Santorini: The Volcano Island

Young Assyrtiko is relentless. It is a predator, and your palate is the prey. It puts you on your back and you throw your hands up. You have to submit!
-Yoon Ha MS

Put simply, Santorini Assyrtiko may be the best terroir value in the world. The wines generally retail between $15-30 in the US, a price point at which one can easily find good varietal quality, but real sense of place becomes a bit more elusive. Modern Assyrtiko has the potential to age alongside some of the great dry white wines of the world, and can—like good Riesling—develop a petrol note with time in the bottle. The average quality on Santorini may be higher than in any other wine region in the world. Consider the average value of Riesling or Pinot Noir, for instance, priced under $18/bottle wholesale! Buyer beware, right? Here, very few bottles are actually sub-par (although there are intermittent problems with oxidation among a couple of producers), and at least 50% of the producers on the island are highly recommended—a pretty good batting average in the world of wine.  

Lava, Sun, Sea, Wind 

Santorini is really an archipelago, a cluster of volcanic islands—two inhabited and three uninhabited—located on the 36th parallel in the Aegean Sea. It is southernmost of the Cyclades, a large island chain north of Crete and east of the Peloponnese. The crescent-shaped island of Santorini itself—known to the Greeks as Thira—is the archipelago’s largest, its center of population, tourism, and viticulture. Along with two smaller islands, Therasia and Aspronisi, Santorini forms the broken walls of a water-filled caldera: an eerily tranquil reminder of the active volcano underneath. Its last major eruption, in the 17th century BCE, was a cataclysmic event, blackening the sky and projecting a massive tsunami throughout the Aegean. That explosion cleaved Santorini and Therasia apart, and left its mark in the volcanic rock and soil of the island, which overlay lower strata of limestone and granite. Two black islands—Nea Kameni and Palea Kameni, the new and old “burn islands”—were formed through more recent minor eruptions, and sit at the center of the caldera.

The landscape of Santorini, sculpted by ancient lava flows, is dramatic: the black cliff interior walls of the caldera rise upward from the azure sea, capped by small villages. Fira—its name pronounced essentially like “Thira”—is Santorini’s capital and one of its largest settlements. Oia, however, is its most picturesque. Every building is a blinding white, reflecting unrelenting sunshine, accented by island tones of coral, sky and royal blues, and canary yellow.

The island’s climate, while perfect for tourists seeking summer sun, is fairly inhospitable to the vine. It is essentially a hot desert, with a paltry 12-14” (~350 mm) of annual rainfall and growing season daytime temperatures that regularly reach 35° C (95° F) or higher. Average annual temperature is 16.5° C (62° F). The summer sun is scorching and constant, and most rainfall arrives in the wintertime. There are no rivers on the island, nor any real source of underground water. (There are desalination plants on the island, transforming seawater into running water for homes and agriculture. The water, however, is not potable—residents and tourists alike only drink bottled water.) Winds act as the island’s air conditioning. The meltemia, a cooling northern wind that whips over the Aegean in summer, is vital for keeping grapes cool and fungus-free, and has an important effect on vintage character. Greek wine importer Ted Diamantis (Diamond Imports) recalls the 2012 season, when the winds never came: “The heat was intense, and few growers had enough manpower to harvest quickly enough, before sugars spiked.” Without the wind, Assyrtiko easily reached 14 or 14.5% in potential alcohol. Of course, the winds are also adversarial: their ferocity can be especially challenging during budbreak and flowering. The environment’s overall challenges—strong winds, little water, and implacable sunshine and heat—limit agriculture on Santorini to just a few hardy crops. Farmers harvest capers, and grow favas (split peas) and cherry tomatoes, but the vine is its most important cash crop—and has been for over 3,000 years.

Looking southward from Oia.

