Santorini is one of the most stunning Greek islands and its wines have captured the hearts of many wine lovers. The terroir is unique and the wines produced have the ability to rival the greatest wines in the world. Often very complex, rich, multi-dimensional and age-worthy, these wines leave hardly anything to be desired. One of the very top producers is the Domaine Sigalas. I feel very fortunate that they have provided me with the following detailed overview of this amazing wine region. Information does not come more authentic then this – straight from the source. Please enjoy…
Santorini is part of the island complex of Cyclades, located in the South Aegean. It has a surface area of 73 sq. km and is located at a geographical latitude between 36o 19’ 56’’ and 36o 28’ 40’’ N. and a geographical longitude between 25o 19’ 22’’ and 25o 29’ 13’’ E. The viticultural region of the island has a size of approximately 1,400 hectares, starting at sea level and ascending in terraces up to the caldera, which has a height of 150 to 250 meters from sea level depending on the location.
The soil is a mixture of volcanic ash and pumice. Throughout the entire length of the island, both small and large rocks composed of magnesium and ferrous iron are encountered, as well as small and large lava deposits, all of which are of volcanic origin. The pumice (consisting of small to very small porous stones) extends from the surface, to considerable depths.
The soil of Santorini is sandy, with layers ranging in thickness upwards of 40 meters, is approximately 3600 years of age, and is not affected by the underlying layers, which consist of semi-crystalline limestones and schists. The extensive amount of small and large rocks composed of magnesium and ferrous iron is what defines the soil characteristics of Santorini. It is these formations that enrich the soil with Calcium, Magnesium, Ferrous Iron, thus increasing the G.E.C. and creating soils, with different water contents, which in the local dialect have names such as: “aspa”, “tsigro”, “fountado” etc.
The organic content in the Santorini soils is at very low levels. The same holds true for the contents of Nitrogen, Phosphorous and most other trace elements. The lack of clay and the extremely high sand content (93-97%) create a hostile environment for the Phylloxera pest. It is this fact, which saved the island vineyards from the Phylloxera epidemic, which was responsible for eradicating swathes of viticultural regions throughout the world in previous centuries, with few exceptions, one of which is the island of Santorini.
The viticultural region of Santorini is ancient, with varieties that date back to antiquity. According to Mr. Doumas, professor of Athens University and head of the digs in Akrotiri, archaeological finds located in the excavation of the pre-historic city of the Akrotiri, constitute definite proof of vineyards in Thira (Santorini), from as early as the 17th century BC. This prehistoric viticultural region was destroyed in the huge volcano eruption, around 1620 BC.
The viticultural region was then resurrected on new volcanic soil, as part of the renewed habitation of the island at approximately 1200 BC. One would not be exaggerating in saying that the viticultural region of Santorini is three thousand years old, given that up to the present day, it has seen uninterrupted cultivation, while the vine and the wine have been at the core of the financial, social and cultural life of the island.
The vines are classified as old vines (since they were not destroyed during the phylloxera epidemic), and are over 50 years in age. The rejuvenation of the vineyards employs the same technique from antiquity to the present day, that of “kataboladi”. This is the technique in which in the place of the dead vine, a branch from an adjacent wine is planted in the soil (to an approximate depth of 30 cm).
This new vine, is left attached to the “parent vine” for the first years, and then after 3-5 years, when it has its own roots, is cut off from the parent vine, thus creating a new one. Of course, in order to safely use this rejuvenation technique, the vineyard must consist of old vines, in order to be safe from possible Phylloxera epidemics.
The pruning technique is both ancient and unique. It was created taking into account the soil and climate conditions of the regions, as well as the farming implements that where then available. The sandy soil, the fierce winds of spring, the time of year when the vineyard grows and the scorching sun of the summer are the reasons that led to the creation of this peculiar and unique type of pruning employed in the island. Specifically, two types of pruning, similar to the Guyot type of pruning, were created.
One type is called the “giristi”. It is applied in the places that are most exposed to wind, which constitutes the largest part of the vineyard. In this type of pruning, the vine dresser takes 4 to 5 “amolites” (one year old canes with 8-10 fruit buds), and interweaves them into a wreath of old and new vines. The vine, which is pruned in this fashion, resembles a basket made of vine twigs.
