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Atlantis Found

Santorini is well-known for its spectacular panoramas, its
wine industry remains relatively undiscovered. Vines dot the
slopes and plains that skirt down from the crater. The soil
is a powdery gray volcanic ash peppered with chunks of
pumice stone and black lava. The strong winds which are
typical to the island whip up the dust. The resulting
sand-blasting effect can so badly damage the grapes that
farmers have developed a form of vine training that serves
as protection. They wind and tie together several years’
growth of canes into what appears to be a wreath. The wreath
lies on the ground. The grape bunches form inside the leaf
studded wreath where they are protected from the wind-blown
sand. During the harvest, vineyard workers, as if collecting
eggs in a henhouse, lift up the wreaths and collect the

The vines are sparsely
planted, about 8 feet apart. Closer planting would create
too much competition for available moisture of which there
is little. Throughout the year, rainfall is a rare
occurrence. Moist Mediterranean winds lay down a blanket of
mist on the ashen soil. The absorbent soil delivers the
water to the vine roots. The soil contains very little
organic matter. The vines as a result are very small, with
tiny yields (15 to 28 hectoliters per hectare). Farmers must
enrich their soil with fertilizer in order for the vines to

Phylloxera has never been
found on the island. This may be because the ashen soil is
inhospitable to the louse. The most dangerous vine disease
is oidium, which can be warded off by the application of
sulfur dust. The vine is normally quite resistant to
botrytis. However, eudemis butterflies, under cover within
the wreaths of canes, puncture the grapeskins creating a
point of origination for botrytis. Growers, for the most
part, deal with eudemis by placing traps around and within
the wreaths.

The principal wine of
Santorini is a dry, white wine which has some extraordinary
characteristics. The wine is registered in the legal
category OPAP (Onomasia Prolefseos Anoteras Piotitos or
Appellations of Origin of Superior Quality) which is more or
less the equivalent of France’s AOC. The principal grape
variety must by law contain at least 75% of the Assyrtico
grape variety which makes up about 7O% of the vines on the
island. Two other white varieties, Aidani and Athiri, play
minor roles in the blend. Despite the hot growing season,
the wine has a high total acidity of 7 to 8 grams per liter.
Nearly all of the acidity is tartaric. The torrid heat of
July and August burns up whatever malic acid has been
generated earlier in the season. The total acidity is not
only high, it is also strong, typically registering a pH of
between 2.85 and 2.95. Alcohol is usually between 12.5 and
13.5 percent. Detectable amounts of salinity (NaCl or Sodium
Chloride) usually appear in chemical analyses. The moist sea
air of the night deposits salt in the soil and on the vines.
The note of salinity on the palate is tasted simultaneously
with the sizzling, refreshing acidity of the tartaric acid.
The wine seems remarkably solid and dense in the mouth.
Yiannos Paraskevopoulos, winemaker of Gaia Wines, tells me
that “the solid impression of dry white Santorini wine is
mainly the contribution of the very low yield of the vines
and the rather high (for a dry white wine) dry extract (17.5
to 2O grams per liter).”

By comparison, the smell of
the dry white wine is rather mute. One struggles to find
descriptors. Most tasters inevitably apply the multi-use
descriptor: minerality. More precisely defined descriptors
that I encounter in these wines are limes, flint and wet
rusty steel.

The dry white typically
goes through a standard dry-white wine fermentation and is
bottled in the spring or fall after the harvest. Some
producers employ full or partial barrel fermentation and
maturation. To my taste, the oak easily covers the subtle
descriptors noted above. In the mouth, oak extracts add
thickness and astringency. The acidity seems sourer. Despite
its high acidity, Assyrtico wines have a reputation for
oxidizing rapidly. At the Sigalis winery in Santorini in
June, I tasted a vertical of dry unoaked and oaked Sigalas
Santorini wines dating back from the 2OO6 to the 2OOO
vintage. The older wines were in fine shape and had shown
some flavor improvement. Sigalas is one of the very best, if
not the best, of the island’s producers. Other fine
producers that I sampled are Gaia, Boutari, Argyros,
Gavalas, Hatzidakis, and Kousoyiannopoulos (Volcan

If I had visited the island
3O years ago, I would have found a very different wine
industry. The principal wine would have been Brusco, an
amber colored, high alcohol (16 or 17 percent), and tannic
wine which came in white, rose and red versions. The red
tints came from the most popular red variety on the island
(2O% of vines), Mandalaria, a variety widely diffused
throughout Greece’s isles. All types of Brusco, white, rose,
and red were macerated under foot, fermented on the skins
and then runoff into barrels where they matured for many
years. A few producers make Brusco for local sale and family
consumption. It is outside the legislation of Santorini OPAP
and cannot have “Santorini” printed on the label. Roussos, a
producer known for its fidelity to traditional wine
production makes a rose Brusco for the local market called
Rivari. It was dry, fairly tannic and tart, with slightly
over-ripe grapeskin flavors. Hatzidakis, a small family
winery, that makes both modern and traditional style, makes
a sweet, red Brusco for family use.

