Once upon a time, the Californian wine producer Randall Grahm had described the tasting of a Riesling from Alsace (the Muenchberg of Andre Ostertag) as “a handshake with a mountain”. The white dry wine of Santorini enables the curious drinker to go one step further. From the weird, yet delicious combination of lime, salt, sulfur and pumice, one can get a taste of the most intense volcanic eruption of the last 10.000 years of the Earth’s geological history.

Sometime around 1614 B.C., the underwater volcano of Santorini erupted with greater power than the Krakatoa of Japan in 1883, releasing a chain of Mediterranean tsunamis, which reshaped the island’s terrain and caused a multi-seasonal volcanic winter that was felt even in China. The fact that the white wine of Santorini is unlike any other on earth is mainly due to this volcano.

The terrain of this Cycladic Island, which is located 63 nautical miles north of Crete and 127 nm from Piraeus, is a “fresh” mixture of pumice, volcanic ash and lava. This weird material creates a unique and great soil, which is even more stirred by the island’s strong winds and dry summers. An impressively large number of varieties have been adapted to these conditions, but the Assyrtiko has done better, while its ability to maintain its acidity as it matures is almost shocking.

Oddly, the wind helps. In order to moderate its power, the vines are grown in “trenches” with reeds on the perimeter. The reeds’ tops are “twined together” by wine producers to form an overturned basketball hoop. The results of such a shade that reeds and leaves provide would be catastrophic for the Bordeaux variety. But here it helps. Moreover, phylloxera can’t survive in Santorini’s weird soil. Given the long-term tradition of viticulture on the island, it is at least likely for Santorini to have hosted the oldest roots of cultivable vines in the world. Could it be the depth of their penetration into the layers of pumice and ash one of the reasons why the wines are gripped by such a unique metallic character?

The quality of Santorini’s wine is known for many years now. In fact, during the 19th century, Santorini had developed a greatly profitable export network in Russia. “They were strong wines and oxidation didn’t affect them”, says producer Charidimos Chatzidakis, “something that was not the case for the other Greek wines”. From 4.000 hectares of vineyards that existed at that time, only 1.400 of them are left. Initially, the vineyards gave their place to tasty, small tomatoes. But today, the tomatoes have given their own place to tourists, and abandoned vineyards are a common sight in Santorini. Besides, viticulture is by its nature difficult on the island, and, with a production of 1.500-3.000 liters per hectare, barely productive.

The second main variety of wine produced on the island, the sweet Vinsanto, is produced from dried grapes, and the production is even smaller. “You start with 25 hectoliters per hectare” explains Giannis Paraskevopoulos from Gaia, one of the main wine producing companies on the island, “and the production is reduced to 7 hectoliters per hectare after drying and to 1 hectoliter per hectare after aging for 20 years. If you are content with it, you either don’t realize the laws of economics, or you are crazy.”

By the way, the tradition of Vinsanto in Santorini is considered to predate those of north and central Italy. The island that Greeks know as Thera was named Santorini by the Venetians of the duchy of Naxos in the 13th century. The etymology of the word Vinsanto is, according to Greeks, not Santo vino (holy wine) but an abbreviation of vino Di Santorini.

However, if Santorini is going to have a future in the wine industry, this is definitely going to be based on the quality of its white dry wine variety, which is already available in the top restaurants of London, like Gordon Ramsay’s Maze, Chez Bruce, La Trompette and Pont de la Tour. Until recently, the traditional methods of wine production on the island were manual – you can still watch the best of these methods for the production of Vinsanto at Gavalas, a small winery in Megalochori.

In contrast, the “modernist” of the island is Giannis Paraskevopoulos from Gaia, who, except for the production of wine here and at Nemea, teaches oenology at the University of Athens. Other reliable producers are the wineries of the former mathematics professor Paris Sigalas, Charidimos Chatzidakis and Argiros, while Boutaris has a winery in Santorini, too. All these, of course, will come to an end when the volcano of Santorini erupts again, as it is scheduled to happen. However, we have around 18.000 years ahead of us to enjoy the unique fruits of the island with the crescent shape, before Poseidon hits again.
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