Soil, climate, altitude, grape varietals, cultivation method, vinification techniques and the pervasive presence of the sea all combine to make Santorini one of the most unique wine growing regions of the world. We’ll take each of these and more in turn to tell the story of the Wines from Santorini.
Members of the wine community gathered in NY in May to taste, talk and most importantly share and learn about this magic Aegean isle where the noble Assyrtiko grape finds its greatest expression. And one of the items on display was the unique volcanic rock and pumice that makes up the “Aspa” soil of Santorini. Colored red, black and white these unique stones were created during the cataclysmic eruptions that have formed the island.
Because of the volcanic nature and very low clay content in Santorini’s soil, the island is essentially immune to phylloxera. That means that the rootstocks have never been grafted and the wine we drink today is from the same vines that have grown here for hundreds of years.
But this same soil is light and crumbly and easily blown by the winds from the ocean and can damage the delicate grapes. So the vineyardists of Santorini have developed a unique alternative to trellising…they weave the vines into a circular coil kept low on the ground. With this “Koulara” technique the grape bunches are trained to lay inside the protection of the basket and the leaves outside and above to protect them from the harsh sun and head.
As the vines get longer and longer they decline in productivity and need to be renewed. So every 50-100 years or so, the vines are cut back close to the soil and a new plant will sprout from a dormant eye in the old rootstock to begin the process anew.
An unusual method is also used for growing new vines. The parent vines can be laid on the soil and within a few years will grow roots. These are then cut free from the mother plant to establish a new vine. So part of the fascinating history of Santorini is that nobody really knows how old the vines are. I
Rainfall on the island is minimal averaging less than 15” a year and falls mostly in the winter months, sinking deep into the soil. The very porous volcanic soil absorbs this moisture and the roots of the vines necessarily go quite deep to access this moisture which filters its way down. Cuts in the roadways show just how hard the vines need to work.
Much of the water that the vines need to survive in the summer growing season comes in the form of sea fog that creeps up the slopes of the caldera and condenses as mist.