ISLAND TALK: Estate Argyros… Keeping up the family tradition and beyond!

Mattheos Argyros of Argyros Estate in Santorini has a big challenge ahead as he guides the winery into the future, but he is relishing the opportunity to keep up the family tradition. With his father’s passing still a recent memory, he is working even harder to continue his father’s vision and, in fact, take it to the next level. With the help of Stefanos Georgas, who has joined the Argyros team, the two are fashioning a strategy for the future that includes increasing the family’s vineyard plantings and building a new winery. Mattheos has actually been running the operations for some years now, while his father focused on the winemaking, but he has a plan in mind that bodes well for the future of Santorini wine and the beautiful island he calls home. We spoke with Mattheos recently and here are some of his thoughts.

1. Can you give us some history of the Argyros family, including how they got started as well as the changes that have happened as each new generation took over the winery?

Estate Argyros was established in 1903 when George Argyros started selling his wines in the local market. The first two generations of Estate Argyros, although they expanded production, were making wines only for the local market. The person who changed significantly the image of the winery was my father, Yiannis Argyros, who was the 3rd generation. He took over the winery in the early 70s and increased the Estate’s vineyards to 30 hectares. He worked hard to ensure that the grapes were of high quality and combined modern techniques with the family traditions to produce great wines. I represent the 4th generation of Estate Argyros, continuing the family tradition while adding an additional focus on exports. I am open to new ideas in winemaking like my father, but I will remain faithful to the principals of my ancestors.

2. It was a devastating blow to have your father, Yiannis, who was such an integral part of the operations, pass away so young and unexpectedly. How has this affected the winery and your plans for the future?

My father’s passing a year ago was a sad day and a very difficult time for us. The operations of the winery were not really affected since I had taken over managing the operations some years ago, but I became even more inspired to use my creativity and set higher standards for the winery to make our work a tribute to his memory and everything he stood for. I am incredibly proud of the work my father did and the values that he lived by. His spirit will forever be the foundation of Estate Argyros. Now, as in the past, we are working very hard to deliver premium quality wines that will delight our customers and that is a great privilege and responsibility as we look to the future.

3. The Argyros family has steadily increased its vineyard holdings throughout the years. What are your plans moving forward for your current vineyards as well as acquiring additional vineyards? Which native varieties, besides Assyrtiko of course, do you plan to focus on?

We have invested a great deal in our vineyards through the years, but recently we have begun replanting some of our parcels in order to ensure that specific varieties are cultivated in locations that are the most ideal for that variety. In addition, for the last 10 years, we have begun replanting all of our vines in linear rows which allows us to use a plow with horses or a tractor, depending on the terrain, as well as switch to 100% organic farming. At the same time we are re-constructing the stone walls that formed the original terraces and layout of the vineyards for the last few centuries, while maintaining the traditional masonry. Besides Assyrtiko, we have focused on Aidani, another white variety and Mavrotragano, a red variety that is still in the experimental stages, but a variety that we think is work taking a closer look at to see what the potential may be.

4. What is the approach to production in the winery? Tell us about your winemaking team and the Argyros winemaking philosophy.

We believe that good wine is produced in the vineyard. Thus, as I mentioned before, we invest a lot of time and effort in our vines, in order to insure they produce high quality grapes.

A key part of our team consists of an older generation of growers who have many years of experience with Santorini’s traditional and difficult viticultural techniques and who share their years of experience and expertise with us. We also work with some younger people, well educated in viticulture and modern winemaking techniques, who also share our vision of producing the purest expression of Santorini’s indigenous varieties, especially Assyrtiko.

5. Vinsanto is just one of your many special wines, but the Vinsanto that your family has been producing has become the benchmark for all other Vinsantos. Can you give us a little history about when and how the tradition for Vinsanto began at Argyros and how it has evolved over the years?

As you know, the production of Vinsanto is a very old tradition on the island of Santorini. My father, Yiannis Argyros, was amongst the first – if not the first – who bottled and labeled Vinsanto. My father’s passion to produce a higher quality Vinsanto prompted him to age our Vinsanto longer and longer to help realize the potential of this very special wine. My father also developed a technique of choosing different parcels to source the grapes for our Vinsanto and of blending different barrels to come up with a recipe that he passed on to me… a family secret!

6. Even though Santorini is often referred to as a single vineyard, there are differences in the wines produced on the island. Are there variations in the terroir that account for this and/or do they come from the diversity in styles of the winemakers?

I believe that the diversity in wines from Santorini comes mainly from the different styles of the winemakers on the island. However, I think that some of the best vineyards on the island are located in Pyrgos, Episkopi and Megalochori. Also, according to our research and experience, the traditional pruning of the basket vines grown on Santorini is a key factor in the quality of the wines.

7. Santorini is one of the most historic vineyards of the world and needs to be maintained and expanded as it was in the past, but it is also one of the world’s most popular vacation destinations. How can these 2 seemingly opposing forces be reconciled and how does the future look for the Santorini wine industry?

Tourism and real estate development have been growing threats to winemakers on the island as land continues to increase in value. Real estate is the big enemy of the image of the island in general and the big enemy of the vineyards as well. As the land gets more and more expensive, the owners are encouraged to sell their property and take advantage of “easy” money rather than cultivating the land, which is very hard work. This threat is even more intensified by the fact that the younger generations of landowners and producers are less willing to follow the lifestyle of the older generations of growers. As a direct consequence of this, the cost of producing wine in Santorini remains very high, not only because of the price of real estate and the high taxes that are levied, but because of the amount of manual labor involved. Everything is basically done by hand.

