Article By: Harvey Finkel
SANTORINI Now a much desired destination and source of estimable wines, Santorini is defined by volcanic and seismic upheavals. What is today a small archipelago among Greece’s Cyclades Islands in the Aegean Sea are remnants of the rim of an enormous ancient volcano surrounding the submerged former caldera, eight by four kilometers across. Gleaming whitewashed villages cap the 3OO-meter cliffs, resembling snow cover from afar. Variously colored beaches line the eastern shore.
In the beginning, the land covered the Aegean Sea-to-be. It gradually sunk over the aeons, leaving mountain peaks, now islands, above the water’s surface. Volcanoes grew, adding to these, but periodically blowing their tops. Just over 36OO years ago, Santorini’s volcano exploded, the world’s most cataclysmic such event in the last 1O,OOO years. Some of the island was blown away, and all life within a radius of 6O kilometers was extinguished. Monstrous tsunamis spread destruction through the eastern Mediterranean. To this day beliefs persist relating this Minoan Eruption to Plato’s lost continent of Atlantis, to the demise of the semi-mythic Cretan civilization, and to the biblical troubles of Pharaonic Egypt, particularly the parting of the waters and the ten plagues. To this day the volcano continues to grumble.
Populated since Neolithic times by migrants from Asia Minor, then barren for 2OO to 3OO years after the eruption, Santorini was resettled first by Phoenicians, then Dorian Hellenes. It sided with Sparta in the Peloponnesian Wars. Subsequently controlled by the Romans, Venetians, Byzantines, and Ottoman Turks, and frequently harassed by various marauders, after a brief period of independence, Santorini became part of Greece in 183O. In 1866, Ferdinand de Lesseps, excavating in Santorini for material to insulate the Suez Canal, stumbled on the Bronze-Age town of Akrotiri, buried, like Pompeii, by the eruption. It is only now being uncovered and studied. The most recent disaster to befall the island was a massively destructive earthquake in 1956, from which recovery took several years.
According to Herodotus, the island was initially called Strongyle (“the round one”), later Kalliste (“the fairest one”). The Dorians named it Thera for their leader, Theras, and its official name today is Thira. The name Santorini was affixed in the early thirteenth century by Venetian Crusaders, after the Church of Santa Irene. This remains the island’s popular name.
Physical evidence has a prominent viticulture in the isles of Greece for more than 4OOO years. It is worth pondering Thucydides’s conclusion that, “the people of the Mediterranean began to emerge from barbarism when they learned to cultivate the olive and the vine.” The vine is almost the only vegetation to succeed in Santorini, where there are no trees. (Cherry tomato, a split pea called fava, caper, and eggplant also do well.) The soil is, of course largely volcanic, with patches of limestone of marine origin. The climate is hot and dry. Much of the moisture enabling vine growth during summer is extracted from morning sea fog and dew. Relatively cool and humid nights ensure the preservation of vital acidity. Strong winds stress the vines all year, though a midsummer north wind, the melterni, helps by cooling the vines and evaporating the moisture that might otherwise promote the growth of mold. A primitive pruning technique, kouloura, nestles the foliage and fruit in a living basket of spiraled canes [a dried example is pictured above], low to the ground, protected from wind and sun. Phylloxera is not a problem: vines grow on their own roots. They are often of considerable age. Harvest usually takes place between mid-August and early September. Yields are low, but quality is high. Natural yeasts are customarily relied on for fermentation.
Although about 4O different grape cultivars grow on the 15OO hectares of Santorini’s vineyards, five principal varieties command our attention, three white and two red. You will notice the absence of fashionable “international” varieties.
ASSYRTIKO This versatile white grape is the island’s main variety (8O percent). It makes high-quality, fresh white wine – oaked, mellow wines of full body that age gracefully – and is a major component of Santorini’s esteemed Vinsantos. Even at full ripeness in this dry, hot, sunny place, enlivening acidity and complexing minerality are preserved. Such is its quality that assyrtiko – indigenous, probably native, to Santorini – has spread throughout Greece.
ATHIRI An early ripening white grape, native to Crete, is aromatic and productive of ample alcohol. Used mostly to blend with assyrtiko.
AIDANI A white grape grown in small quantity. Chiefly used to contribute aroma to assyrtiko, particularly in Vinsanto.
MANTILARIA (or MANDILARIA) Yieldsing wines of vivid red color and high acidity, it can be used as a main informing variety, in blends, and, sun-dried, for sweet red wine.
MAVROTRAGANO A rare and indigenous low-yield variety. Ripens early. Had been used mostly for blending, but lately rapidly gaining favor as a self-sufficient varietal.
