Santorini's Vineyard Renewal
Fine wine upgrading on Greece's Aegean Sea island jewel
Sleek, contemporary tasting room at Boutari's Santorini Winery by Zane Katsikis
A more magical place than the Greek island of Santorini would be difficult to find anywhere on Earth. This southernmost of the Cycladic chain of Aegean Sea islands has captured the imagination of travelers and tourists since time immemorial. It is the archetypal getaway place for those seeking exotic destinations. But, it is more.
Wine drinkers and sophisticated aficionados alike hail the tiny, volcanic island’s vinous products as being as world class as its spectacular geography and sublime Cycladic, cubist architecture. Delicate white wine showing subtle fruit flavors and elegantly balanced tastes as well as discretely sweet, dessert wines, both made from the local Asyrtico grape variety (70% of Santorini’s vineyard plantation) are beginning to make an impact on the world’s palette. But Santorini, or Thira as it is known in Greece, has many, other grape varieties (some 40 in all), red and white, cultivated only on the island that are not as well known to the world.
I have always enjoyed Santorini for its atmospheric villages, fine local wines and well-prepared native foods and, of course, the feeling of being somewhere very special. But why does it feel so special? Exactly because it offers much more than a typical packaged holiday resort.
Over a dozen producers grow grapes, make and bottle fine wines that give visitors a wide choice to accompany the unique local cuisine. A large number of modern wineries, with well-equipped tasting rooms staffed by enthusiastic young wine aficionados gives Santorini an image somewhat like the Napa Valley in California but on a much smaller scale. Tourism on the island does not mean only sea, sun, lazy days and nights. The addition of fine food and wine help create an environment of a world-class resort. And therein lies the problem.
Very few tourist-oriented places in the world succeed in resisting the impression that tourism means easy money. Why undertake the backbreaking annual task of pruning vineyards in blustering, wind blown, damp weather – which is Santorini’s case - when it is easier to pass the winter in a reclining lounge chair reflecting on a just ended six months long stint as a taxi driver, waiter or shop assistant?
As one of Santorini’s most respected citizens and winemakers – Paris Sigalas – states: “We believe in winemaking here and our vineyards because they fit in with the sophistication evident in our architecture and lifestyle. And that is why we are embarking on a long term plan to rebuild and renovate our vineyards.” Another vintner, Greece’s most eminent Ioannis Pareskevopoulos, has stated “If Santorini’s unique varieties are not saved soon from tourism development, they will be lost to the world forever.”
All of this ran through my head as I walked through the serene vineyard landscape around Megaloxori. I was amazed to learn of the ambitious, multifaceted, five year, 1.2 million Euro, European Union sponsored plan to rejuvenate, replant and upgrade Santorini’s unique vineyards.
In fact, I was surprised to learn that the plan was first launched in 2001 in an effort to increase Santorini’s vineyard surface by 50%. In 1960 there were an astounding 3000 Hectares of agricultural land planted in vines. By 2004 that had dropped to less than 1000 with no new grape growers in sight– other than an ever diminishing younger generation of existing growers offspring to contribute their energy and intellect to making fine wines.
Santorini’s winemakers had learned to mold the Asyrtico white variety in gleaming new wineries – notably when the Northern Greece based Boutari family built its state of the art facility in Megaloxori in 1988 and the locally based Santos Cooperative (2,361 members with 1,000 active) opened its massive 5000 ton showcase winery in 1992 with its spectacular tasting room overlooking the Caldera in Pyrgos. Paris Sigalas opened his smaller but no less modern and efficient winery and tasting room near Oia in 1998.
But, little was done to deal with the declining vineyard situation or to resuscitate interest in the other grape cultivars, such as the Mandilari or Mavrotragano. The second of these red cultivars, known for its flavorful, smoky, silky tannic deep red wines, had become so scarce that when Paris Sigalas raised the alarm in 1999 all Santorini stood up with him to address the issue of vineyard renewal.
Recognizing that wine can only be as good as the grapes it is made from, it was primordial to address the critical vineyard issues such as clean, virus free planting material, and the lack of trained manpower on the island. With the coming of the EU plan, a new vineyard was planted near the airport in Kamari to grow vines that could be then tested for health (in the Greek Ministry of Agriculture laboratory in Volos) from all the native varieties. Also, trials have been undertaken as part of the plan to train vines along wires as in most wine regions of the world (but not on Santorini where vegetative sprawl is the rule). This could lead to the significant use of labor saving machines for many of the vineyard tasks. And finally, the EU plan has provisions to assist new growers with financial incentives to plant and cultivate grapes as their primary economic activity.
While sipping a glass of well chilled, crispy Asyrtico in the Santos Wines tasting room, I had a chance to speak with Santorini’s preeminent viticulturalist Marcos Kafouros. A Santorini native son, Kafouros was optimistic about the EU plan though he recognized the difficulties – most notably in recruiting motivated, young grape growers but he insisted that the resilience that is such a strong part of the Santorini character will help see the wine industry on Santorini progress and prosper. He outlined an impressive, second six year EU plan that should come into place as soon as the first ends.
I was impressed with the motivation of Santorini’s winemakers and decision-makers. Let’s hope that they can work closely with the tourism industry to maintain winemaking as an important economic activity on Santorini. I would like to suggest that Santorini’s vinous products account for a significant amount of Euros brough into what is the most unique island in Greece.
1. For more information on Santorini’s wines, refer to the following web sites: www.greekwinemakers.com, www.santoswines.gr or www.sigalas-wine.gr.
Traditional Santorini vineyard scene
Spectacular Caldera view from new Santos Wines tasting room
on 3 September 2007.
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