Traveling to a foreign land, especially an island is always an exciting proposition. But your mind usually pictures the tropical islands of the Caribbean or the South Pacific. But an island like Santorini is a whole other ball of wax. Hot, dry and absolutely stunning. A postcard view nearly everywhere you look. It is the perfect storm of history, leisure, food and wine. There is literally something for everyone. Especially when it comes to Food and Wine! And now, even Beer, as there are not one, but two breweries on the Island now! And both making terrific suds, but more on that later. http://www.visitgreece.gr/en/greek_islands/cyclades/santorini
Any land where there are traditions that are still used today, especially ones Centuries old, you know you are in for a treat. Wine has been grown and drank here for those said Centuries. And they are doing very, very good things with their grapes. Which surprises many people in the States, because one does not see very many, if any Greek wines, on restaurant lists. Well trust me, they know what they are doing. In a week I drank many excellent local wines. Actually I don’t think we had one bad one! Now you may be picturing a tranquil field with rolling hills behind, and row after row of vines. Well, you would be in the wrong vineyard my friend. Here there are a smattering of vineyards around the lowlands on the Eastern side of the island and the Northern plain. The vines are not trained in rows, or as some know it, VSP (Vertical Shoot Positioning) You know, those trellises that run row after glorious row in places like Napa, Sonoma, Bordeaux, Mosol and so on and so on. Here because of the heat, relentless summer sun, and also the lack of natural water supplies, it’s an island remember, they bush train their vines. It is done in hot and dry environments, like South Africa and certain areas of Australia. There are two designations here. A PDO, Santorini, and a PGI, Cyclades.
Basically, you don’t so much have vines, as one pictures a vine. You do however have a bush, or small shrub. There are even some wineries that have their vines in a nest configuration. Yes, like a bird’s nest. Except a really, really large and deep one. If you have ever been to Alaska, they are very similar to Bald Eagle’s nests you might find there. Except that they dot the landscape all over the vineyard. For “Nest” trained vines, they let them grow in a circle, ala the nest and train them to basically sit on top of the old wood. Some of the nests have old wood on the bottom that can be up to 80 years old. They just prune back the new growth each year. As the spring hits and the vine comes back to life, they get it to continue in a circle, then as the grape clusters start, they lay them down into the nest. This protects the grapes not only from the sun, wind and heat, but also any pests or animals that like grapes. Speaking of pests, one of the most evil, Phylloxera never reared it’s head underground here. Since it is an island far from the mainland, that pest never made its way here. So there are still some original rootstocks around, with vines that are 60-150 years old in places!
The above vine is from Estate Argyros, where they have been making wine since 1903 and now with a 4th Generation winemaker. They are traditional winemakers and grow original Greek grapes such as the most famous white, Assyritko, as well as Aidani, Athiri and Mavrotragano. They make still wines from these, and also make the naturally sweet wine of Santorini, Vinsanto. I had the pleasure of trying many of their wines, and two differently aged Vinsantos. They were magnificent and showed the terroir of the island. Very volcanic soil, hot and dry. The wines all have lovely acid notes and fresh fruit on the nose and palate. The Vinsanto has natural sweetness from the picked grapes being dried under the hot sun for up to two weeks. There is no cheating and adding sugar juice or any of the tricks of the trade ie Chaptalization. The Vinsanto is then aged in French Oak for up to 20 years. We luckily got to try the 12-year-old, and the 20! The 20 is amazing, with sweetness and some residual sugar, but not overly sweet. It can easily be sipped solo, or paired with a lovely dessert. We brought a bottle back to the States with us, and I’m waiting for a special occasion to pop that baby open! They blend it only after aging, so they can get their blend perfect to their secret recipe. With deep amber color, as one would expect. A terrific balance of sweetness and acidity.
The other wines they had for tasting we enjoyed as well. Their PDO wines of Santorini are hand harvested. They make a few different styles of the local Assyrtiko, some are 100% stainless fermented, some get a touch of French Oak and steel, and some are 100% oak fermented. I prefered the ones with just a touch of oak. You still get the native characteristics of the grape, but the wood brings out more of the earthiness. Just a delightful wine that pairs well with local seafood. Talk about a match made in heaven! We also learned some of the aged whites pair nicely with lamb as well. The red we tried, Mavrotragano is deep dark ruby. Aged in oak, and full-bodied. In the same vein as the more powerful Napa Cabs, but with a bit more finesse. This was another bottle that found its way into my suitcase. I got to taste it, but am more excited to pair it with a big steak and see how this baby holds up. I am sure it will do just fine. We also got to try their Atlantis brand wines as well. Kind of the starter wines for the Estate. Lower priced and more of blends, we saw some of them on wine lists here, and they are well worth the reasonable price tag. Easy drinking, but still with a bit of the terroir complexity the other wines have. http://www.estate-argyros.com/
Next on our island wine tour is Gaia, pronounced Yaa-A. It’s literally right down the road from Argyros, and still a bit in development at this location. They recently moved their island winemaking facilities into an old tomato canning factory. AND….. it’s right on the beach.
