If “necessity” is the mother of invention then “practicality” must surely be its father. Out of necessity comes the need, out of practicality comes the solution. Add to this the genius of Albert who taught us that “things should be made as simple as possible…but no simpler” and voila. We have all the ingredients required for one of the most ingenious inventions in the history of viticulture.
What you are about to see may not be new to some of you, but will be new to a lot of you. In my mind it is the very essence of what being a farmer is about and it is the absolute epitome of what being a farmer/grower on an arid, windblown island is all about. Necessity, invention, minimalism… practicality. Nothing fancy, nothing elaborate, nothing wasteful. Sheer, practical, evolutionary design at work on the land.
Ladies and Gentlemen…. meet the humble Santorini Vine !
It doesn’t look like much… does it? Come to think of it neither does the soil. It simply looks like a desert, or some kind of arid mountain side plant. When you think about it… that’s exactly what it is. But this simple image hides so much, as is often the case with so many wonderful creations.
As you can see, the soil this vine is growing on is not what you expect to see in a vineyard. Its a mixture of lava pebbles (you can clearly see them), volcanic ash, pumice and other materials that combine to make for an un-inspiring soil mix. But the vines love this soft, porous soil as it retains the morning mist – the vines only source of moisture and it allows it to develop a deep root system.
To all of you wine growers out there, or to those who – like me – take great pleasure in walking through or near vineyards just to enjoy the gorgeous views they offer, the Santorini vineyard is a completely different experience.
The terrain is not always flat or gently slopping, as in the picturesque French & Italian vineyards. The islanders will build terraces to take advantage of every available piece of land they own.
That’s not to say however that there aren’t vineyard views to enjoy on Santorini…far from it. The vineyards here seem almost “free”. They are far less formal, far less mechanised, far less “interfered with” than their landscaped cousins around the world. There are no poles or wires holding them up, there are no nets over them, there are not even fences around them. Necessity and practicality rule.
This by any standards is a small ditch…but the growers felt they could fit 10 or so vines in there, so they did and they thrived.
This is a long strip of roadside land… probably 7-8m deep. Useless anywhere else in the world. Here it’s perfect for a couple of hundred vines…no poles, no wires, no irrigation necessary. Its magic.
In August…during harvest, the whole family comes out. Everything… and I mean “everything” is done by hand. There is no machine harvesting here… everything is still done the way it has for thousands of years. Same land, same vines… same methods. Just add the love of the growers for what they do… and you have a product that’s unique.
The vines of course are not grown in your typical (vertical way). In the photos above you see them at harvest time, which hides the ingenious work that’s taken to get them to this stage. Let’s take a look at a growing method that is unique in this world we live in.
This is earlier in the year and it allows us to see the “kouloura” (bird’s nest) that the growers have shaped the vine into. This means that the plants profile is low and the winter winds will hardly touch it. All the fruit will grow inside the “kouloura” which protects it from sand storms, birds and all else that can harm it. Then as summer approaches the full foliage of the vine will also protect the fruit from the harsh summer sun. All along however, this ingenious bird’s nest helps trap the morning mist as it goes through the vineyard. The moisture captured is kept under the foliage and transferred to the deep root system through the porous soil. It is the “only” form of irrigation these vines ever receive.
To get the vine to grow in this form is an art, a skill developed over thousands of years and passed on with every generation. It’s simple, highly effective and absolutely ideal for the island conditions. All kinds of technology could have been introduced…. but it hasn’t been. Necessity and practicality, as well as a love for tradition and history, has meant that we are all lucky enough to this day to be able to marvel at this ancient growing method, still working and still producing sublime fruit recognised the world over.
There are a lot of lessons here for all of us dear friends. The yield of these vineyards is low, the temptation from other sectors is very high. The growing method is very difficult and it makes harvest by hand the only option. Yet… I look at the faces on the growers that bring their harvest to the Co-op daily and they are beaming. They simply love what they do, they love what they produce and to them mass production and commoditisation of their beloved grapes is unthinkable. They do this for the love of it.
Maybe that’s why (in my opinion) drinking VinSanto, the world famous naturally sweet dessert wine produced on Santorini…
is as close as you can get to kissing an angel !