Historically, the grapes
for another wine, called Nykteri, were harvested during the
day and then trodden at night. The free run juice was
drained into barrels where fermentation completed.
Maturation in barrel lasted for several years. Miles
Lambert-Gocs, in The Wines of Greece, (Faber and Faber,
199O) wrote that the wines were pale in color and usually
reached 15% alcohol. Today there are modern versions of
Nykteri such as that of Haridomos Hatzidakis at Hatzidakis
winery. His 2OO6 was one of the best white Santorini wines.
Nykteri is accepted within the Santorini OPAP. Hatzidakis
harvests the grape late and allows low-temperature skin
contact with the grape juice for 6 hours. After pressing and
clarification, he conducts a classic white wine
fermentation. He then matures the Nikteri in 5-year-use
barrels for 6 months. The wine is rounder and richer than
the other dry white Santorini wines that I tasted. His
restrained oak use enhances rather than covers fruit

Another wine, Vinsanto, not
to be confused with Italian Vin Santo, used to be made in
many styles: semi-sweet and sweet, white, rose, and red.
While Italian Vin Santo grapes are dried over weeks in
ventilated rooms, Santorini Vinsanto grapes are dried out in
the sun for one or two weeks. Santorini vinsanto grapes
traditionally were crushed underfoot and fermented on their
skins in sealed barrels containing a soupy starter yeast,
called mana or mother, selected from the lees of previous
fermentations. The barrels were not fully filled allowing
for the expansion of the juice during fermentation and for
oxidation during the maturation phase. The wine matured in
wood barrel for some ten years more before sale in bulk or
bottle. Traditional Italian Vin Santo is matured under a
roof where there is great temperature variation between
summer and winter. Santorini Vinsanto is matured in an area
with less temperature variation. Nowadays, only the white
version is allowed to be bottled under the Santorini OPAP.
Despite the limitations on the use of the name Santorini in
conjunction with Vinsanto for rose and red versions, Roussos
has continued to make these styles. At the Roussos winery, I
passed by an old barrel filled with 1975 Vinsanto. Agape
Roussou, marketing director of Roussos, told me that the
winery would like to release its large stockpile of aged
Vinsantos when the market is ready to understand and value
them. I suggested that the winery prepare the market by
inviting journalists to assess them. Legislation today
requires a minimum of only two years of maturation. The best
Vinsanto I tasted was a 2OO3 Sigalas. A piercingly high
volatile acidity, the smell of dried apricots and a tart
finish balanced its viscous load. It was the equal of a top
Tuscan Vin Santo.

The island has never been
known for the quality of its red wines. Red wines produced
on the island are not allowed to be labeled as Santorini.
Mandalaria, a red grape of no great potential, usually
dominates red blends. It occupies about 2O% of vineyard
land. A rarer variety, Mavrotragano, traditionally used as a
“spice” in traditional Vinsanto blends is raising hopes that
Santorini can be the source of a great red wine.
Mavrotragano has been overlooked because it produces low
yields. Its grapes are small-sized, leading to a high
skin-to-juice ratio. Despite the fact that the soils of
Santorini offer vines little nutrition for the maturation of
red grapeskins, experimental Mavrotragano red wine issuing
from the Sigalas winery has shown that superb red wines can
be made. A 2OO5 was a deep red color with a red berry, minty
and orange rim. In the mouth, it had long fine-textured
tannins. Eighteen months in 85% new French oak barriques had
balanced, not overwhelmed, its fruit and natural structure.
A 2OO4, too, was impressive. Other wineries are doing their
own experiments with the variety. It is hoped that a red
wine based on Mavrotragano will become an official category
with the Santorini OPAP.

