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The island of Santorini is regaled today for everything from its local foods, particularly fava, capers, and white eggplants, to its stunning views of the surrounding Aegean Sea. For this reason it is a perfect location for a culinary trip with The International Kitchen. But the island originally became famous for its wine. After all, the winemaking methods employed today at the island’s many – but small – vineyards have an ancient history, making Santorini home to some of the longest winemaking traditions in the world.
The story of Santorini wines begins with the volcanic eruption that occurred during the time of the Minoans, around 1600 BC. Not only did the volcano create a caldera, which looks like a cauldron, but it changed the very soil of the island. Considered infertile — as the soil was made of ash, porous volcanic rock, sand, pulverized pumice, and basalt — settlers a couple hundred years later were surprised to see that grapevines had not only survived the eruption but thrived in this difficult terroir. In fact, the terroir lent itself to a variety of grapes that added both mineral and citrus notes to the island’s wines.
But Santorini wines first became famous from one particular variety: Vinsanto, a dry dessert wine. While it was first popular in the Byzantine era, it was referred to by another name. That’s because the Venetians later gave this wine its name, Vino di Santo, when they controlled the island during the Renaissance.
Vino di Santo later evolved into Vinsanto, which shouldn’t be confused with the Vin Santo wines of Tuscany, because they are entirely different. For one, Santorini’s Vinsanto is made from late-harvested grapes, particularly the white Assyrtiko grapes (which make up 70% of all the grapes on the island) as well as a blend of Athiri and Aidani grapes, all of which are produced on the Greek Island, naturally.
Vinsanto isn’t the only wine produced on Santorini either. Rosés have also grown in popularity, made as they are from both white and red grape varieties specific to the island. Reds are less well-known and regarded, but still worth a taste too, and not just because the Mavrotragano grapes are currently considered endangered.
Today, the small vineyards, usually no more than about 3 acres or so, are mostly run by families who cultivate the grapes just as they were cultivated in ancient times. And the cultivation of these grapes is a sight to behold, because the vineyards on Santorini look nothing like they do in other parts of the world.
Due to the harsh growing climate, the winemakers of Santorini train the vines to grow in a coil, known as a koulura, that sits on the ground. As the vines grow, they look like a basket, which provide the grapes some shade from the strong rays of sunshine. You also won’t see any irrigation system — because they don’t use one. These hearty grapes rely solely on what little water they can get from the soil, as well as the mist that comes off the sea.
The wines from this beautiful Greek Island are like none other in the world. Experience them first hand during our cooking vacation Greek Gastronomy on Santorini. The trip includes, in addition to two hands-on cooking classes with Chef Vassilis, two wine tastings and local wine with all included meals.
By Liz Hall