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.

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