The Santorini Vineyard

Vineyards are the most obvious agricultural pursuit on the island, even if they have receded in recent decades with rising land values—at € 100,000 a hectare, a vineyard doesn’t really make sense—and the expanding tourist industry. There are roughly 1,300 ha of vines left on Santorini and Therasia, growing at all elevations, from 10 to 450 meters above sea level. The concentration of vines is greatest in Santorini’s southern sector, in an arc between the villages of Pyrgos, Megalochori, and Akrotiri. (About three-quarters of the island’s vines are cultivated around these three villages.) At first glance, these vines hardly resemble vineyards: without trellising or stakes, they are trained in the traditional kouloura (“basket”) shape, wherein the vine is a coiled wreath, kept low to the ground. The technique is ancient, and affords defensive advantages in Santorini’s stark climate. Fruit clusters hang under the canopy, shaded from the relentless summer sun—leaf removal is unheard of—and inside the basket, protected from the howling winds. Crucially, the shape keeps the vine close to the ground, where it can take advantage of what little moisture morning mists provide as recompense for the lack of rainfall. Irrigation is prohibitively expensive—and technically illegal—but young vines may be equipped with drip lines for four or five years. The mature plants fend for themselves, and capture most of the water they need from the humid air and morning mists. Domaine Sigalas trains a few hectares of Mavrotragano and Assyrtiko in a staked, vertical cordon system, but the kouloura system remains widespread. In fact, the EU is even paying growers subsidies to preserve it. In most modern winemaking regions, the style of vine training has evolved to maximize the quality of fruit; here, the traditional system remains intact, designed to ensure basic survivability of the vine and the harvest.

The root systems on Santorini are likely the oldest in the world. Santorini’s light soils—a mixture of white volcanic ash (aspa), pumice, sand, and basalt—are utterly lacking in clay, and completely inhospitable to phylloxera. All vines are ungrafted; furthermore, the root systems are often much older than the canopies themselves. According to Yiannis Paraskevopoulos (Gai’a), after 80-100 years of production yields reach unsustainably low levels, and growers may cut off the entire canopy to revive the plant. The root system will quickly regenerate the vine from a dormant bud—and this may occur four or five times during the vine’s lifespan. Santorini’s oldest living roots could plausibly be 400 or 500 years old! If one believes that root depth is a major source of complexity and/or minerality in wines, then this technique adds immediate luster: seemingly “young” vines may hide deep root systems, accessing various layers of soil and harboring diverse mycorrhizal populations—an under-explored suspect in the search for terroir.

Low vineyard densities likewise give root systems plenty of room to stretch—traditional vineyards have 1,400 to 1,700 vines per hectare. Mature kouloura vineyards often appear haphazard, as replanting has historically been conducted via the kataboladi technique—layering—in which a grower buries a cane from a living vine in the ground to generate a new plant. (It will soon sprout its own root system, at which point the cane is severed from the mother plant.) Layering is still the preferred method of replanting single vines, but entire new vineyards are planted with ungrafted cuttings, and aligned in rows. New vines are typically spaced 2.25x2.25 or 2.5x2.5 meters, as closer plantings would result in too little available water for each vine. This low vine density, combined with naturally limiting climate conditions, results in extremely low yields per hectare for the Assyrtiko grape. The PDO calls for a maximum 60 hl/ha, but average yields usually hover closer to 20-25 hl/ha.    

A mature kouloura vineyard.

The Grapes

Assyrtiko, the most compelling white grape on the island, makes up about 75% of the total Santorini vineyard, and must comprise 75% of the dry PDO wines (and at least 51% of vinsanto wines). It is likely indigenous to Santorini, and it is likely one of the world’s oldest vinifera varieties, with ampelographic evidence placing it on the island as far back as the 16th century BCE. As befits such an ancient variety, Assyrtiko shows great genetic variability, and the first handful of 5-7 official clones may be commercially released as early as 2017. Preferred selections of the grape on Santorini are thick-skinned with loose bunches—attributes that, alongside battering summer winds and the dry, desert climate, render Assyrtiko nearly impervious to fungal diseases. Assyrtiko has the potential to develop high levels of potential alcohol, and for most wines producers typically harvest the grape in early to mid-August. In the not-too-distant past, harvests occurred in September and the wines easily achieved 16-17° of potential alcohol; nowadays, many producers aim to harvest Assyrtiko at 13-13.5°, although the grapes hang longer for some traditional styles (vinsanto and nychteri). Despite its rather robust alcohol, Assyrtiko retains incredible acidity: at Gai’a, for instance, Paraskevopoulos prefers 6.5 to 7 g/l of tartaric acid at harvest, with a maximum pH of 2.90 or less. When produced as a pure varietal wine, Assyrtiko pH is rarely much higher than this, as the amount of (acid-buffering) potassium in Santorini’s soils is negligible. Furthermore, malolactic fermentation is not a worry—there is hardly any remaining malic acid in Assyrtiko at harvest, and the low pH precludes its onset.        

