Santorini wine – history, legacy, tradition… uniqueness

“Michael..8pm tonight… bring the family”.

With these words and a big smile, Markos invited us to “Vedema” night. The Santorini growers co-operative (Santo Wines) celebration of the start of harvest.

It was a windy day all over the island and  by evening the winds got even stronger. The magnificent site where Santo Wines has its headquarters sits high (read: very high) above the volcano and although the views below are breathtaking, on that night the wind was making life for the organisers & guests very difficult. But the guests were arriving in numbers and other than hair being blown all over, nobody seemed to care much about the wind. This was their special night and they were going to enjoy it no matter what.

The thing that struck me as I watched the growers slowly fill the allocated seats with their families, was that the average age was probably way over 60. These were people that had lived on this island when life was not as easy as it is now. They lived through wars, earthquakes and the ever present problem of remoteness from the mainland. These were faces full of character and hands that spoke volumes about what their owners did for a living. These were proud Santorini grape growers, often 4th, 5th or even 6th generation. There are many vineyards on the island that are much older than 300 years old and for the most part they are still worked the same way today as they were back then. As I watched these people filling the seats that night, it occurred to me that they were the carriers of a legacy dating back almost 3,500 years.

Three and a half thousand years…. 3,500 years…. it really doesn’t matter how you write it folks. It is a looooooooooooooong time.

That my dear friends is how long vines have been grown on Santorini. Since before the last cataclysmic volcanic eruption there is clear evidence of vines being grown on this island and enjoyed by the then residents of Acrotiri… and major disasters aside, vine growing & wine making has continued ever since.   

During those thousands of years Santorini vines and growing techniques, have both evolved to adapt to the unique ecosystem of the island. Volcanic soil… very low in nutrients, very high temperatures, extreme winds and very little moisture are not ideal conditions for growing grapevines. That is unless you have an indigenous variety called “Assyrtico” and you have thousands of accumulated years worth of grower’s knowledge and expertise working on your side. To see a Santorini vineyard (having come from the land of the endless “formal” vineyard – Australia) is quite an experience. This is completely different…. utterly unique and totally ingenious. It is also quite obviously a labour of love for all those involved… let me explain why.

The soil is called “aspa”… it’s a mixture of lava, pumice, ash and rust over a subsoil of lime and slate. It is almost devoid of any nutrients and you would think that nothing would grow in it. Right?  

The winds that lash almost every inch of the island most year and especially during winter, are relentless and severe.

The water… well, there isn’t any. Plain and simple.    

The terrain…. lolololol, well let’s just say that our Australian, French, Italian & US vigneron friends would get a nose bleed if they saw some of the terrain on which vines are grown here.

So… in summary, the soil is a shocker, the weather unforgiving, the water non-existant and the terrain is better suited to goat hurding… if there was only something that would grow so the goats can eat. That would probably be the summary provided by most vignerons upon first glance of Santorini.

But ‘O’ how wrong they would be. The terrain is not an issue to the islanders… it’s all they have ever known. They will prepare and cultivate anywhere they believe there is a chance of growing grapes. Its what they have done for thousands of years.

As for the soil…you see my friends the soil is in fact a treasure. Its porous texture helps to perfectly retain the precious moisture provided my early morning mist. The unusual soil constituents also combine to give the wine its unique complexity of flavour, high alcohol content while retaining high acidity (not a bad trick). But there is a “something else” that the special soil of Santorini has done for it’s vines…
and I would like you to read this very, v e r y carefully:   

(if you are familiar with “Phylloxera” in Europe… please skip the next two paragraphs)

So you thought the vineyards of France and Italy (the old world vines) were the pure-bred vines of Europe? You thought that the legendary estates of Europe have been growing their vines for many hundreds of years. That each famous wine region in France and / or Italy has its own pure-bred stand-alone vine varieties. But you would be wrong.

