Ironically the dire state of Greek economy has actually helped spur a renaissance in Greek’s most prestigious wine region – the picturesque Cycladic island of Santorini, about 250 km southeast of Athens.
Markos Kafouros, president of Santo Wines, a wine cooperative of about 1,000 active small growers, told the Wine Spectator’s Kim Marcus that “Because of the economic crisis, a lot of young people are cultivating grapes.” (Greek Revival: A modernizing wine industry lights the way in this ancient land by Kim Marcus, Wine Spectator, 15 November 2014)
Further encouraged by the growing demand for Greek wines in the capital of Athens and beyond, Santorini is now producing a high number of consistently well-made wines.
As well as the cooperative, Santorini is home to a dozen small independent wineries. Around 14 per cent (approximately 3,200 acres) of the island is under vine. The focus is definitely on realising the potential of Santorini’s indigenous grape varieties, which in addition to the flagship white variety assyrtico, include aidini and athiri and the red grape variety of mavrotragano. In recent years, some of the larger producers have started exporting up two-thirds of their production.
Santorini winemakers credit winemaker Yiannis Boutaris, originally of Boutari, with the birth of modern winemaking on the island.
According to the Wine Spectator’s Robert Camuto, in the late 1980s Boutaris introduced earlier harvests, pneumatic presses and longer, cooler fermentations. These techniques allowed winemakers to move away from high alcohol, sweet styles to the dry, fresh and minerally-laced assyrtico whites that have captured the attention of the world’s top critics. (Discovering Santorini by Robert Camuto, Wine Spectator, 15 November 2014)
Fourth generation owner Matthew Argyros, 32, for example, recently brought in renowned Bordeaux winemaker and consultant Stéphane Derenoncourt to help him better understand the terroir of Estate Argyros’s more than 100 acres of vineyards. Argyros told Camuto that “Most of our work will be in the vineyards, … The future is [making] fewer but better whites with the possibility of much longer ageing – up to 20 to 25 years. But for that we’ll need perfect grapes.”
Haridimos Hatzidakis and Paris Sigalas, whose eponymous wineries have been around for about 20 years, are employing organic farming methods and experimenting with new clones and modern trellising systems.
Sigalas, for example, found that he’s been able to quadruple density in the vineyards to around 4,000 vines per acre by moving away from the traditional basket method and introducing the island’s first vineyard posts and training wires for Guyot-system pruning. He believes the new system is working well for red varieties as it forces the vine roots to go deeper, leading to higher quality fruit.
Gaia is another 20 year old winery that is experimenting with novel winemaking techniques at its Santorini winery. It has won high praise for the Assyrtico by Gaia Wild Ferment, which uses the vineyard’s ambient yeasts for fermentation in a combination of small stainless steel tanks and oak barrels. The New York Times Eric Asimov praised the 2012 vintage for its earthy, mineral complexity. (As Greek as the Sea by Eric Asimov, The New York Times, 23 May 2013)
The pace of innovation certainly doesn’t appear to be slowing in this vibrant emerging region. But while Santorini’s winemakers have energetically adopted modern techniques they have also embraced their rich winemaking heritage. With an emphasis on indigenous grape varieties and the revitalisation of unique wine styles, like the luscious sweet dessert wine Vinsanto (wine of SANTOrini), Santorini is offering wine lovers exciting and new drinking pleasures.
By Merrill Witt
Photo Credit: Estate Argyros, Hatzidakis Vineyards, CellarTracker