However, we need to find a balance between the real estate development of the island and respect for the natural landscape. Tourism wouldn’t be a threat at all if we had better cooperation from everyone on the island to promote Santorini not only as a tourist destination, but also as an exceptional environment for making great wine and about the wine culture that has existed here for literally thousands of years, well before tourism became popular. We also need joint efforts from all the winemakers to preserve the vineyards, so that we continue to produce these exceptional wines and maintain the natural scenery of the island. It is also not going to the extreme to say that the vineyards of Santorini should be protected under UNESCO as the oldest, continuously planted and most unique vineyard in the world.

9.  What are some interesting “out of the box” pairings with a dry Assyrtiko and the sweet Vinsanto?

We always recommend going against the typical stereotypes when pairing our wines with food.

Instead of a red wine, a dry, Santorini Assyrtiko – especially an aged or oaked Assyrtiko– is a great pairing with a lamb stew lamb flavored with rosemary and thyme. Our sweet Vinsanto wines also pair well with Roquefort, Stilton and other aged cheeses and a favorite is with fresh sautéed foi gras.


(c/o vegasgravy.com)

ISLAND TO ISLAND: TASTE SANTORINI WEEK takes New York City by storm!

Santorini winemakers set off Spring Fever in NYC this past April as they presented the latest vintage from this volcanic paradise at a series of events for the media, trade, and consumers, highlighting the first annual “Taste Santorini Week.”

The week kicked off with a series of winemaker in-store tastings at Astor Wine Center, Gotham Wines & Liquors and Maslow 6. Consumers finally got the chance to get up close and personal with Santorini’s finest as winemakers from throughout the island presented their vin de terroir paired with light seasonal fare. The celebrations continued with a late night sommelier party at Salvation Taco, Chef April Bloomfeld’s popular Mexican restaurant that proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that these wines can go with any cuisine. The place was packed as winemakers pulled out older vintages, some going back 20 years, and impressing everyone with the aging potential of the extraordinary Assyrtiko variety, fast becoming a darling of local somms. A highlight of the event was an unusually competitive Ping Pong Tournament, held between the winemakers and trade for the chance at a 5-night luxury hotel stay in Santorini. Ronald Hsu, a sous chef at Le Bernadin, outlasted the field, displaying some lively acrobatic shots and claiming his prize in the wee hours of the morning.

Later in the week, top members of the media and trade joined the producers at Molyvos, as celebrated Greek restaurateur, George Hadziyiannakis of Selene restaurant in Santorini, brought his chef, Nikos Boukis, to work with Chef Jim Botsakos and create an island tasting experience using products grown on the volcano. It was a fitting celebration, highlighting Santorini’s Year of Gastronomy 2013.  Before everyone sat down for lunch, the winemakers treated their guests to a walk-around tasting of new and older vintages including some very old Vinsanto. Markos Kafouros, President of SantoWines the island’s Union of Cooperatives, welcomed the attendees and shared insights about the special environment that has created a wine culture on the island that dates back over 4000 years. The event left everyone juiced about the future of these wines in the American marketplace.

The week finished up with a sold-out wine and cheese seminar at Murray’s Cheese in the East Village and dinner at the James Beard House featuring the fare of Chef Nicolas Hilton of Amali Restaurant. The following week, media and trade from across North America tuned in for a live #winechat on Twitter with winemakers Yiannis Paraskevopolous of Gaia and Yannis Voyatzis of Boutari to get an in depth look into what makes the wines of Santorini so distinctive and what is in store for the future!

Note: In town for the Taste Santorini Week activities included, Stefanos Giorgas of Argyros, Christina Boutari of Boutari Wines, winemaker Yiannis Paraskevopoulos of Gaia, winemaker George Gavalas, winemaker Haridimos Hadzidakis, Agape and Spyros Roussos of Canava Roussos, winemaker George Koutsoyiannopoulos, President Markos Kafouros, GM Mattheos Dimopoulos and Stela Kasiola, all of SantoWines, and winemaker Paris Sigalas.

SantoWines… Looking after Santorini’s agricultural heritage

Island Talk PicSantoWines, the Union of Santorini Cooperatives, was created during the middle of the last century to protect the rights of the growers and the agricultural production in this difficult volcanic environment known more for its amazing sunsets, azure blue waters and black sand beaches. Ironically, Santorini is one of the world’s oldest wine cultures, dating back over 4000 years. Today, it is still flourishing as the oldest, continuously cultivated vineyard in the world. We recently talked with some of the staff at SantoWines about their work in maintaining and protecting the winemaking traditions of this remarkable island – whose unique way of life was fashioned by a catastrophic volcanic explosion, circa 1600 BC.

NOTE: At an EU workshop held in Brussels in October called “Support for Farmer’s Cooperatives,” SantoWines (Union of Santorini Cooperatives) was chosen as one of the cooperatives presented in a case study of successful rural cooperative organizations.

Santo Interview

Santorini is one of the most historic vineyards of the world, but it is also one of the world’s most popular vacation destinations. What are the advantages and disadvantages of these seemingly opposing forces?

