What’s old is new

Basket vine

Photos: Nikos Desyllas

Santorini’s basket vines present a new way to talk about the island’s unique viticulture

IF YOU’VE BEEN TO SANTORINI, they’re a familiar sight: low hand-woven baskets protecting the island’s most precious harvest. High temperatures and high winds necessitate special measures to protect the grapes here, and the basket vines, locally known as ampelies are somewhat of a novelty, but also an example of ingenuity.

Santorini distinguishes itself as the oldest vineyard in the world still under continuous production—some 3,500 years of winemaking. And for anyone wanting to express the character of Santorini wines, they need only describe the ancient viticulture: small parcels of old vines on hardscrabble landscapes. Volcanic soils that give Assyrtiko its characteristic acidity and minerality. One of the few phylloxera-free vineyards in the world. And the genius of the baskets themselves.

How do they work?

The vines are trained and pruned into a wreath-shaped “basket” that encircles the grapes, protecting them from the meltemia, winds known since ancient Greek times as the “etesians.” The winds are loved and cursed by sailors and farmers alike, but on the island, they help blow away pests and fungi, helping grape growers stay naturally organic. The baskets also trap moisture from the evening fog, and store it in the pumice compound of the volcanic soil at night. Overnight and during the day, the stored moisture provides micro-irrigation to the grapes inside each basket—talk about your micro-micro climate!

Paris Sigalas shows how basket vines are formed. Photo: Lana Bortolot

As soon as the young vine forms a strong trunk, the viticulturist begins shaping the basket, pruning most of the canes and forcing the remaining cane to the ground in a flat wreath formation. Each year, he selects the best branches, prunes out the rest, and winds the  remaining branches around the existing spiral of previous years. Vines so trained can live more than 100 years. Oenologist Stavroula Kourakou-Dragona summed up the phenomenon, writing, “The secrets to their art cannot be described; they can only be experienced.”

Any grower will grumble about the baskets’ labor-intensive maintenance, but they will also point to their handiwork with enormous pride. No other place on earth boasts this unique heritage. No doubt, yhey are an ingenious ecological adaptation to a harsh environment, but also are a nod to the island’s lost art of basket-weaving.

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