The Aegean Sea, with its countless islands, is the home of many grand terroirs and individual varieties and wine styles. Experts agree that at the top of this pyramid of uniqueness sits Santorini, an island that could define the word “distinctiveness”. The main grape of Santorini is Assyrtiko, a precious wine that invites you to discover the unique heritage of its striking terroir.
It produces dry white wines, aged vintage wines but also young and age- worthy. It has good structure, fresh, crisp acidity, high alcoholic volume, distinctive citrus aromas and intense minerality. Aged wines reveal a more solid structure and increased aromatic complexity. Assyrtiko is a rare, unique, precious, internationally acclaimed, “pedigree” wine that awakens the senses and is ideal for haute cuisine, fish and seafood. It is also versatile, perfect to drink young or aged. There is also another local speciality, called Vinsanto, which is a sweet wine made from sun dried Assyrtiko grapes. Vinsanto is an intense, concentrated, rich yet firm wine that could age for several decades. One of the greatest wines of the world, it can match either desserts or rich, savoury dishes.
Santorini’s terroir is unique in the world, shaped by the volcano of Thera, the caldera and, of course, the Aegean Sea. Soil is volcanic and porous, consisting of lava, Therean ash and pumice, with a complete absence of organic matter. There is an insular Mediterranean climate, with calm winters, cool summers, droughts and strong winds, called meltemia. However, sea mists during the summer months offer the necessary hydration for the vines. In a unique ecosystem that protects the vine from illness and other hazards, Santorini’s vineyard is self-rooted, anhydrous and never affected by phylloxera. Thus, it is potentially the world’s oldest vineyard, estimated at 3,500 years old. The majority of stumps are, on average, 50-100 years old or more and the yields, about 15 hl/ha, are the lowest in Greece. Definitely a vineyard worthy of World Heritage Monument status.
Vines are grown in kouloures (rings) or kalathia (baskets), a traditional technique that involves wrapping stumps in a low-lying basket shape, protecting the vine from strong winds and intense sunlight – a direct result of the grower’s collective experience through the centuries for the adaptation of viticulture to this unique ecosystem. The degree of human care is impressive, with all viticultural labour done by hand, including the harvesting, which is the first in Greece, usually due at the beginning of August. Immense effort is also needed for the creation of pezoules, the terracing of the steep, hillside terrains, offering protection from soil corrosion by the wind.
The island is an exceptional destination for tourists, boasting unique natural beauty, like the caldera and the Aegean, beaches with rare morphology, high quality, modern hospitality infrastructure, beauty and wellness services and renowned restaurants offering international or local cuisine, all creating the height of Aegean Chic. The island offers numerous natural, traditional products, seaside activities, stunning Cycladic architecture, like the villages of Kastelia and Goulades, archaeological sites, such as Ancient Thera and Akrotiri, museums, as well as cultural activities and conference tourism infrastructure. The wine-related part of this experience is considerable, with activities in modern wineries or traditional underground wine cellars called kanaves, such as wine tastings, seminars or gastronomical events. There are, in addition, vineyards with a unique view of the Aegean and the caldera,
an underground wine museum, and intriguing wine lists in top-class restaurants and wine shops.
Beyond the glories of Santorini, Muscat produces some grand, mainly sweet, wines, most notably on the islands of Samos and Lemnos. Samos is Greece’s most illustrious appellation, with an impressive commercial record. The Muscat cultivated here is Muscat Blanc, although viticulturalists usually refer to it as the “Muscat of Samos” even when grown in other
locations. Many types are produced, from fortified (vin doux or vin doux naturel) to naturally sweet from sun-dried grapes (vin naturellement doux). Grand Cru vin doux naturel is produced from vineyards above 400 metres (1312 ft), usually with very low yields. The two main styles encompass young, unoaked wines, focusing on primary, fresh and intense, Muscat-derived aroma compounds, and oak-matured wines, showing a rare grace in the way grape, method of production and ageing are fused together. Both are among the greatest sweet wines of Europe.
Lemnos is the second most important wine-producing island in the northern Aegean and its vineyards are dominated by Muscat of Alexandria. Lemnos Muscats are profound, youthful, more floral and more forward than Samos. The appellation “Muscat of Lemnos” allows all methods of sweet wine production, including a Grand Cru sub-genre for selected vineyards. Furthermore, the island has a dry white wine appellation for Muscat, plainly referred to as “Lemnos”.
Other significant appellations of the Aegean Sea are Rhodes and Paros. Rhodes is the biggest island of the Dodecanese as well as the most significant in terms of wine production. Its vineyard area can be divided into two distinct zones. The lower zone comprises the lowland vineyards, while the other covers the slopes of Mt Atavyros, which peaks at 1,216 metres (3,990 ft). Soil is a mixture of small pockets of sand, clay, limestone and gravel, with higher vineyards displaying higher levels of limestone. More than 90 per cent of the vine-growing areas fall into the appellations limits. The first is simply called Rhodes and includes dry white wines made from Athiri and dry reds from Mandilaria, locally called Amoriano. Sweet Muscats of Rhodes, being particularly fresh, have their own appellation, using both Muscat Blanc and Muscat Trani, while legislation covers all styles from sun-dried to fortified. In addition, Rhodes has long been the leader and main source of Greek bottled-fermented sparkling wines. Their style is extremely charming, made for soft and easy drinking, combining warm climate fruit ripeness with freshness. Some rosé versions are among the very best sparkling wines of the whole Mediterranean Sea.
Paros is located in the centre of the Cyclades Islands and was one of the oldest wine production centres in ancient Greece. An appellation with savoury whites made from pure Monemvassia and the more common Paros reds, which is a blend of one-third red Mandilaria and two-thirds Monemvassia. It is the only appellation in Greece where a white grape is allowed in the production of red wine and the standard practice is to add freshly crushed Mandilaria to fermenting Monemvassia must, producing a pungent, rich and distinctive character.
The last viticulturally important island is Tinos, with an emerging number of producers and a most interesting blend of varieties, including Assyrtiko, Mavrotragano and the local Potamissi and Koumari.