANIC 2012 Hatzidakis
£16 Les Caves de Pyrene & L’Art du Vin, Dunfermline www.lescaves.co.uk; www.aduv.co.uk
Made solely from this rare grape with very natural winemaking techniques – dense, pithy, mouthwatering minerality with a salty undertone: delicious served with salty cheeses
CUVEE No 15 ASSYRTIKO ORGANIC 2011 Hatzidakis
£21.95 www.lescaves.co.uk; www.formulawine.co.uk
Full intense wonderful depth of fruit – for the seasoned Santorini drinker it makes a perfect foil with grilled seafood.
MAVROTRAGANO 2010 Sigalas
£26.95 Berry Bros & Rudd www.bbr.com
Expensive, but intriguing Santorini red with cherry fruit ripeness with prominent tannic finish – might well appeal to Barolo lovers
VIN SANTO 2003 Hatzidakis
£22 hf bt Berry Bros & Rudd www.bbr.com
An astonishing wine with caramel, honey, raisined notes – fabulous with goat’s cheese. Made from 80% Assyrtiko and 20% Aidani grape blend. Santorini’s nectar. Alcohol: 13%