The remainder of the varietal blend for Santorini PDO dry wines may include two white varieties: Athiri and Aidani. Traditionally, the three varieties were—and often still are—interplanted, harvested, and vinified together, as field blends. Paris Sigalas (Sigalas Winery) was one of the first on the island to vinify Assyrtiko as a pure varietal wine. He accomplished this by actually paying growers more to harvest Athiri and Aidani separately, leaving only Assyrtiko in the field for another pass.     

Athiri is ancient, and supposedly earned a mention in the 8th-century (BCE) works of Homer. Athiri, which derives from “Thira,” is today planted across the Aegean islands. According to Greek agronomist Konstantinos Bakasietas, wide variation and mutation among isolated selections has led to cases of mistaken identity, as some strains of Athiri are easily confused with other varieties, like Thrapsathiri. The grape, probably at its best in the higher-altitude vineyards of Rhodes PDO, is chiefly used on Santorini as a blending grape, designed to soften the blow of Assyrtiko and enable early-drinking white wines. Its acidity and potential alcohol levels are low in comparison, and it is semi-aromatic, with pleasant, ester-driven stone fruit and lemon aromas. Santo Wines produces a varietal Athiri, but most producers on the island seemed to tolerate, rather than express passion, about the grape. One flatly stated: “Athiri is not interesting on this island. It has beautiful aromas for six months, and then it dies.”

The thin-skinned Aidani inspires greater interest. It is starting to appear as a dry varietal wine under the banner of PGI Cyclades, and it is especially prized for vinsanto production, for its intense aromas and high levels of sugar. According to Haridimos Hatzidakis, who has tended an organic Aidani vineyard for nearly two decades, the grape is a “Muscat relative.” Its terpene-driven, floral, stone fruit aromas and lush palate are almost Viognier-like—yet it can retain moderate-plus to high acidity, bereft of the phenolic over-assertiveness that can plague some aromatic grapes. Check out Hatzidakis’ rich rendition, if you can find it—he only makes 900 bottles—or the Sigalas Aidani, given dimension through an earlier and later harvest, performed two weeks apart.

Santorini is a white wine island, and its winemakers have a defter hand with white grapes than red. However, every producer includes at least one red, dry or sweet, in their portfolio. For dry wines, the indigenous Mavrotragano (“black crunchy”) is poised to become Santorini’s trademark red. Characterized by small berry size, Mavrotragano usually sees véraison occur in early July, with harvest in early August. In fact, several producers harvest it before Assyrtiko. It is a highly tannic variety, with red fruit and fig character, but beyond that styles varied widely. The grape’s first champions—Haridimos Hatzidakis and Paris Sigalas—started producing dry varietal Mavrotragano in the late 1990s. Hatzidakis’ Mavrotragano is nearly elegant, whereas Sigalas produces a darker-colored, denser and more sophisticated version—the island’s most ambitious red, the product of a two- to three-week maceration and an 18-month élevage in 85% new, 500-liter oak barrels. Most other producers on the island have by now added a dry Mavrotragano to their range as well.

