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SommSelect Travels: Santorini, Greece SommSelect’s Daily Discoveries Manager returns from Greece with a new perspective on its wines—especially the salt-kissed whites of Santorini we all love so much.

April 18, 2022
Santorini, Greece - 1969-12-31 - Mark Osburn

In the final days of February, I found myself in a routine conversation with one of America’s most trusted and knowledgeable Greek importers, Dionysi Grevinitis. As the call was wrapping up, he dropped a casual “by the way” line: an invitation to the islands of Santorini and Crete, in 10 days’ time. I blurted out an emphatic “yes” without considering what was on my schedule. Meetings can be postponed. Writing can be done on planes. I was going.

Given everything I absorbed during that frenetic seven-day, six-flight trip, it took several weeks to unpack and reflect on it all. The conclusion? This is one of the most fascinating, historic, and singular wine nations on earth. The Ancient Greeks were the cradle of western civilization, serving as (1) the central point of east-west trade for thousands of years; (2) the pioneers of democracy; and (3) sophisticated leaders in literature, arts, and sciences. All the while, they withstood natural disasters of mythological proportions, a never-ending stream of invasions, and jarring political/societal schisms. It’s a lot to take in, and the last thing you’d think about once your prop plane touches down on the tiny, gleaming crescent island of Santorini.

Santorini

It wasn’t always like this. Around 1600BC, the highly advanced Minoan village of Akrotiri was buried in an instant from a mass ejection of rock and pumice in one of the largest volcanic eruptions in history. Tsunamis with swells reaching hundreds of feet churned through the Mediterranean. Ash coated the stratosphere and blocked the sun for two weeks. The average global temperature plummeted, resulting in a winter that lasted two years. By the end of it, nearly 200 feet of ash covered the island—how’s that for terroir?

Today, every bush vine on the island is rooted in this thick volcanic soil. But it’s the training method of these vines, known as ​​kouloura, that’s equally baffling: These low-lying vines are manually twisted into a wreath/basket shape that shields the precious clusters from the Mediterranean’s whipping, sand-strewing winds and intense sun. Says Konstantinos Lazarakis MW: “Any form of vegetation with a height of 1.6 feet or more is bound to have a hard time.” If this sounds like a nightmare for your lower back, it is: Lazarakis goes on to say, “harvest takes four times longer than in Guyot-trained vineyards; pruning almost 10 times.”

There are some positives though: Santorini, ever the island of uniquity, has zero clay in its soil composition, making it one of the few terroirs on earth that is totally resistant to the devastating root louse phylloxera. Another oddity is the vines actually survive on humidity, whereas many other regions would be sounding the powdery mildew alarm. Because rainfall is scarce on the island, the roots are constantly stressed for water—so the warmer vine basket soaks what little sea-spray and caldera-born humidity it can.

Without question, this is one of the world’s most extraordinary places to grow wine, and while Santorini Assyrtiko is enjoying its long-overdue recognition on the global stage, these wines are in increasing demand and subsequent danger. Nearly every tract of land is already planted; there are fewer than 20 certified producers; and those who don’t own their vines better have deep pockets because harvest is essentially an auction at this point. But something else overshadows it all, something that also serves as the lifeblood of the island: vacationers. The configuration of Santorini is dramatic to the point of breathtaking, and the wines are powerfully distinct, but this conflicting dichotomy between micro-scale farming and global tourism desperately needs to be addressed in order to conserve this historically rich and unique slice of land.

Wreath + Soil - 1969-12-31 - Mark Osburn

Standout Visits:

Hatzidakis

Haridimos Hatzidakis. He was a mastermind who toiled for decades, conducting innovative, industry-leading work that still reverberates today. Considered by many to be the most talented winemaker to ever grace the island, he spent his life being a fearless champion for natural farming and low-intervention winemaking. His vinous creations first stunned locals in the ‘90s, followed by importers, before eventually making their way into top wine lists and retail shops around the world. Quite simply, the Assyrtiko grape would not enjoy the global fame it does today without him. His tragic passing in 2017 shocked the wine community, but his spirit still lives through his offspring and close-knit team.

Available in our Store: Their 2020 “Familia” Assyrtiko can be purchased here.

What We’re Excited For: Back-vintage Mavrotragano (a rare red variety), new releases of single-vineyard Assyrtiko, and their full-bodied, barrel-aged (“Nykteri”) Assyrtiko. Stay tuned!

Koutsoyannopoulos

By Santorini standards, Koutsoyannopoulos is a relic: It was first established in 1880, and if you ever find yourself at the winery, prepare to learn all about it in their bizarre, hand-built museum. Deep underground is a sprawling maze filled with the history of Santorini winemaking, complete with audio guides and slightly terrifying animatronics. Still, the overarching lesson here is that Koutsoyannopoulos is one of the OGs, and they count themselves as one of Greece’s longest continuously run winemaking families. In more recent decades, they have been a pioneer in reviving the island’s ancient vine-growing and winemaking traditions. Today, the always-smiling Georgios Koutsoyannopoulos is the fourth-generation winemaker to craft Assyrtiko from the family’s small estate. Vines are trained in the classic kouloura method, harvested by hand, and vinified traditionally with free-run juice.

What We’re Excited For: New releases from Koutsoyannopoulos will hopefully become available in the coming months.

NEXT MONTH: WE explore the diverse landscape and dynamic wines of Crete.

Kamaritis barrel. - 1969-12-31