Ironically, it was not until the early 1980s that Santorini started to become popular as a vacation destination – even though it has always been considered a wine culture dating all the way back to the volcanic explosion of around 1600 BC, which, basically left the island as it stands today. Of course, the huge increase in visitors has helped in the development of the Santorini tourism industry, sometimes at the expense of agricultural production. This has been a serious challenge for us and we have worked very hard to find the right balance. Instead of looking at tourism as a threat, we have treated it as an opportunity to introduce the wines and our local traditional products to visitors from all over the world. It’s all part of the total island experience.

The winery also includes a center with tasting facilities to promote all of the agricultural products from the island, besides wine, like our unique, cherry tomatoes, fava beans, capers and other products that are all influenced by our volcanic environment. The production of Santorini’s cherry tomatoes and fava beans has tripled over the last three years, with the vineyards remaining stable the last 15 years. We are also very optimistic for the future of our wines because of the increased interest of the younger generations. Our “caldera view” is probably one of the best views from any winery in the world and we have more than 300,000 visitors that come to enjoy our wine, food and fabulous sunsets. We are also working with local restaurants and producers to promote our traditional Santorini cuisine and 2013 will be promoted as the year of Santorini Gastronomy.

Can you give some history of SantoWines, including why it was established, what were the original goals and what, if anything, has changed? 

SantoWines, officially known as the Union of Santorini Cooperatives, was established in 1947 to protect the rights of Santorini vine growers, organize production and sales of the wine, while guaranteeing the member’s income. Today our core purpose remains the same, with the interests of the growers taking first priority, while helping promote a sense of common purpose and direction for our members. SantoWines represents all the growers on the island and currently has 1200 active members. As the largest winery on the island, we also feel an obligation to support the development of the local community. Our mission has expanded to include the sustainable development and protection of the unique volcanic vineyards of Santorini and the introduction of Santorini wine to the international market. We also have a research and development department, which is constantly working on improving vine cultivation and vinification techniques. We also maintain a nursery of the more than 35 grape varieties native to Santorini, a precious bank of genetic material, in order to ensure the authenticity of the Santorini vineyard for future generations.

There has been interest in having Santorini become one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. What is SantoWines’ position on this movement?

This is the wish of everyone on the island, as we all recognize Santorini as one of the most unique ecosystems in the world, so it makes sense that it should be under the protection of UNESCO. We are waiting for the appropriate national governing agencies to implement this project and have been available for any help that we can provide to achieve this end. For this movement to be successful, we truly need to reinforce how very special this island is to its residents and protect it for the world.

Santorini is on the way to becoming one of the top white wine regions of the world, yet the vineyard also seems ideal for the production of red wine. The native red, Mavrotragano, is the variety that many of the wineries have been experimenting with the last few years, but the reviews have been mixed so far. What do you think of the potential for Mavrotragano and are there other red varieties that might also show potential?

Mavrotragano was, at one time, almost extinct in Santorini, but now it has made a comeback. In the past, this variety was used to improve the aromas and taste of the sweet red wines made on the island. Because of the small quantities being produced now, it is still too soon to tell what the long-term potiential of Mavrotragano is, especially when vinified as a single variety, but early signs show it is definitely worth the effort. The must typically has a higher sugar content with good acidity. The wines have distinct aromas, a rich taste and have shown significant potential for aging. We have been producing Mavrotragano as a single varietal wine since 2006 and we have an experimental organic vineyard of Mavrotragano in the village of Messaria. The other red variety that is popular is Mandilaria, which is used for blending dry wines, but is also being vinified as a sweet wine made from sun-dried grapes similar to Vinsanto.

Because of the extremely difficult task of managing the basket vines of Santorini in a climate with very little rain, strong winds and intense heat, as well as the recent economic pressures, is there still an interest from the younger generation in continuing to manage the family vineyards?

It is true that the cultivation of our traditional basket vines is very difficult and, of course, can only be done by hand and by someone with years of experience. The pruning process goes on for almost six months and the vineyards require year round care. Currently, there are approximately 1300 hectares of vines under cultivation, almost a fourth of what it was in the late 1800s, with the average vineyard being less than a hectare. For the majority of the producers, vine cultivation is a secondary source of income, however, as many still tend their vineyards for sentimental and for traditional cultural reasons. In 2007, the average of age of a grower was 67 years old, but in recent years, interest in the vineyards has been increasing among the younger generations, with the average age of today’s growers decreasing to 55 years, a very significant change from before. This trend has been supported by our efforts to give incentives to producers to keep cultivating their vineyards and the difficult economic situation has actually provided another reason why people are going back to vine cultivation, especially as the wines of Santorini are becoming more well-known around the world.

What is the approach to production at SantoWines? Tell us about Santo’s winemaking team and their philosophy.