Assyrtiko, Aidani and Athiri are the most important white grapes on Santorini, and Mavrotragano is the most promising red, but winemakers on Santorini speak of over three-dozen grape varieties on the island, many of which may be indigenous. Sweet red blends frequently rely on a sizable percentage of Voudomato, despite its fairly low acid. (The name “Voudomato” means “bull’s eye,” a reference to its large berry size.) Hatzidakis makes a standout dried-grape version, clocking in at 300 g/l of residual sugar. Another winery, Canava Roussos, produces sweet reds with Mavrathiro, the “black” Athiri—assumed, in the absence of DNA evidence, to be a color mutation of the white grape, rather than a separate variety—and Mandilaria. Mandilaria, a tart and tannic red variety grown across Crete and the Aegean Islands, shows up in both dry and sweet applications on Santorini. Domaine Sigalas produces a pure, dry, refreshing Mandilaria rosé—the island’s best pink wine—at nearly 2% less alcohol than most of the estate’s whites! Other white grapes include Katsanó—a rare variety only produced commercially by one winery, Gavalas—and its even rarer blending partner, Gaidouria. Katsanó seems pretty neutral, without the searing acid of Assyrtiko or the aromatics of Athiri or Aidani. The vine itself was cultivated in the past for raisins rather than wine, and it is likely to remain a curious relic, rather than a star. Gavalas blends 15% Gaidouria—likely a parent or offspring of Assyrtiko, according to DNA analysis—into the winery’s varietal Katsanó to bolster its acidity. Platani, another close relative of Assyrtiko, remains on the island, but only in experimental vineyards. Rarer still is Asprouda of Santorini, a recently discovered, thick-skinned white variety on the island. Konstantinos Bakasietas claims only two vines on the entire island have been found!  

Unique Wines of the Island: Vinsanto and Nychteri

Yes, vinsanto is Greek. Not Italian. Despite what the Italians may do/make/say/think about it. In the medieval period, the island(s) fell under Venetian control, and was renamed “Santorini” (Saint Irene) by Western Europeans. Vinsanto was not the “holy wine”—although it was often used for sacramental purposes—it was the “wine of Santorini.”

Of course, that’s what the Greeks have to say about it.

As a PDO wine today, vinsanto is produced from at least 51% Assyrtiko. Aidani and Athiri are permitted, as are small amounts of other white grapes, but in practice, only the main three grapes are used. After harvest, the grapes are dried in the sun for up to two weeks, during which period they must attain a minimum 370 g/l must weight from concentration. Historically, the grapes were crushed underfoot, and macerated for a short time prior to a rough filtration—often through a wicker basket! The ambrosial, super-sweet must ferments slowly, until the overindulgent yeasts finally die off, choked by sugar. The wines must be aged for a minimum two years in casks or barrels—but such a short period of élevage produces simple wines. The best examples of vinsanto on the island—from Argyros, Roussos, Gai'a, and Gavalas—spend many more summers in cask. They are incredibly sweet, often finishing in the 250-300 g/l range of residual sugar, and surprisingly tannic. Assyrtiko keeps acidity honest in these dessert wines. Most vinsanto is vintage-dated, although minimum age declarations can also be used on the label for blends of multiple vintages, provided the age statement is a multiple of four: four years old, eight years old, etc. Legally, vinsanto may be a vin doux naturel (fortified wine) rather than a vin liastos (dried-grape wine), but no one on the island currently practices fortification. Red dried-grape wines, a historic style, are still made by several producers, but they carry the PGI Cyclades appellation instead of PDO Santorini.        

Modern nychteri, according to the Santorini PDO, is simply a wine of at least 13.5% abv, aged in barrel for at least three months. Traditionally, the meaning of nychteri runs much deeper, but it’s nearly impossible to get any winery or winemaker on Santorini to agree on what the classic nychteri style actually is, or why it developed. The word derives from the Greek nychta, or “night,” leading many sources to erroneously report that these wines were traditionally harvested at night. Instead, the grapes were typically harvested in the early morning, but crushed and pressed at night. According to Boutari’s Santorini enologist Ioanna Vamakouri, pressing after dark was pragmatic: the nychteri harvest occurred toward the end of the harvest season, when ripening reached a breakneck pace, and workers had to toil into the night in order to keep up. Hatzidakis and Roussos countered that nychteri fruit was pressed at night in order to limit oxidation of the juice. Whatever the rationale, nychteri has always been a product of late-harvested grapes; in fact, the grapes were generally brought in amidst the vinsanto haul, and—according to Diamantis—often reached 19° of potential alcohol! The wines were for personal consumption, left to age in large barrels, and without topping they regularly developed flor. No one is making flor-affected nychteri today, but the Hatzidakis and Canava Roussos styles align most closely with its traditional form.         

Click here for the full rundown of PDO Santorini regulations. 

