This feature was published by National Geographic Traveller (UK).
My initial encounter with vinsanto proved delightful. I had always pictured dessert wines to be rather heavy – evocative of Christmastime – yet this one was refreshingly light and effortlessly enjoyable. I had initially ordered it just to extend my stay at a restaurant that offers the much-coveted Santorini sunset view over the caldera, sprinkled with charming white-painted, blue-roofed dwellings beneath a stunning red and orange sky.
While Santorini is famed for its stunning cliffside towns, the landscape doesn’t share the lush greenery of the Saronic islands like Agistri or Hydra. It’s arid here with soil too parched for spontaneous vegetation. The soil’s mineral composition heavily influences what thrives. On a scenic drive around the coastline from Oia in the northern part of Santorini, I notice the lack of trees, the black volcanic sands and barren hills providing a stark contrast to the island’s vibrant, white architecture.
Upon reaching Estate Argyros, one of Santorini’s primary wineries, I’m greeted by Dimitrios Kekas, who has dedicated nearly three decades to the establishment overseeing sales. As he leads me towards the vineyard, I am struck by the unique way the vines are pruned – into basket shapes called koulouras. Dimitrios tells me how these protect the grapes, a necessity in Santorini’s variable climate.
The koulouras are a response to Santorini’s climate challenges; they protect the grapes from the elements, maintain moisture, and provide a unique, small-scale refrigeration system. The invention is ingenious, allowing the vines to thrive despite the island’s arid climate.
After a visit to the sun-drenched vineyards, Dimitrios invites me to taste vinsanto. The symphony of flavors he describes, rustic coffee beans, butterscotch, cigar box, and oak, is wonderfully harmonized by the accompaniments of dark chocolate and salty blue cheese. He declares it an elegant wine with perfect balance.
Despite local pride in Santorini’s wine, Greek wines have generally struggled to build an international reputation due to past export practices. However, winemakers have been actively working to improve this perception. Most people discover vinsanto when they visit the island itself.
The next leg of my journey leads me to Santo Wines, Santorini’s busiest winery and home to a 1,200-member wine co-operative. Anastasios Terzidis, who joined in 2019, reveals that the co-operative gives families with small landholdings a platform to sell their grapes without the burdens of winemaking.
To maintain its PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status, vinsanto must adhere to traditional ripening and ageing methods. Anastasios shows me around the winery’s multi-tiered production area, explaining how they use gravity to naturally move the wine between levels, reducing energy consumption and apparently enhancing the flavor.
At Hatzidakis Winery, the island’s only certified organic wine producer, I get a taste of a 16-year-old vinsanto. The owner, Konstantinas Chryssou, tells me that the wine’s remarkable flavor comes from their organic approach to cultivating grapes.
My vineyard tour concludes at Canava Roussos, a sixth-generation family-run vineyard, where I am welcomed into a charming, bougainvillea-shrouded courtyard and treated to another sampling of rich vinsanto. Canava Roussos is a place where one could easily lose track of time, lured by the combination of.”’
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Vinsanto Santorini
What is unique about vinsanto, the dessert wine from Santorini?
Vinsanto is a light yet richly flavored dessert wine produced in Santorini. It’s distinct due to its sun-drying process, which gives the wine its deep red shade and intense flavor. It’s also cultivated in unique basket-shaped vines, known as ‘koulouras’, a vine-pruning technique unique to Santorini.
What is the significance of the ‘koulouras’ in Santorini winemaking?
The ‘koulouras’ is a vine-pruning technique unique to Santorini, creating a basket-like structure that protects the grapes from the harsh island conditions. This close proximity to the ground allows the vines to draw water from the volcanic soil, and it also helps in trapping the early morning dew, providing much-needed moisture. The structure even acts as a mini refrigeration system, keeping the grapes cool.
How does the ageing process influence vinsanto?
After sun-drying the grapes, the vinsanto wine is aged in oak barrels for a minimum of two years. Further ageing must happen in multiples of four years to balance sweetness and acidity. The length of the ageing process is up to the winemakers, but it’s typically slow and prolonged. This ageing process helps create robust flavors like coffee, chocolate, and caramel in vinsanto.
What efforts are being made for the preservation of Santorini’s winemaking tradition?
Many winemakers, like Agape Roussos from Canava Roussos vineyard, are campaigning for Santorini’s vineyards to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The aim is to preserve the unique land, the historical techniques of winemaking, and the local knowledge passed down through generations, in the face of rapid development on the island.
Which grape variety is used in making vinsanto and what are its characteristics?
Vinsanto is primarily made with the assyrtiko grape variety, which is indigenous to Santorini. Assyrtiko is a white grape but has the qualities of a red grape. It is known for its acidity, minerality, and salinity. For a wine to be called a vinsanto, it must be made with at least 51% assyrtiko. The wine achieves its characteristic lightness through considerable ageing, where the oak barrels help soften the harsher aspects of the grape.