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The disappearing vineyards

The disappearing vineyards
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First Published: Fri, May 13 2011. 09 06 PM IST

Unbottled: Many cafés are springing up in Santorini’s vineyards. Photo: Hans Bernhard/Wikimedia Commons
Unbottled: Many cafés are springing up in Santorini’s vineyards. Photo: Hans Bernhard/Wikimedia Commons
Updated: Fri, May 13 2011. 09 06 PM IST
I was standing in a cave-like underground museum at the Koutsoyannopoulos Winery in Vothonas, a few kilometres from Santorini’s Kamari beach. I was there to begin a tryst with the wines of Santorini, which I had heard were unique—but a tryst where actually drinking them would come later. As with any courtship, I would first have to spend time getting to know them.
As I stood watching a short film on the history of Santorini in a little room located at one end of the museum, I was entranced by the genesis of the island and its wines—a volcanic explosion that took place three and a half millennia ago. Later, as I sat in the wine-tasting room listening to modern laïká (Greek music) playing softly in the background, I talked to Alejandro, a local who worked in the winery and was our designated wine-tasting guide for the day. “You must have heard of the vanishing Atlantis,” he said. “It is said that the volcanic eruption was so enormous that it was the source of the origin of that legend.” Whether Santorini or Thera was indeed Plato’s “lost continent” is a debatable question; what cannot be disputed is the wonder of the silver lining that followed the catastrophe—the breathtaking caldera and the vines which miraculously began to grow in the volcanic pumice and ash. “The wines from this winery are called Volcan,” Alejandro explained, “because they carry the characteristics of the Santorini soil.”
Unbottled: Many cafés are springing up in Santorini’s vineyards. Photo: Hans Bernhard/Wikimedia Commons
Presently, the winery is run by George Koutsoyannopoulos, but its journey began three generations ago, with the passion and grit of his forefathers, brothers Gregory and Dimitris. The story goes that in 1870, the two brothers embarked on a journey from Sparta to the island of Syros with the intention of selling oil. However, fate decided to throw them off course. Midway, they got caught in a violent storm and their boat was pushed by the west winds towards Santorini. Reaching land, they soon realized that Santorini had potential for wine-making. Ten years later, their hard work resulted in the birth of their first winery.
Lava, one of the products of the winery, was the first wine that Alejandro brought out for me to sample. As I sipped this dry and fruity white table wine, I was struck by its lightness and its low alcohol content. Having tried the harsh Retsina in a couple of restaurants, I found this particularly refreshing and enjoyable.
Alejandro explained that vines in Santorini are grown in a slightly different manner. “It’s called the kouloura method, which means that the vines are wound in circles to form a basket which shelters them from the strong wind, harsh sun and the difficult sand. You must have seen some of those crown-like vine coils in the museum.” I told him I had.
In fact, the inventive kouloura method was a mere speck on the canvas of what the underground museum exhibits. Built over 21 years with heavy funding from the Koutsoyannopoulos family, its maze of hallways chronicles the history of Santorini viticulture from 1660-1970. Earlier that day, as I had navigated my way hrough the museum with the help of an audio guide, I had seen moving mannequins toiling away in little caves on both sides of the passage. These human figurines were shown working with different tools, from an archaic Bavarian grape compressor to a several-centuries-old, hand-operated wooden press; bringing to life every stage of Santorinian wine-making, from cultivation to bottling.
The second wine Alejandro bought out was the Abelones, a rich, red wine with a distinct oakish aroma. I let the smoky wine swirl in my mouth and then savoured its soft, velvety aftertaste. Later, I learnt that it was made from three tongue-twisting Santorinian red grape varieties, the Mantilaria, the Mavrothiro and the Mavrotragano. I had just begun to agonize over which of the two wines I should take home when Alejandro whipped out the third and last wine for the day, an intense, amber wine called the Vinsanto. “This is the traditional wine of Santorini and is made exclusively from the Assyrtiko and Aïdani grapes,” said Alejandro.
Both the grape varieties sounded positively Greek to me but Alejandro said the Assyrtiko is one of the best Greek white wine grapes and is typically blended with the Aïdani grape to enhance its aroma. The magical combination of these two white wine grapes resulted in the creation of a perfectly balanced and naturally sweet, aromatic dessert wine.
There are two theories about the origin of the name Vinsanto. One is that the name is derived from “vin de Santo”—“wine from Santorini”, while the other says the wine has its origins in Italy, where a similar sweet wine was used during mass and was called “Vin Santo” or “holy wine”. Interestingly, until the early 20th century, when Greece gained independence from the Ottoman empire, this Santorininan wine was exported to Russia, where it was used as a communion wine by the Russian Orthodox Church. As I had my last leisurely sip of the Vinsanto, I decided that the wine by any name would taste just as delicious. Its rich aroma of coffee, crème brûlée and roasted nuts reminded me of sinful desserts and left me craving for more. My internal conflict was quelled. This was definitely the wine that I would take home.
While Alejandro packed the bottle, I asked him about the popularity of the Santorini wines abroad. “They are popular, but not as much as they have the potential to be.” Despite the ongoing financial crisis in Greece, Alejandro seemed optimistic about the future of Santorinian wines—but the fact is that tourism is one of the key threats to the local cultivars.
Many farmers have built hotels or shops over their vineyards to get a share of tourist euros. Santorini’s atypical weather and soil have created interesting, unique wines, but have also meant that the vineyards yield much less than they would in conventional wine terrains. Despite valiant attempts by the local wineries to protect the island’s vineyards, and with tourism offering an alternative, there is a danger that the Santorini wines—little known and regarded to begin with—may go extinct. It would be a shame if the island’s heritage sank into nothingness, like Plato’s mythical continent.
A rare vintage
A quick guide to the wines of Santorini
Domaine Sigalas Santorini
A fresh, fruity white wine with a crisp and dry finish; from the Sigalas Winery
Grape variety: Assyrtiko
Price: €11-18 (around RS730-1,200)
Koutsoyannopoulos Santorini
A full-flavoured white wine with balanced acidity and powerful fruity finish
Grape variety: Assyrtiko
Price: €11-34
Santo Wines Vinsanto
A rich, sweet, full-bodied dessert wine with a high proportion of the robust Assyrtiko, blended with the aromatic Aïdani
Grape variety: Assyrtiko
Price: €23-55
Boutari Kallisti Reserve
A refined, complex and full-bodied golden-yellow wine with a strong aroma of fruits, roasted nuts and honey
Grape variety:Assyrtiko
Price: €9-18
Gaia Thalassitis
A crisp, dry white wine with a subtle honey aroma and sharp acidity
Grape variety: Assyrtiko
Price: €11-18
Estate Argyros Atlantis Red
A light, smooth, fruity red wine composed of 90% Mantilaria and 10% Mavrotragano
Grape variety: Mantilaria
Price: €10-15
Estate Argyros Assyrtiko
A medium-bodied golden wine with citrus aroma, balanced acidity and a characteristic volcanic mineral tinge
Grape variety: Assyrtiko
Price: €11-20
Hatzidakis Nykteri
A beautifully balanced, organic white wine characterized by a fruit and butter aroma
Grape variety: Assyrtiko
Price: €14-20
All prices are exclusive of sales tax.
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First Published: Fri, May 13 2011. 09 06 PM IST