The other method of pruning is called “koulouri” or “klada”. This entails the use of 4 to 5 “amolites”. The vinedresser, using exquisite care (so that it does not break), fashions a small hollow circle, which is approximately vertical to the ground level.
In the 1980s, 53 varieties were catalogued, both white and red, many of which are ancient.
Assyrtiko is the dominant variety of the vineyard. It is found in 90% of the white wine varieties, with white wine varieties constituting 80% of the viticultural region of the island. It is an indigenous variety, grown since antiquity and is in complete harmony with the harsh conditions of the island. It is linked to the Santorini soil with its mineral taste, its pronounced acidity and the firm structure that the wines of this variety have. For quite a few years now, Assyrtiko has been cultivated not only in Santorini but throughout Greece.
Aidani is also a white wine variety that is indigenous to the island. It is a floral-scented variety, with relatively low acidity. Traditionally used in Vinsanto, in order to contribute to the scent bouquet of this great and renowned sweet Santorini wine. Today, Aidani, along with the other ancient Aegean variety of Athiri, are used in up to proportions of 25%, in the making of wine with Appellation of Superior Quality “Santorini”, with the rest of the 75% being covered by Assyrtiko.
Mandilaria is another ancient red variety of the South Aegean. It can be found in Rhodes, Crete, Paros and Santorini. Along with the other red varieties of the island, it covers approximately 20% of the viticultural region. It is a high-tannin variety, rich in colouring substances; it matures with difficulty, most times yielding musts with aggressive and unripe tannins. It is also a variety with a very high acidity. It is exactly due to this high acidity, that traditionally, but even in the present day, it is used to produce the sun dried sweet wine of Santorini. This is an exquisite sweet red wine, which is known for its extremely high acidity, which compliments its rich residual sugar content and its tannin aftertaste.
This is a red variety indigenous to the island, which came close to extinction. It is a robust variety, with thick vine twigs, tough wood, large leaves and a small yield. The grapes are small, with reddish to black colour. The bunches of grapes are usually small to medium sized. The skin of the grape is thick, with anthocyanins that break easily; yielding must with vivid colour and many high quality tannins, with a good degree of polymerization.
In the last ten years, as part of the reorganization of the vineyard, our company, as well as other wineries of the island, has planted to the present day (winter of 2008) 8 hectares with this variety, and we feel that our winery is playing a leading role in saving this rare and exceptional indigenous variety of the Santorini viticultural region
The red wine produced from Mavrotragano is a wine rich in mild tannins, with a distinctive and rich perfume, with a full and textured flavour, which leaves a lingering after-taste. From the results yielded so far, it is a variety that can be used in the making of quality wines, with personality and a long extended aging time.
The climate is best described as Mediterranean, with mild winters and cool summers, due to the strong northerly winds in the summer, with durations of up to a month. The vines are also relieved from the heat from the sea breeze. Average annual rainfalls range up to 350 mm, and the average temperature is 16.5ο C.
At night in summer, during most summer times the humidity created by the sea, especially the caldera sea, due to the high day time temperatures, falls like a gentle rain at the surface of the soil and vine leaves. This ‘‘rain’’ known by the locals as ‘‘pousi’’ (meaning a mist rising from the sea) soothes the vines from the high temperatures during the day. The chill, which descends on the island during the summer night’s -largely as a result of the great temperature differences between day and night-, attributes to the high quality of the wine produced in Santorini.
The unique soil of Santorini which sheltered the vineyards from the phylloxera epidemic, resulted in Santorini being one of the few places in the world where old vines can be located, with the viticultural region being more than 3000 years old, with vines aged at more than fifty years, a unique pruning method as well as individual ancient varieties. All these make the viticultural region of Santorini, a historical viticultural area, and a viticultural museum. This region is one that yields unique wines, of exceptional qualities, which as they age, are living embodiments of the land of Santorini with all its eccentricities, this unique terroir, which is the Santorinian viticultural region.