SantoWines receives approximately 65% of the total grape production of the island. Our philosophy is to produce authentic, high quality wines while maintaining the typical Assyrtikos grown in the volcanic terroir of Santorini. Our current winery was built in 1992 and we have made it a point to maintain and use the most modern winemaking technology available. The winery was built on 5 different levels, so that the use of gravity will help minimize interference during the vinification process. We also have strict quality and safety guidelines that we follow. Our chief oenologist, Niko Varvarigos, and his team have always made wine that expresses all of the unique characteristics of our native grapes and the volcanic terroir they are grown in. Assyrtiko produces bold, full-bodied wines with a totally distinct character and we want to maintain these attributes, which we think are a real plus. We prefer to keep the “original” character of Santorini wine and educate consumers, instead of trying to give our wines a more “international” character that would make them more familiar and friendly, and we think this helps differentiate us. We produce a steel-fermented Assyrtiko, which can be drunk fresh or allowed to age as well as some blends that include the Athiri and Aidani varieties. We also age some of these wines in oak to produce the traditional Nykteri style from Santorini and other Reserve and Grand Reserve wines. Of course, we produce the most traditional wine from Santorini, the “original” Vinsanto, from sun dried Assyrtiko, Aidani and Athiri grapes. The aging potential for Vinsanto is almost limitless and we have vintages in our cellars that go back more than 30 years.

Are there any special celebrations for harvest each year?

Yes, we actually celebrate the beginning of each harvest, which is typically in early August and we’re usually the first region in Greece to begin harvest. Every year, on the first Saturday of August, we organize the Celebration of Vedema (local name for harvest) at the winery. There is an open invitation to everyone on the island to come and drink, eat and dance as one big “family” so we can generate all of the positive energy needed for a successful harvest. This celebration is dedicated to all the vine growers of Santorini, who have been responsible for maintaining the wine culture of Santorini that has been the mainstay of the island since ancient times. The winemakers of Santorini also celebrate the opening of the first bottles of the new vintage on October 22nd in the village of Emporio, which is the day the “nameday” of Saint Averkios, considered the patron saint of wine in Santorini. Traditionally, this was the day the winemakers would go to their cellars and, while chanting the hymn of St. Averkios, opened and tasted the wines of the new vintage. They would then set out long tables of food and wine and feast on local delicacies while singing and dancing the night away.

What are some interesting “out of the box” pairings with a dry Assyrtiko and the sweet Vinsanto?

Most people think of pairing white wines, including Assyrtikos, with different types of seafood, but because these wines are full-bodied with great structure and crisp acidity, many here call it the white that drinks like a red. Assyrtikos also have long aging potential, so we often drink them with virtually any kind of meat – one of our favorites is a braised leg of lamb flavored with fresh rosemary. Many of the sommeliers in Greece have said that Assyrtiko from Santorini is one of their “go-to” wines when they can’t seem to decide on what to choose for difficult food pairings. Vinsanto can be enjoyed by itself, but a good pairing would be to serve it with a nice piece of fresh foie gras, sautéed.

Press tour explores Santorini’s charms and drinks some wine, too.

JOURNALISTS AND BLOGGERS arriving in Santorini last month were treated to sights and sites—ranging from the renown sunsets from the Oia vantage point to the newly reopened ancient ruins of Akrotiri, Greece’s own (and more ancient) version of Pompeii. The group—Mary Cressler, Jameson Fink, W. Blake Gray and Linda Murphy—were the among first American journalists hosted by Wines from Santorini to explore the ruins. The site also served as a reminder of Greece’s claim to having the oldest wine-making culture in the world: Archaeologists have found indications of ancient wine-making here.

After a day in ancients digs, the group visited the more modern, but still-traditional Gavalas Winery, built into the volcanic rock in the tiny settlement of Megalochori, where fourth-generation owner George Gavalas still uses foot treading for the Vinsanto grapes. Margarita Karamolegou, one of Santorini’s young winemakers, provided tastings of the steel-fermented Assyrtiko, Nykteri (oak-fermented and aged Assyrtiko), and Katsano, a native white variety. A highlight included tasting a 50-year-old Vinsanto made by Gavalas’ grandfather.

It was appropriate to taste the wines of Haridimos Hatzidakis at Selene Restaurant, a progressive restaurant that features artisanal food products of Santorini. The Hatzidakis wines are made from 100% organically grown grapes and native yeasts—as close a taste of the island as it gets, and an fitting complement to the local fare. Also on the table: 100% Aidani, as well as some single vineyard releases of Assyrtiko, steel and barrel fermented, and Vinsanto.

WATCHING THE SUNSET from the vineyard at Domaine Sigalas offers stiff competition to Oia’s cliffs. Here, the group toured the vineyards with Paris Sigalas, whose basket vines are among the most photographed on the island. Along with oenologist Xara Mavromati, he presented steel- and barrel-fermented Assyrtikos, including a blend with Athiri that’s garnering attention in the press. The group sampled Sigalas older vintages that demonstrate the aging potential of this variety.

One of the hidden charms of Santorini—some 30 meters underground—is the Koutsoyiannopoulos Winery museum—the second pride and joy (after the wines) of its owner, George Koutsoyiannopoulos. After a morning underneath Santorini’s famous volcanic soil, his steel-fermented Assyrtiko was particularly refreshing. To sample the ageability of Vinsanto, the group tasted from 2009 and 1959, finding the middle-aged wine to be still vibrant. A visit to the neighboring Karamolegos Winery showed the versatility of this small band of winemakers: here, winemaker Artemis makes a flagship blend of Assyrtiko, Athiri and Aidani. The winery is also known for its home-grown fava beans.

Oenologist Ioanna Vamvakouri from the progressive Boutari winery hosted the evening tasting, taking the group through a progression of steel- and barrel-fermented Assyrtikos, and the 1989 Kallisti Reserve—still a lively wine at 23 years old.