A black sand, lava rock beach. One of the most stunning locations for wine tasting I have ever been to. They are relatively new winemakers here, and also own a winery on the Peloponnese peninsula. They are only growing Assyrtiko on Santorini presently, as their other vineyards produce their other wines. But they are working on new facilities on the island for more local production. We tried both of the Assyrtikos, one fermented in oak, and the other steel. Both use wild fermented yeasts which I really appreciate. It takes not only know-how, but also some serious confidence to use wild yeasts. They also don’t manipulate the temperature with this wine, and let it all happen naturally, in both the French Oak and tank. Besides different versions of the Assyrtiko grape, we tried their Rose, made with Agiorgitiko grapes, also a traditional Agiorgitiko aged in new French Oak and with no chilling or filtering. And of course, their Vinsanto. There was even a bonus of a vinegar tasting they make that is barrel-aged. The vinegar actually pairs perfect with the olive oil we brought back from Italy. It is truly unique. http://www.gaia-wines.gr/en
Our next and final stop on the wine tastings was Domaine Sigalas on the Northern Plain of Ia. It was founded in 1991 and they grow the traditional grapes of Assyrtiko, Aidani, Athiri, Mandilaria and Movrotragano. They had the most “California” style tasting room set up around the vineyards. And they like to show them off, as they are experimenting with trellising and VSP. There are still the regular bush trained vines as well, with only a small section reserved to the “new technique”. They also have a small menu of excellent Greek dishes like eggplant, tomatoes, meats and local cheeses. Here the tasting is not for the faint of heart. You can get upwards of 14 wines to taste. They also have PDO Santorini wines and the lesser PGI Cyclades. And again, they also have some very old vines. A lot of theirs are well over 60 years old. You can really taste the nuances of the Assyrtiko grape with their wines. We started off with 6 different bottles that used different techniques to turn the grapes into wine. There is both stainless steel tanks and French Oak used in different quantities as well. The single vineyard stainless steel wines I really liked. A Lot. I believe that a few might have also found their way back into my cellar here in California. The reds they make were also very, very good. Some of my favorite that I drank on the island. Their Mavrotragano is a very complex wine with lots of ripe, red fruits on the nose, and a touch of French Oak to mellow out the harsh tannins. Easy drinking wines that paired well with the meats and cheeses we had. There was one that also had some Mandilaria in the blend. A very, very smooth wine. All in all a very successful tasting, as we got a full view of the variety this island holds. http://sigalas-wine.com/english/index.asp
A very unique terroir, what with the soil, the heat, the lack of water, all makes for some excellent wines. So if you find yourself looking for something different this summer, look for some Greek wine, namely something from Santorini. They are perfect for a hot summer day and a BBQ. The whites are crisp and easy drinking, and the reds hold their own when paired with some grilled meat. And if you find yourself at one of my grill sessions this summer, you might even luck out into trying one I brought back!!
Oh ya! There is also BEER!!! There are two breweries on the island. Santorini Brewing Company, which has a tasting room at their brewery on the South-Eastern edge of the island, South of the airport. It is a small facility, that they were renovating when we visited. But, we still did a tasting. Terrific beers, such as Yellow Donkey, a lighter easy to drink that is slightly bitter with citrus notes, perfect for a hot day. Then there is Red Donkey, a bit of a more hoppy beer, but still tasty and easy to drink. As well as Crazy Donkey, an IPA, the first and only IPA produced on Santorini. It’s a fun little side trip while visiting Gaia and Estate Argyros, as it’s on the main road between the two! http://www.santorinibrewingcompany.gr/company_en.html
The second Brewery is Volkan. It doesn’t have a tasting room as of this time, (May 2014) but I fell in love with their Blond. It is one of the most easy drinking beers, yet still packed with flavor I’ve ever had. I drank many of these. They also make a dark black wheat lager, but I did not see it while there. It is a true “Local” as they source their ingredients from the islands, if not all from Santorini. http://volkanbeer.com/home/volkan/
You can also follow the whole photo journey thru my PhotoBucket