From Ashes to Grapes

Santorini is believed to be home to the world’s oldest vineyard still under cultivation

“TOURISM IS KILLING SANTORINI!” That was the heartfelt cry of a winemaker who lives and works on this croissant-shaped volcanic island, 200 kilometres southeast of the Greek mainland.

Santorini is believed to be the world’s oldest vineyard site still under cultivation. Winegrowing, according to archeologists, has been going on here, uninterrupted, for around 5,000 years. Up until the late 19th century there were 4,000 hectares of vineyards on the island. By the 1960s, when the travel boom started, they were reduced to 2,500 hectares.

Today this figure is down to 1,400 hectares evidenced by the many abandoned terraces you can see as you drive around the island, and the fact that the young don’t want to work the land the way their forebears did.

Seventy per cent of the surviving vineyards are planted to a variety called Assyrtiko, a thick-skinned grape that makes one of the world’s best undiscovered white wines.

The winemaking community blames the real estate developers for Santorini’s vanishing vines, reproaching them for buying up potential vineyard land for new hotels to accommodate the growing number of tourists.

The same winemaker who accused tourists of killing Santorini told me that in midsummer this year, cruise ships that anchored offshore debouched 14,000 visitors in a single day. This number virtually doubled the island’s population.

If you’ve toured this picture-postcard place with its blindingly white sugar-cube houses and blue doors you will know that the narrow streets of villages such as Oia and Akrotiri just can’t absorb such an influx of bodies. (The islanders are now urging the cruise-ship lines to practice “berth” control.)

There are currently 15 wineries on Santorini, including the co-op Santo Wines, and the twin pressures of tourists and the rising international demand for Assyrtiko wines have quadrupled the price of these grapes in three years.

But what makes Santorini so special, apart from its scenic aspect, is the way wine is grown here. Because of the heat, the lack of rain and the strong prevailing winds Sirocco in the spring and the Meltemi in July and August grape growers have had to protect the grape bunches.

This they do by what is known as the koulara method. They weave a circular wreath, using the vine’s canes, into a bird’s-nest shape, to cradle the leaves and bunches and protect the berries from the wind and sun. Grown so close to the ground, these vines make for back-breaking work when harvest time comes around.

It’s the soil that gives Santorini wines their unique flavour profile. The island was formed by one of the most devastating volcanic eruptions in history, around 1,600 BC — an eruption that created a gigantic tsunami that wiped out the Minoan civilization on Crete, 110 kilometres to the south, and may have given rise to the myth of the lost city of Atlantis.

Canadian Master Sommelier John Szabo, in his recently published book Volcanic Wines: Salt, Grit and Power, describes the effects of that volcanic activity this way: “The cataclysmic blast created one of the world’s largest and most striking water-filled calderas,” or cauldron-shaped depressions caused by the collapse of land following a volcanic eruption. The Santorini caldera is 400 metres deep, which means only the biggest of ships can drop anchor there.

The eruption 3,700 years ago also blanketed what remained of the island with volcanic ash. This created 30 to 40 metres of volcanic soil, full of sand, solidified lava rock and, most importantly, pumice stone that absorbs water during the rainy season in the winter months, stores it and releases it in the hot summer months. So there is no need to irrigate the vines even though the island receives a mere 400 millimetres of rain a year: about half of what Toronto gets.

Paris Sigalas of Domaine Sigalas is, for my palate, the best producer of Assyrtiko on Santorini, and the third largest vineyard owner after the co-operative Santos Wines and Estate Argyros. (Another winery worth looking up is Gaia Wines.)

Sigalas’s vineyard, next to his house, is over 200 years old. When he wants to propagate a new vine, all he does is bury a cane from an existing vine and in the spring, when it sprouts buds, he cuts the umbilical cord to the mother plant. Unlike most of Europe and North America, Santorini producers don’t have to graft a new vine on to disease-resistant North American root stock to avoid the depredations of the dreaded phylloxera louse that feeds on the roots of ungrafted vines. (The phylloxera louse  laid waste the vineyards of Europe for 50 years beginning in the 1860s, before the antidote of North American root stock was discovered, but phylloxera cannot survive in Santorini’s sandy soil.)  

So, if you want to protect the island of Santorini and leave its citizens in peace, pester your provincial liquor board to bring in Sigalas Assyrtiko or the Assyrtikos of Estate Argyros, or Gaia Wines so you can pour a glass and travel there in your mind’s eye, or through your palate.

Tony Aspler is the author of 17 books on wine, including his latest, Canadian Wineries.

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