Against the backdrop of the caldera—the undisputed best view of anywhere on the island—Stela Kasiola presented the SantoWines’ Assyrtikos, including a steel- and barrel-aged Nykteri and what was quickly becoming established as the ultimate closer, Vinsanto.

On the other side of the island, in the shadow of Thira, the wines of Canava Roussos—where foot treading is still used for some wines—were enjoyed in the picture-perfect trellised courtyard. Agape Roussos, in charge of promotion and communications as well as winery tastings, presented barrel-aged Assyrtikos and some older Vinsantos.

AT THE NEIGHBORING Estate Argyros, fourth-generation Mathew Argyros led a tasting through a range of Assytikos and blends. Here, no visit is complete without a tasting of Vinsantos—the hallmark of this winery (though certainly not the only award-winner here).

The trip wrapped up with a visit to Gaia Wines, where owner/oenologist Yiannis Paraskevopoulos greeted the group in the winery’s new tasting facility overlooking the sea.

An educator and tireless ambassador for Greek wines, Paraskevopoulos, almost needs no introduction, as he is unofficially the “face” of the new generation of Greek winemakers. His Assyrtiko is made with native yeasts, and he’s also experimenting the wine’s age-worthiness buried at sea. He is almost ready to release his first Vinsanto, a 10-year-old vintage, which the group previewed with pleasure.

Wizard, winemaker & wunderkind

ONE OF SANTORINI’S most elusive winemakers is also one of its most eccentric and talented. Such is the price of genius, you might say.

But if you are lucky enough to find Haridimos Hatzidakis (and if he’s in the mood to speak with you), it will be hard to figure what’s more captivating: the wines or the winemaker.

A little grizzled, sometimes a little grumpy, Hatzidakis has been called a wizard so often, it’s almost a cliché. He makes his wines in a 400-year-old cave—a cool earthy cache of dusty bottles. He farms 100 percent organically on a hardscrabble hill. He goes beyond authenticity simply because no one can replicate him. He’s the only winemaker on the island who doesn’t filter or fine, and uses natural yeast for all his fermentations.

Trained in Athens and later as a novice winemaker at Boutari, Hatzidakis went out on his own in the mid 90’s, reclaiming the neglected vineyards of his wife’s family. From the start, he was organic—not because of trend, but because “the grapes are better with more character and more close to the terroir.”

His plantings are on land and in a climate so troubled he said, pointing to ancient stucco churches in the distance, that people used to pray to protect the vineyards. Hence, Hatzidakis has become somewhat of a meteorologist.

“We want north winds and moisture to help cool the plants,” he said, shading his eyes and squinting into the July sky. He credits the water-absorbing pumice in the soil—what he calls a “magic ingredient” for providing relief from the unforgiving sun. But the sun, like the wind, like drought, are all part of the natural cycle and rhythm he embraces. And maybe that’s what makes the wines what Alder Yarrow calls “soulful and distinctive.” He even finds a certain beauty in the red and black lava that litters his vineyard, a simple philosophy that you take the good with the bad.

 Hatzidakis produces about 15,000 bottles from his own property but by buying grapes from about 40 other growers, he can produce up to 80,000 bottles annually. Because he manages every inch of the soil he tends, it would be difficult to get much bigger. Any new vineyards he acquires undergo careful cleaning. A larger production could compromise the quality control he’s worked so hard to achieve.

“I look around to see what is free and if I could culture it. I wait for two years to calibrate the soil before planting the vines,” he said.

And it’s worth the wait. The 10-hectare estate produces a range of Assyrtiko expressions from blends, single vineyard, Nykteri and a Cuvee 15 Organic, as well as Mavrotragano and Vinsanto. Lana Bortolot

Food for thought: Santorini eats

SOMMELIERS HAVE A SINGULAR Santorini swan song: Assytriko, one of the food-friendliest wines on the planet. Drink it with everything, they say. But what to eat with it? Two restaurants on the island are coming up with cuisine that strike a song in all hearts. Click here for the Santorini Fava with Mastic recipe created by chef Yiorgos Hatziyiannakis of Selene Restaurant, and here for the classic Santorini Salad of Nykteri Restaurant‘s chef Vassilis Zacharakis.

Santorini makes annual sail into Manhattan

ON THE MORNING OF MARCH 22, producers from the island of Santorini were welcomed to Manhattan with weather suggestive of the region’s unique climate—a dense morning fog leading to bright sunny skies—as they presented their wines to wine trade and media professionals at the third annual Wines from Santorini tasting.

Held at the Gansevoort Park Avenue Hotel, the event kicked off with a tasting and discussion of the island’s hallmark grape and its deserved place on the table. Writer Jordan Mackay led panelists Paul Grieco of Hearth Restaurant and Terroir Wine Bars, Michael Madrigale of Bar Boulud & Boulud Sud, Tom Pastuzsak of the Nomad Hotel, Athina Tsoli of Karamolegos Winery and Sofia Perpera of All About Greek Wine in a conversation about the Santorini vineyard and Assyrtiko’s unique attributes.

Mackay called them “one of the most singular and distinctive wines that exist,” noting Santorini’s crisp, minerality results from its terroir—one of the driest, most windswept volcanic landscapes in the world. The grape was showcased in flights of stainless-steel fermented, barrel-aged and Vinsanto, the fine sweet wine produced from sun-dried grapes. Speaking of his personal passion, Madrigale said, “these wines needed recognition: It is my duty as a sommelier to expose people to them because they have personality and speak of where they come from.”