Much of the change in the
style of Santorini wines occurred during the 198Os when
tourists on the island and markets beyond it began to demand
fresher and lower alcohol or less sweet wines than Brusco,
traditional Nykteri and Vinsanto had to offer. Winemakers
began focusing on modeling dry white Santorini wine after
the dry French white wine model. Increasingly they employed
refrigeration, more delicate pressing of grapes, avoidance
of skin contact during fermentation, anti-oxidative
techniques, and reduced maturation periods. Prefermentation
maceration and lees stirring have recently become
commonplace. Konstantinos Lazarakis, MW, author of the book,
The Wines of Greece (Mitchell Beazley, 2OO5) credits the
Boutari Winery and Santo Wines as being the pioneers of
modernization. In 1988, Boutari launched Kallisti, the first
successful example of a modern barrel-fermented dry white
Santorini wine. Boutari investments on the island, starting
in 1977, have brought money and jobs into the local wine
industry. Moreover, exports of Boutari’s Santorini wines to
foreign markets have helped promote the recognition of all
Santorini wines. Santo Wines is Santorini’s largest wine
producer. As a cooperative winery, it has given the many
small farmers on the island a stable means to sell their
grapes. In doing so, Santo Wines has done much to keep
vineyards in production. By renting cellar space and
providing free advice to winemakers both young and old, the
winery has had an essential role in developing the Santorini
wine industry. The large facility has also been a magnet for
wine tourists.

According to Paris Sigalas
of Sigalas Winery, there is much work to be done to improve
the wines of the island. There has not been any clonal
selection research of the Assyrtico variety or any other
native Santorini variety, nor has there been systematic
large scale research on methods of vine training. Sigalas is
conducting some small scale experiments on training
Assyrtico in rows on wires at a higher density, 5OOO vines
per hectare instead of the traditional 18OO. It costs too
much for him to do larger scale research. He would
enthusiastically participate with any university that would
conduct such research.

The inhabitants refer to
the many privately owned vineyards simply as “the vineyard”,
as if the many vines were everyone’s patrimony. Tourism,
however, has made the land so valuable for development that
every year 5% of the vineyards are ripped up. In 1874 at the
zenith of the wine industry, the vineyards occupied 48OO
hectares of land. By 192O, this had dwindled to 35OO
hectares; by 199O, 14OO hectares; by 2OO7, 1OOO hectares.
Many owners of vineyards prefer to rent the vineyards to the
dozen or so wine producers of the island, while they attend
to the more profitable and less back-breaking tourist trade.
Those who work the land are older, usually about 7O to 75
years of age. Even though most of them are likely to be
wealthy landowners or have substantial investments in the
tourist trade, they continue tending the vines because they
have done it all their lives.

This situation makes
Santorini vulnerable in two ways. First, if vineyards were
to continue to be uprooted and turned into sites for hotels
and swimming pools, the genetic diversity of the vine
population would diminish and further expansion of the
Santorini wine industry would be stifled. Second, if the
older generation tending the vines were to die without
bestowing their knowledge of the land and the vines to a
younger generation, the cumulative knowledge of generations
would be lost forever. Their experience is invaluable for
any delineation of terroir-based subzones or

Paris Sigalas complains
that the local population doesn’t care about the vineyards.
The government, he says, has not tried to protect vineyards
for their scientific and historic value. Nor does the price
of the wines in the marketplace allow producers enough
profit margin to buy vineyard land, invest in equipment and
conduct their own research. Due to the fact that all
equipment has to be shipped to the island, the costs of
making Santorini wine are high. A bottle of Sigalas
Santorini can be found for $14 retail in some US wine shops.
This is too little given its cost of production.

Constantina Hatzidakis
proudly described how the Hatzidakis winery and eight other
Santorini wineries joined forces a month earlier, in May of
2OO7, to promote the name of Santorini in the 12th annual
world sommelier competition held in Rhodes. The first time
that this collaboration occurred was at the Vinoble wine
fair in Jerez, Spain. Six of the some 12 wineries on the
island banded together to show their Vinsantos. This kind of
cooperation about wineries was unheard of before these
events. She believes that wineries must work together to
establish the “brand” of Santorini in the world. She
mentioned how the wineries have worked with the largest town
on the island, Thera, to publish a brochure describing all
the wineries. The next step, she said, will be to erect
signs indicating the location of the wineries along an
island wine route.

The volcano that destroyed
the island in 16OO BC created a unique environment for the
production of wine. Sometime after the eruption, colonists
brought a vine called Assyrtico. Luckily, that variety has
the capacity to make unique white wines out of cinders and
pumice kissed by Mediterranean mist. Mavrotragano may have
the capacity to make great red wines. However, most of all,
it will be the individual and collective efforts of the
producers that will unleash the power of the volcano within
the vines.

I dedicate this article to Kostas Vosikas, who encouraged me
to learn more about the wines of Greece and to visit his
homeland. He was instrumental in setting in motion the
planning that led to my visit to Greece in June of 2OO7.
Kostas died in November 2OO6 after a 6 month battle with
lung cancer. He was 52 years old. When he learned of his
disease in June of 2OO6, he was forced to suspend his
efforts to become a Master of Wine. Kostas had attended
Boston University’s Wine Studies Program. What a fine