The Phylloxera plague started around 1862 and within 15 years proceeded to wipe out the entire wine producing industry of Europe. The parasite imported from America caused such devastation that there was almost no vineyard left across France, Italy, Germany, Greece or any other winemaking region of Europe.. The furiously reproducing aphid (25 billion descendants from a single female in 8 months… no male required – how is that for breeding?) spread like wild fire, destroying the root systems of vines across the whole of Europe and even Australia. After years of failed attempts the French finally realised that the answer lay with the problem. The original vines the aphid was brought to Europe on were American… and therefore American vines (as distasteful as the French found them) appeared to be immune to the parasite. The answer? Re-plant every European vineyard with American rootstock, then graft the European varieties onto them. The result? It worked! But… is also means that you have probably never tasted wine from a “single”, self-rooted vine. It means that every European wine you have ever tasted comes from a vine that has American roots and a European graft on it. Not quite the pure-bred you thought perhaps!

But guess what… remember that seemingly useless soil on Santorini? Hmmmm… it turns out to be a bigger treasure than we gave it credit for. You see dear friends, whilst the wholesale destruction of every vineyard in Europe was taking place Santorini vineyards were not effected… at all. To this day they remain the only self rooted vines in Europe and the world, with the exception of Chile (there may be another volcanic island that was similarly saved).

So, we don’t only have  3,500 year-old unique varieties but they have also been grown “directly” into this volcanic soil, producing unique characteristics and flavours. How is that for pure-bred?

But all is not rosy. The quality of fruit is very high, but the yield per vineyard is very low by global standards (we’ll explore that more in the coming days). Land is scarce on an island like Santorini and the vineyard is always under threat from yet another hotel or villa-complex. The old growers are men that have worked on their knees all their lives to carry on a tradition that is ancient and unique in the world. The Co-op helps them by buying all of their crop every year… but is that going to be enough in the future?

I looked at the growers and their families mingling at Vedema. Smiles all around for a good season given difficult times. I looked at Marko working the crowd, justifiably proud of what he has managed to achieve during his short time as president of the co-op. I looked at the little kids and the young men in the crowd. How do we convince these kids to continue this legacy, this inheritance, this history?

As we look closer at Santorini wines in the coming days and weeks through words and images, I will try to bring you into the world of the grower, the master winemaker and my friend Markos…the man that has a 3,500 year-old legacy in his hands. They all face many challenges ahead and I will certainly be doing what I can to help them.

 

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TIP OF THE HAT

Being unwell is never fun and the last 3-4 days have not been fun at all. Haven’t been sick in over two years and this viral rocket hit me between the eyes….it was an absolute shocker. Completely slept through by birthday on Saturday and most of Sunday. But about 3-4am this morning it cleared away, just as quickly as it came. For that I am very thankful… but I am also very thankful to the lovely ladies that bothered to leave some kind words while I was away with the pixies. Your thoughts and comments were very gratefully received… ty xxx

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4 responses to “Santorini wine – history, legacy, tradition… uniqueness

  1. Glad you’re feeling better. Great story about the vines/wines. I’m looking forward to sampling during my spring visit.

  2. Those bugs are awful… the ones that made you sick I mean… as for the American transplants that wiped out European vineyards… I can only say … gee why were they not more careful… both the Americans and Europeans… same sorts of problems exist today in global markets. That must have been so devastating for so many families. Such an interesting story… I had no idea. Where could I buy some of your Santorini wine? Great post and I so look forward to following this story.

  3. So sorry to hear you were unwell but glad you’re doing better. I’ve noticed that when one is not sick often, they are so much more intense when they finally do hit. Will have to come back to read the wine post! Hope you’re getting stronger.
    Kirsten

  4. So sorry to hear that you missed your Birthday – and had I known the date I would not have missed sending you my best wishes. I’m sure you’ll have plenty of Greek wines to celebrate with. I didn’t realize it is so windy there. Is it always windy? Who cares…It’s Santorini! Excellent post – You know what a fan I am.
    Catherine

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