The wines showcased in the first two flights included the 2011 vintage, noted for its more than usual aromatic wines, exceptional minerality and acidity, thanks to consistent grape maturation during the unusually cool summer.

Also featured: the 2010, 2009, and 2007 vintages, presented as age-worthy and food-friendly as paired with Kumamoto oyster, steak tartare, and roasted shitake mushroom stuffed with crab.

Sofia Perpera led guests through a historical perspective on the Santorini Nykteris as well as the “real” Vinsanto from 1989, 2000, 2004 and 2006 vintages, tasted alone and paired with pistachio semifreddo.

The seminar was followed by a walk-around tasting featuring a range of wines from the Santorini wineries. In attendance from Santorini were Haridimos Hatzidakis, George Koutsoyiannopoulos and George Gavalas; Agape Roussos, Athina Tsioli, Christina Boutari, Stela Kasiola and Xara Mavromati.

Santorini set to sail into Manhattan in March

Encore trade event will showcase wines from one island to another in March

Santorini’s unique wines will return to NYC in a food and wine pairing seminar and grand tasting. Jordan Mackay will lead a panel of producers with top sommeliers Paul Grieco, Michael Madrigale and Tom Pastuszak in a discussion about Santorini’s distinctive terroir, the versatility of Assyrtiko, and its food-friendly nature.
Thursday, March 22, 2012, at the Gansevoort Park Avenue Hotel, 420 Park Ave. South
Seminar 11:30am-12:30pm (limited seating), Grand Tasting 1-4pm
click here to RSVP [press & trade only]

Greece to be featured at New York Wine Expo

Greek wine ambassador Steve Olson, aka Wine Geek, will present a tasting seminar on Greek wines, including Santorini, at the New York Wine Expo, Saturday, March 3 from 3-4pm.

Olson will present the major wine regions, detailing Greece’s distinctive terroir, globally unique vineyard practices, and hallmark indigenous varieties Assyrtiko, Moschofilero, Agiorgitiko and Xinomavro. New Wines of Greece will be represented by 10 tables showcasing PDO and PGI designated wines from throughout Greece.

In Memoriam: Yiannis Argyros

It is with sadness that we note the death of winemaker and friend Yiannis Argyros. Yiannis died Dec. 12, 2011 at age 64. His grandfather founded the winery and under Yiannis’ guidance, the winery became known for its stunning Vinsantos, not only raising the wine’s profile among critics, but also giving proof that only Santorini can produce the real Vinsanto.

But beyond his talent for winemaking was his character: a modest man of few words who loved his family and his horses. He could be seen riding along the beaches, in the shadow of the mountain over his winery. He will be missed by all his friends and admirers in the wine world.

Wildman showcases Greek wine portfolio

In New York City last month, Frederick Wildman and Sons hosted a tasting of its new Greek portfolio, which includes wines from Koutsoyiannopoulos Winery. Dionysi Grevenitis, the portfolio manager, said the representation gave Wildman a solid foot into the world of the most exciting emerging wines. The importer hosted a tasting dinner of the wines, and in a tongue-in-cheek nod to the popularity of Assyrtiko, titled the red-wine-based event “Assyrtiko No Longer.” We’ll take the compliment!

Our very own hot shot!

With pleasure we note the recognition shown to Sofia Perpera, who was recently named to IntoWine.com’s annual “Top 100 Most Influential People in the U.S. Wine Industry.” The list recognizes top influencers in wine; from how it is made, marketed and talked about to how it’s shipped and shared.

Sofia founded and is Director of All About Greek Wine, which administers the marketing and promotion of the Greek wine programs in the U.S. and Canada. She has assisted in updating Greek wine legislation and creating educational programs for the wine sector, and serves as a judge in international wine tasting competitions.

HARVEST REPORT: 2011 Santorini: aromatic and fruit-forward
Winter rains and an absence of extreme weather conditions helped the Santorini vineyard produce healthy, high-quality fruit for all varieties grown on the island, of which Assyrtiko is the primary grape. The harvest began Aug. 12 and ended Sept. 10. The grape yields were at average levels and comparable to the last three years. Producers were satisfied with yields that averaged between 3000-3500 kilogram per hectare.

The favorable conditions — plentiful rainfall, lack of extreme heat, coupled with the characteristic cool breezes of the island coming from the north, known as “meltemia” — allowed the vines to flourish and the grapes to mature evenly without excessive alcohol volume.

Gaia winemaker Dr. Yiannis Paraskevopoulos, who produces Thalassitis and Assyrtiko Wild Ferment, said there were more aroma and fruit than average in this year’s harvest.

“2011 is quite comparable to 2009—both vintages were great. We saw a rather cold August, which led to extremely healthy berries and rather aromatic. I think it’s a really brilliant vintage—quite balanced,” he said.

Summer’s cooler temperatures also played a role in this year’s grapes producing more aromatic wines, similar to the harvest of 2009. The must during this year’s fermentation indicated that the wines should yield excellent results overall—possibly one of the better vintages in recent memory.