The Producers

There are currently 11 producers of wine on Santorini. On our visit, we saw ten of them—the eleventh, a second winery named Karamolegos, provided a sample bottle but the (young) wine was oxidized. And there will soon be a twelfth: Nemea’s Tselepos is building a new winery on the island.

Santo Wines: The Union of Santorini Cooperatives, Santo Wines, accounts for 65% of the island’s production, and sources fruit from 1,200 growers. Established in 1947 in Fira, Santo Wines has supported viticultural activity—and other agricultural pursuits, as they also buy and sell tomatoes and favas—despite challenging economic conditions for growers. The cooperative (“union of cooperatives” is a bit of a misnomer; there is only one) actually pays growers more for the rarer Athiri and Aidani than Assyrtiko itself, and vinifies all three as varietal wines. Surprisingly, both the Athiri and Aidani tasted listed lower pH values than the PDO Assyrtiko—but the enologist did admit to acidifying. A highlight was a PGI Cyclades red wine, “Crescendo,” a blend of Mavrotragano, Voudomato, and Mandilaria. The wine’s cool carbonic fruit, intense tannins, and juiciness—particularly when served with a slight chill—made an attractive package for drinking now. The more serious end of the dry wine portfolio, including nychteri and “Grande Reserve” Assyrtiko, is less convincing; the wines are encumbered with oak and the fruits turn sweet. A traditional method sparkling NV Assyrtiko was added in 2013, and the producer feels confident that the Santorini PDO regulations will be updated in a few years’ time to include sparkling wines. Overall, the wines are serviceable and sound, but lack the excitement and distinction found among some of the top-flight producers. Imported by Diamond Imports.

The view from Santos Wines. Nea Kameni is the small island in the left-center; behind it is Therasia.

Hatzidakis: A former Boutari enologist, Haridimos Hatzidakis, purchased a small Aidani vineyard near Pyrgos in 1996 and founded his own winery the following year. Today he owns 10 ha, which provide one-third of his total 100,000-bottle production. He farms his own plots organically, applying only sulfur or copper sprays to combat the occasional appearance of mildew. Hatzidakis is an intense figure, and he may be the most talented winemaker on the island—and certainly the most unpredictable. His white wines are full-bodied, powerful, and savory; they pick up added aromatic dimensions from ambient yeast fermentation. The entire range is recommended, from his varietal Aidani wine to a surprisingly soft and elegant Mavrotragano, but his best efforts show in the single vineyard Assyrtiko de Mylos and nychteri wines. Mylos (“windmill”), from one hectare of 100-year-old vines owned by orthodox monks, is a domineering wine that almost exaggerates Assyrtiko’s bite, clocking in at 15% abv with a pH under 3! With his late-harvest nychteri, Hatzidakis aims to “make wines as they were made in the past.” Typically, the results are golden, phenolic, and oxidative in style, with slight but perceptible residual sugar levels and finished alcohol in the 14-15% range. His nychteri wines, aged for one year in untoasted oak vessels of various sizes, might call for braised lamb and artichokes at the table, or monkfish and mackerel. 

Perhaps befitting his personality, Hatzidakis’ current winery is one of most spectacularly unkempt, disheveled, mold-crusted facilities one will every set foot in. He’s working on a new cave. Imported by Fredrick Wildman.

A vinsanto cask (maybe?) maturing in Hatzidakis' cave.

Domaine Sigalas: With his first vintage in 1992, Paris Sigalas has—almost single-handedly—put Santorini in the minds of American sommeliers. Most of the dry white wine range is recommended: from the Assyrtiko-Athiri blend (list this while waiting for the Assyrtiko to uncoil for a year or two) to “Kavalieros,” a leesy, concentrated Assyrtiko sourced from a high-elevation vineyard near Fira. It, like Hatzidakis’ Assyrtiko de Mylos and Argyros’ estate bottling, makes a statement: the most exceptional white wines on the island do not require oak to gain complexity, or to justify price. (At $35 suggested retail, it is one of the most expensive dry whites in the region.) That being said, the current barrel-fermented wines are solid, and new oak levels have been diminishing in recent years. 