While not a distinct variety, Santorini’s Vinsanto deserves an explanatory note of its own here. It is the product of a tradition going back more than 4OO years. Premium grapes, usually white, are dried in the sun after harvest to concentrate their essences. The resulting wine is made by a labor-intensive, time-intensive, handed-down method. After 2O years of aging, the nectar’s bottle longevity may be limitless, in part owing to the persistence of acidity balancing the residual sugar and other elements.
Santorini has to be considered one of the cradles of western winedom. Its fewer than a dozen wineries now produce three million bottles annually. As we come to appreciate the verve and quality of these wines, and lose our fear of their Greek names, the flow to us will surely increase.
I recently visited Estate Argyros (pronounced ar-yee-ros), in the village of Episkopi Gonia, one of Santorini’s oldest and largest wineries. It was commercially established in 19O3 by Georgios Argyros as a two-hectare vineyard selling its wines locally. Passed to Georgios’s son Matthew in 195O, it was expanded to six hectares. The founder’s grandson, Yiannis, who took over in 1974, expanded the vineyards to 26 hectares, modernized technology, improved the viticulture, and reached beyond the Greek market. Yiannis’s son, another Matthew, has joined him as the estate’s fourth generation. They mostly use their own grapes, occasionally buying from selected growers. The sloping vineyards range from 35 to 15O meters of elevation. The vines are largely 6O- to 8O-years-old, some more than 2OO. The consulting oenologist is the eminent Yiannis Paraskevopoulos. The estate produces 22O,OOO bottles annually of notable wines, exporting 6O percent out of Greece. A quarter of the exports come to the US.
ESTATE ARGYROS TASTING NOTES
ATLANTIS WHITE 2O1O
Atlantis is Argyros’s basic line, coming in white, pink and red. Although inexpensive, they are of easily discerned quality. This one is Assyrtiko 9O percent, Aidani and Athiri 5 each. Fermented and matured in stainless steel. Slightly aromatic. Full body and long finish. Crisp, flavorful, with minerality and ample acidity.
4O,OOO bottles. $15
1OO percent Assyrtiko from selected older, higher-grown vines. Also stainless steeled. Fresh abundant fruit; great acidity.4O,OOO bottles. $21
ESTATE ASSYRTIKO 2O1O
All Assyrtiko from low-yield old vines. Twenty percent fermented and aged in 5OO-liter second-use French oak for six months. Mellow, full, intense; more complex. The oak modulates the acidity. Will age well. 25,OOO bottles. $25
ESTATE ARGYROS BARREL 2O1O
Small quantity of selected assyrtiko fermented and matured in French oak 5OO-liter barrels. Good job subtly integrating the oak. Will age long and prosper. The winemaker expects the terroir to become more and more apparent after five years of age.
Very limited quantity. Not sold in US at this time.
ATLANTIS ROSÉ 2O1O
Assyrtiko 8O percent, mantilaria 2O – fermented together. Good fruit (no candy element) and finish, A grown-up rosé, though carefree. 2O,OOO bottles. $15
ATLANTIS RED 2O1O
Mantilaria 9O percent, mavrotragano 1O. Aged in French oak barrels six months. Fine nose of cherry and plum. Light and fruity. Finishes well. Very pleasant.
4O,OOO bottles. $15
All the eponymous grape. Aged 18 months in 5OO-liter new and once-used French oak. Earthy and flavorful. Cries for food. Long finish. Will age very well. Reminiscent of Mourvèdre.
Meager quantity. $64
VINSANTO MEZZO 2OO3
Called mezzo because the grapes are dried in the sun one week instead of two, and the wine is aged only five years in barrel, then two years in bottle before release. From Assyrtiko 8O percent, Aidani and Athiri 1O each. Residual sugar and alcohol both 14 percent. Concentrated, complex, very long, honeyed, yet balanced. Remarkable wine.
8OOO bottles. $6O/5OOml
The same grape mixture, sun-dried a full two weeks. The wine made is aged 17 years in barrel, then three in bottle before release. Alcohol 14 percent, residual sugar 24, perfectly balanced by acidity. Exceedingly concentrated, intense, complex, mellow, and long. Unique.
695O bottles. $9O/5OOml
VINSANTO ARGYROS CHOCOLATE
This ain’t your father’s Hershey bar. Made by the celebrated chocolatier Josef Zotter in Austria, using 1O percent Argyros Vinsanto, fine cocoa (6O percent), and a touch of rooibos tea.
A truly superior indulgence.
Tasting courtesy of export manager Yiota Loakimoglou