“The grapes were extremely healthy, with a crisp acidity and minerality, as they usually do, but the bonus derived from this rather ‘fresh’ summer was the increase of the aromatic intensity. The wines have a more distinct fruitiness than what they do on a conventional harvest, such as 2010,” Paraskevopoulos said.

Sweets for a sweetheart’s holiday: Prompted by a story in the online wine digi-mag, Winacea about Vin Santo v. Vinsanto, Wines From Santorini launched a week-long showcase of Vinsanto on Facebook and Twitter. Just in time for Valentine’s Day, the mini-campaign highlighted with a daily tag, “Reason to Heart Vinsanto,” and daily picture.

You’ll find the complete gallery on our Facebook page—just one more reason to “like” us.

Santorini Harvest Diary: A Singular Sigalas!

SINCE MOST OF SANTORINI’S vineyards are owned by growers with very small plots, competition for the limited amount of grapes during harvest is intense. Most of the wineries on the island also have small holdings of vineyards.

Santorini-born Paris Sigalas is one such winery owner, having accumulated more than 50 hectares over the years. For many years Sigalas had a close relationship with a grower in the village of Imerovigli, who was renown for the great care he took tending his vines. Known as Kavaliero, the grower often was seen walking through his vineyard, almost lovingly tending his basket vines growing on top of the volcanic soil.

When he passed away a few years ago, Kavaliero left specific instructions that his vineyard be sold to Sigalas so it would not be divided or, worse, used for touristic development. Sigalas bought grapes from the Kavaliero vineyard for years to make his flagship Sigalas Santorini wine and after he took over ownership of the vineyard, he decided to honor this special place with a single vineyard release, Sigalas Kavaliero. It was first released in 2009.

The label artwork represents the old owner walking hunched over through his vineyard, and in a clever twist, the logo, when turned upside down, is the a visage, famous in Cycladic sculptures.

The Kavaliero vineyard experiences cooler temperatures than many parts of the island and the grapes are picked more than two weeks after most other vineyards. The extended maturity gives wine a rich mouth feel with hints of tropical fruit, including pineapple. The 2010 release should be available soon. This year’s vintage will be held for one year of aging before release. If you happen to spot a bottle of this very limited release it would be a rare find, indeed.

Santorini Harvest Diary: A Cooperative Effort

AS THE LARGEST PRODUCER on this tiny island, SantoWines plays a critical role in keeping Santorini’s winemaking tradition alive. The winery, aka the Union of Santorini Cooperatives, was founded in 1947. Every grape grower on the island is automatically a member. Though the 1,200 member-growers are not required to sell their production to the cooperative, SantoWines purchases between 70 to 75 percent of the island’s harvest each year. Cultivated with great care in traditional basket vines in the volcanic soils, the grapes are picked by hand and brought to the winery in small crates to protect the precious whole bunches, and keep them in pristine condition before pressing.

Near the end of harvest, the grapes will dry in the sun for seven to 10 days, spread as far as the eye can see on patches of land overlooking the cliffs. Their days in the sun concentrates their sweet juices to make Vinsanto.

With its panoramic view of the west-side caldera, Santo’s tasting room is a must-see on anyone’s island itinerary—whether they drink wine or not. More than 100,000 guests a year visit the winery and its shop, which features the island’s bounty: wine, artisanal food items from products grown on Santorini, such as cherry tomatoes, capers, caper leaves, and fava beans.

Sipping a glass of luscious Vinsanto at the end of the day as the sun goes down is a favorite pastime for visitors and one of the more memorable moments during a visit to this idyllic island.

Harvest diary

Korinne Munson, who is working with Wines from Santorini, went to Santorini to work the 2011 harvest this past August and  shares her experiences with us.

The Vinsanto harvest comes to a sweet end at the Gavalas Winery. The Assyrtiko grapes destined for Vinsanto, the traditional sweet wine of Santorini, are the last to be picked. These bunches are left on the vine until the end of harvest to soak up the sun and ripen to a golden sweetness. Once they are harvested by hand, the grapes are then spread out on mats to spend between 7-10 days drying in the sun, to further concentrate their luscious juice.

When it’s time to press the grapes most wineries now use mechanical presses, but the Gavalas family is the last commercial winery on the island to still press Vinsanto the traditional way—by foot. This year the 4th and 5th generations of the family met at the winery to continue the tradition by pressing the grapes with their feet. Because they want to keep this process alive and share this unique experience, they welcome visitors at the winery to literally “step in” and help.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The sun-dried grapes are spread out in the original winery foot-pressing vat, and the rich juice flows by gravity through a basket that acts as a filter and into tanks below ground. The grapes are pressed four times. After each pressing, they are swept into a corner of the vat and left to sit for a few hours, then spread out and thoroughly stepped on again to make sure that all of the precious juice is extracted.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After our hard work, winemaker George Gavalas measured the sugar level of the juice and when it got his seal of approval, he shared it with us. The juice is then put into old oak barrels for fermentation and aging.

Surveying Santorini’s wineries

WINE & SPIRITS CONSULTANT Steve Raye traveled with us to Santorini this month along with others in the wine trade. His Santorini travelogue reports on visits, tastings and the island’s unique viticulture. You can see images on our flikrstream.