The vinsanto bottlings here are liquid sugar, likely to appeal to fans of cult-status sweet winemakers like Gerhard Kracher, but almost too intense. The “Apiolitis” (a sweet Mandilaria) and the PDO vinsanto both registered at or above 300 g/l of residual sugar.       

Domaine Sigalas is the only winery located on the northern side of the island, near Oia. Imported by Diamond Importers.

Gai’a: Gai’a (YAY-uh), founded by Yiannis Paraskevopoulos and Leon Karatsalos in 1994, has two wineries: one on Santorini and one in the village of Koutsi in Nemea. Paraskevopoulos, a Bordeaux-trained enologist and former winemaker for Argyros, is something of a gatekeeper to Santorini: his English is excellent, with a wellspring of information to match. He readily admits that Santorini has undergone a metamorphosis in quality in the last two decades: “The wines were bad. But we haven’t changed anything in the vineyard; only in the winery.” Whatever Paraskevopoulos has changed has been for the better: the winemaking here is sophisticated, and his entire range is recommended. The “Thalassitis,” in both oak-fermented and unoaked versions, shows off Assyrtiko’s phenolic concentration and fresh yet neutral aromatics. The 2013 was bottled under synthetic cork—a closure Paraskevopoulos believes “preserves freshness without adding any taste or the reduction of screwcaps.” The most exciting wine here is the “Wild Ferment” Assyrtiko, aged in a combination of American and French oak, and acacia barrels.  

Thalassitis means “one that comes from under the sea”; in 2009, Paraskevopoulos began experimenting with his own undersea élevage for a small lot of Assyrtiko. The first results will arrive on dry land this year. Imported by Athenee.

Best tasting room in the world? With Yiannis Paraskevopoulos at Gai'a.

Canava Roussos: The oldest producer on Santorini (est. 1836), Roussos recalls Lopez di Heredia and other staunchly traditional, seemingly time-forgotten wineries. Unlike Lopez, no one knows who Roussos is, and the wines are pretty cheap! The Roussos wines taste as though crafted by an old man—rugged, stubborn, and completely unbending to (or unaware of) fashion; yet content in their own skin, benefactors of the wisdom, or lassitude, of age. They may produce a basic yet very good PDO dry white—if they have excess grapes—but the focus here is on styles harkening to bygone times: nychteri, vinsanto, sweet reds, and “Caldera,” a remarkable, red Mandilaria-Assyrtiko (80%/20%) blend. The current release of “Caldera” is 2004; barrel-aged for three years and kept in bottle at the winery until 2013, the wine shows herbal and bay aromatics, and scents redolent of the tomatoes sun-drying in their backyard. It is a bit like old-school Tempranillo, driven by red fruit, tannins and oxidation. The nychteri will likely divide the room: barrel-fermented and aged for 2.5 years in 10-year-old French barriques, the wine displays significant acetate and aldehyde notes on the nose, but manages to maintain freshness in an almost Sherry-like fashion. At 14.8% abv, it might as well be…

“Canava,” incidentally, indicates a wine cellar in the local dialect. Cellars here, as elsewhere, were historically constructed in caves. Imported by Vingreco Wines (but actively looking for a better importer… hint, hint).

Argyros: Just down the street from Canava Roussos in Episkopi Gonia (about 6 km southeast of Fira), Argyros is among the island’s top producers and one of its largest vineyard estates. The winery owns about 40 ha of vineyards on the north side of the Profitis Ilias, Santorini’s tallest mountain, and contracts fruit from other growers in Pyrgos and Megalochori. This is an exceptional range of wines, from “Atlantis”—a refreshing, saline-scented PGI Cyclades Assyrtiko blend—to the PDO Santorini Estate Argyros, an incredibly concentrated, nearly tannic, pure expression of Assyrtiko. At only 13.5%, the 2013 gains weight and texture through a small percentage of wood fermentation in used 500-liter Demptos barrels. This was one of the best current Assyrtiko bottlings available on the island, although the word “estate” is misleading: it is the product of 150-year-old vines, but not all of them are actually owned by the winery. Argyros’ Mavrotragano and Aidani varietal wines are also worth checking out, but the winery’s treasure is its reserve stock of mature vinsanto. They have fifty-year-old wines still in barrel, awaiting release when the market is ready. The 1999 and 1991, sampled at the estate, provided promising glimpses of development. The ’91 was tannic and rich, with flavors of cumin, chocolate, and black walnut. VA, as should be expected, was evident, but added rather than distracted. 230+ g/l of RS.

