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November 03, 2020
The island of Santorini was the location of one of the largest volcanic eruptions in recorded history. Known as the Minoan eruption or the Thíra (Thera) eruption. The eruption occurred around 3600 years ago, at the peak of Minoan civilization. The resulting explosion and gigantic tsunami decimated surrounding areas and began the collapse of the Minoans, 110km away on Crete. There is a popular theory that the Thíra eruption is the inspiration and source of the legend of Atlantis.
The massive eruption left behind a large caldera surrounded by deposits of volcanic ash hundreds of metres deep. Santorini is the largest island of the resulting archipelago; repeated volcanic construction and caldera collapse gives the island it’s now iconic and dramatic appearance.
When the island fell under Venetian control (circa 1203-4) after the Byzantine rule was overthrown, it took on influences that last until this day. It was the Venetian enterprise that made Santorini an important wine producer. The wine it originally exported was chiefly the white Athiri and Mandilaria, it was prized for its sweetness and high alcohol content which meant it was able withstand the sixth month sea voyage via Venice onto western Europe.
Circa 1579 Santorini was conquered by the Ottoman Turks, they did not discourage the production of wine however as it was the only cash crop that the islands volcanic soil could produce.
A large portion of Santorin’s economy is formed by agriculture and the wine industry, the primary industry being tourism.
The Assyrtiko variety is the main grape used for Santorini wines. Assyrtiko crops have shown to be the only European grape vines to be resistant to Phylloxera (Wine blight), it is theorised that this is due to the soil lacking the clay that the aphids need to survive and not the vines themselves being immune. This means that vines on Santorini can remain ungrafted and that the root systems of some of these vines can be up to 400 years old.
Other white varieties the island is known for are Athiri and Aidani. The red varieties include Mavrotragano and Mandilaria.
Santorini has a surreal almost alien terroir for viticulture. Rocky and exposed ground is pummelled by the extreme sea winds. To combat such harsh conditions, wineries such as Gavalas will train the vines into low to the ground basket shapes known as Kouloura (As seen in our logo!). The formation of the Kouloura protect the grapes on the inside of the ‘basket’ from the worst of the winds and the harsh sun. This unique vine formation also helps with supplying the grapes with water. Santorini has very little rainfall so the mist rising from the caldera is some of the only natural watering the vines will get. The Kouloura helps to trap this moisture and protect the grapes from drying out.
The unique growing conditions on Santorini create some incredible wines that need to be tasted to be believed. Generally, you will find outstanding minerality, high alcohol and high acidity (often resulting in wine with a PH less than 3). These terroir-oriented wines provide a window into the Cycladic islands with their vibrant citrus and slightly saline tones.
The viticultural pride of the island is the sweet Vinsanto, a dessert wine made from the best sun-dried Assyrtiko (and sometimes Aidani and Athiri grapes). It is often oak aged for several years, if not decades. The best Vinsantos can age forever.
The growing conditions on the island mean that yields are rarely above 15hl/ha (0.8 tons/acre), for perspective an average yield for a French vineyard is north of 52hl/ha. Experts claim that these low yields mean that one day Santorini wine may sadly become a thing of the past.
Volcanic Wines Salt, Grit and Power, Jon Szabo MS;
Oxford Companion to Wine, Edited by Jancis Robinson, 4th Edition;
Wine Folly: The Magnum Edition: The Master Guide, Michale Joseph;
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May 11, 2021