Wines from Santorini hosted a contingent of guests on a trip in June/July and we came away with some interesting perspectives to add to the incredible vistas.  Attending the trip was Christie Dufault, an educator at Napa’s Culinary Institute of America and a sommelier at San Francisco’s RN47 restaurant; Jordan Mackay, author of “Secrets of the Sommeliers,” Gregory Dal Piaz editor in chief of Snooth; Alder Yarrow of vinography.com; and Jon Troutman from Gary Vaynerchuk’s the Daily Grape.

Santorini’s novel name games were not lost on the group. Mackay noted, “There’s just no way to shorten the name of Assyrtiko in my notes.  Three letters don’t work and a fourth isn’t much better, so you might as well go with the whole name.”

And at Karamolegos Winery, Yarrow commented “it may be an American perspective, but how cool is it to have a tasting at a winery run by a guy named Artemis, with wines poured by Antigone.” Here, at one of the family-run wineries on the island, we came away with yet another perspective of the intense minerality of Assyrtiko as well as a bag of some homegrown fava beans.

The group rested from the intense sun under the thatched patio at Canava Roussos, founded in 1836. The scenic winery is popular with tourists but particularly nice is that it’s a working winery. The way they make the wine hasn’t changed much, still using the traditional rooms for grape crushing by foot, wicker baskets for transferring the grapes from the vineyards, and fermenting in barrels of Russian oak over 100 years old are still in use.

At Gaia, Bordeaux-trained Yiannis Paraskevopoulos, professor of oenology at University of Athens, presented wines that are the expression of terroir itself. He takes grapes from vineyards located on the southeastern slopes of Episkopi, composed entirely of 70-80 year old, ungrafted vines with a dramatically low yield. His Thalassitis, derived from “Thalassitis Inos,” or more poetically, sea-originated wine, is the subject of an experiment. Paraskevopoulos has submerged a number of cases to see how the wine ages in an oxygen-free environment. An ardent scuba diver, retrieving the bottles presumably will be no problem for him.

The group visited Hadzidakis, Santorini’s own garagiste. In this case, though, the wine is made in a tiny converted old cave-house outside Pyrgos at 350 meters above the sea, at the altitude limits of growing Assyrtiko. His shed supports a net covered with discarded dried grape stems, serving as a roof.  Hadzidakis, who farms organically, boasts soft soils in his vineyards—the norm in some wine regions, but an anomaly in Santorini’s hardscrabble volcanic turf. His wife and daughter stop by the tasting to drop off some traditional breads and fritters that allow us to really appreciate the qualities of his wines to pair with indigenous food.

We watched the sun set at Sigalas while tasting steel- and barrel-fermented Assyrtikos. It was here that Dal Piaz came up with “spiky” to describe the acidic backbone to the whites that tannins provide in a red wine. Ever the tinkerer, Sigalas is on a mission to unlock the mystery of the potential of Assyrtiko. The winery is full of barrels with permutations of vineyard source, vinification variations, aging differences. All being rested and tested periodically to understand exactly what his land, and his vision, is capable of producing.

George Gavalas let his winemaker, Margarita Karamolegou, make the presentation of their wines to us.  Like many of the winemakers on Santorini, she’s young, trained in oenology at the University of Athens, and immersed in bringing a 3,000-year tradition of island winemaking into an age of modern technology. They produce high quality wines of intensity, austerity and typicity that helped provide a reference for our visit to the island. New to their fold: the Iris label, a series of well-priced “gateway” wines that introduce wine drinkers to the varieties, as well as provide easy drinking at an affordable price.

We had a brief stop at Koutsoyiannopoulos to pick up some wines for our afternoon tasting. The Volcan Wine Museum there is usually a “must see,” but with the affable George Koutsoyiannopoulos not feeling well, sadly our tour was cancelled. The portfolio showed well, however, against a panoply of typical Greek dishes including tomato fritters, classic Greek and Santorini salads, followed by grilled octopus, calamari, and barbecued lamb—which showed off the great strength of Assyrtiko with hearty meats.

Another must see, Estate Argyros, which lies below the village of Pyrgos, is one of the oldest wineries on the island. Now in its fourth generation of ownership with Matthew Argyros at the helm, the winery is producing wines that are consistent award winners. We toured three vineyards demonstrating how the vines are grown—from newly planted Aidani and 10-year-old Assyrtiko to the typical Kouloura basket on very old rootstock.  Here, we had barrel samples of Vinsantos aged from 10 to 30 years old, as well as the newer vintage still wines. Giotta Ioakimoglou says, the wine is more “honest” served less cold, revealing all the characteristics that define it: acidity, structure, freshness, fruits and, most importantly, food-friendliness.

By the time we visited the Boutari winery, we had all become believers of the aging potential of this marvelous grape. So, we were ready for a tasting of young and old vintages of Assyrtiko. Boutari revolutionized the Santorini harvest by moving it from September, the month of the traditional harvest, to August. Boutari also helped make barrel-aged Assyrtiko fashionable again, with its well-done Kallisti and Kallisti Reserve wines.

Our final stop and last sunset of the trip was at SantoWines, the island cooperative and winery with a view. Santo has more than 1000 growers, most with vineyards of less than a hectare. And dispelling the myth of coops, this large producer makes great examples of Assyrtiko. Santo growers also produce traditional products including native cherry tomatoes, fava beans and caper bushes found throughout the island. At our final dinner at Selene Restaurant, owner George Hatziyannakis spread out artisanal cheeses from throughout the Cycladic Islands, perfectly paired with the wines.