Argyros was an early adopter of the DIAM closure. Imported by Athenee.

New Assyrtiko plantings at Argyros. (Notice the drip irrigation lines.)

Gavalas: Along with Roussos, Gavalas (remember to pronounce the “g” like an “h”) is one of the oldest wineries on the island. The winery is located in Megalochori, and preserves the artifacts of traditional winemaking, including a room designed for foot-crushing grapes, even if most of the winemaking today is essentially modern. The basic tank-fermented Santorini PDO wines are composed of 100% Assyrtiko, but they lack a little nerve and definition. (Plus, the blue-colored glass bottle has to go.) A better bet is the “Natural Ferment” Santorini, with its greater concentration, heightened acidity, and saline, firecracker aromas. Give it some time in the decanter. The nychteri here is a 50% new oak joint. Oddities include the Katsanó and a saignée rosé Voudomato. The best finds here are the older stocks of traditional vinsanto. Even today, grapes for vinsanto are foot-crushed and macerated for a day, then fermented and aged in old 1000-liter barrels from Russia. Current vintage is the 2006; the 1967—a current offering—was amazing, reminiscent of old Pedro Ximénez Sherry.     

When Boutari got their start on Santorini, they purchased their first releases of vinsanto from Gavalas. Imported by Dionysos Imports.

Boutari: When Boutari arrived on Santorini in 1989, harvests were occurring in September. Assyrtiko wines were typically over 15% in alcohol, and often a bit sweet. Boutari revolutionized Santorini winemaking by pushing the harvest forward into early August—much to the chagrin of growers, paid by the kilogram—and reducing alcohol levels to 12-12.5%. Boutari gets—and deserves—a lot of credit for investing in Santorini and bringing the wines into the modern age, but the company is no longer on the cutting edge here. However, the 2013 Santorini was a good bet, despite acidity on the low side. It rang phenolic and dusty, with aromas of pumice stone. The winery presented only a small handful of white wines, including a back vintage of the flagship, oak-aged PDO Santorini reserve wine, “Kallisti.” It was 2006, but the wine was a deep gold and hopelessly, beyond-repair oxidized. Why would they still choose to serve it? When asked how the basic Assyrtiko from the same vintage, sans oak, would be holding up now, the enologist responded: “less golden in color, much fresher.”    

Artemis Karamolegos: With a newly renovated winery and a brand new taverna, Artemis Karamolegos’ winemaking operation has a new public face. He’s been producing wines since 2003, and there are some hits here—but a lot of misses, too. The nychteri is interesting; its dominant oak notes give the wine a pine-scented, resin-like quality that almost recalls good Retsina. Choose carefully.

Today, Greek Wine Cellars buys Santorini Assyrtiko from Karamolegos, and releases the wines under the “GWC” label. Imported by Verity Imports.  

Koutsoyiannopoulos: Located in Vothonas, this family operation has been making wine since 1870. The estate, which owns 9 ha of vines around the capital, also operates a “wine museum,” which will be of more interest to the casual tourist than the sommelier. The wines are a mixed bag. The PDO Santorini dry white, produced solely from Assyrtiko, can be a delicious wine—if less intense and fruitier than examples from Argyros, Gai’a, and Hatzidakis—but there is a lot of variation from vintage to vintage, and from bottle to bottle. The wine is held in tank, and bottled in several tranches upon order. The “Single Vineyard” Santorini Assyrtiko, produced from 70-year-old vines, provides the most promising, phenolic, mineral style. The vinsanto here seems to be an afterthought, and one of the youngest examples available on the island—Koutsoyiannopoulos was pouring 2010 during our 2014 visit. Imported by Frederick Wildman

Koutsoyiannopoulos WInery and Wine Museum. The fisherman silhouette is a famous image on Santoini: it was found on a fresco in the ruins of prehistoric Akrotiri, a town buried in the 17th-century BCE volcanic eruption.

All photos courtesy of Edouard Simon.

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