Santorini is a small island on the southern edge of Greece’s Aegean Sea, small certainly if measured in square miles (less than 25) and arguably if measured by impact on world history. Yet thanks to one iconic wine grape and a dazzling origin story that might actually be true, this purple-black volcanic rock rising from Homer’s “wine-dark sea” has taken on gastronomic appeal to travelers far greater than any calculation of its size.
Some visitors come for that legend, of course – the tale oft-told by Plato and others of a glorious civilization wiped out by a volcano and its resulting tsunami, a civilization recalled in fascination as the Lost City of Atlantis. Still others come for the scenery, the beaches, the nightlife, the donkey rides, or even the fact that Santorini is one of the few Greek islands you can reach by plane. But more and more visitors head south from Athens airport or from the “Never on Sunday” ferry port of Piraeus to sample wines and foods that draw much of their uniqueness from the cataclysmic eruption that occurred before history started being written down.
Whether the Minoan civilization around Santorini (and on the nearby island of Crete) was Atlantis or not seems academic when you’re tasting a broad array of dishes made with Santorini’s flavor-popping tomatoes or with the lentils natives insist on calling “fava.” And the question, debated by historians for centuries, fades entirely when you’re tasting local white wines crafted with increasing reverence from the assyrtiko grape.
None of these things would be possible, the experts tell us, without the island’s bizarre yet beautiful volcanic soil. Beginning with an official Year of Gastronomy a while back, Santorini now draws more and more visitors to first-rate wineries large and small, restaurants plain and fancy, and an expanding schedule of cooking classes. At times the place seems like Napa Valley thirty or forty years ago, except with white wine instead of red, and almost always with a nearby beach featuring black, red, pink or white sand.
No one would argue (yet) that assyrtiko enjoys the cache of, say, Napa cabernet – or indeed the comfort level associated with other familiar varietals like chardonnay, merlot, pinot noir or sauvignon blanc. Yet the grape’s popularity has ridden into the international wine marketplace on two separate but related waves of appreciation.
First is the recognition earned by Greek wines in general over the past two or three decades. Long known as the world’s oldest true wine culture, modern Greece was not especially known for making wines well. Too many years of anti-alcohol Turkish occupation, perhaps.
Or simply too many Americans who‘d tasted the dreaded retsina and figured that was the best Greece could do. It wasn’t. As wineries all over Greece have increased investment, modernized production techniques and embraced at least some international grapes, the awards and respect won by its many native grapes – not only white assyrtiko but reds like agiorgitiko and mavrotragano – have increased as well.
The second wave has everything to do with the uniqueness of Santorini. The island’s volcanic soil gives grapes, and this white varietal in particular, a remarkable crispness and acidity that’s perfect for accompanying Santorini’s seafood. Public response to this here-only grape has been so feverish that, ironically, it isn’t here-only anymore. Market-savvy growers and winemakers are now working with assyrtiko in other parts of Greece as well as in California, South America and Australia.
Santorini’s winemakers insist their terroir can never be duplicated, but the spread of assyrtiko may indeed be the sincerest form of flattery. Should the grape be eventually admitted to the canon of household wine words, Santorini’s wineries can expect to sell their share.
Tourism being what it is, any number of winery tours by mini-bus have sprung up here in recent years – helped along by the fact that Santorini has only thirty-nine taxi cabs (no Uber allowed) to serve tens of thousands of visitors, especially on days when two or three large cruise ships are tendering in from the harbor. Still, if you want to rent a car (preferably outside peak tourist season in August) and go from winery to winery on your own, you’ll be struck not only by the eerie beauty of the inland landscape but by the human warmth of your reception.
Tours and tastings can be arranged at all the major producers. We recently made our way through six over two days and can say with confidence there’s a size, shape or style of Santorini winery for just about everybody.
A great place to start is Estate Argyros, a wine operation founded in 1903 and now in its fourth generation of family ownership. Argyros clearly deserves the Academy Award for biggest transformation in the fewest number of years. We visited it in the village of Episkopi three years ago, and the wines were indeed awesome. But the experience (for better and worse) was a bit like visiting young Steve Jobs or Bill Gates in their cluttered garage. Within the past year, however, Argyros has moved from its small canava into an impressive wine destination worthy of Napa Valley, complete with a sleek, contemporary spin on the white lines of the Cycladic islands and a large, high-ceilinged, sun-splashed tasting room.
At Argyros, do ask to see the vineyards. Of course, a vineyard is a vineyard is a vineyard, right? On Santorini, no, not at all. Because of high winds and merciless sunshine that rake the barren hillsides, growers long ago started planting their grapes not in familiar rows but in tightly woven baskets of vines called koulouras. At the beginning of each growing season, these resemble gray rings littering the dirt like so many abandoned life preservers. By the time of harvest in August, leaves grow out with abandon without quite losing their elemental and brilliant form, leaving the grapes hidden in the shade of wood and leaves.
These koulouras are a unique element of winemaking on Santorini, and you can see several vineyards full of them spread out over hills surrounding Estate Argyros – and also around the Santorini operation of Greek wine giant Boutari. With wine production in several key regions across Greece, Boutari in many ways is the eight-hundred-pound gorilla. Yet, like Robert Mondavi in the history of Napa, the family brings substantial investment in assyrtiko’s undeniably bright future. Its research is second to none, and its marketing budget doesn’t hurt either. The people who put the light, uber-refreshing Greek white wine known as moschofilero on the map may prove to be exactly what assyrtiko needs.
It’s worth noting that both Argyros and Boutari make assyrtiko for a wide audience around the world yet have created pleasurable tasting experiences for visitors right on the island. It’s an example that all the rest of Santorini’s winemakers are trying to emulate, each in his or her own way.
If Boutari is close to the lovely village called Megalochori, Gavalas Winery is right in the heart of it. Be sure any tasting you plan leaves at least an hour before or after for strolling through this love poem to timeless Santorini life. Reached by a twisting street past a square with a handful of simple cafes beneath window boxes bursting with bright flowers, Gavalas seems more a part of its surroundings than any other winery we visited on Santorini.
Assyrtiko is king at Gavalas too, but there are worthwhile departures. A wine called Katsano, for instance, is a blend of that varietal with gaidouria, making a satisfying sip out of two grapes virtually nobody outside of Santorini has ever heard of. Other Gavalas wines showcase the island’s best-known non-assyrtiko whites, aidani and athiri, along with the colorful tradition of stomping grapes at night to avoid the heat of the day. Thus, long after that process was duscontinued, certain assyrtiko wines aged in oak barrels are known today as Night Wines – or in Greek, nykteri.
Throughout one, two or even three e days of tours and tastings, each winery seems committed to impressing you with how different it is from all the others. Artemis Karamolegos, for instance, is deservedly proud not only of the wines it has been making since 1952 but of its full-service restaurant, Aroma Avlis. It is so proud, in fact, that it offers cooking classes for groups to supplement the meals it serves on a breeze-cooled terrace overlooking hills and vineyards.
Though its grapes are grown further inland, where there’s volcanic soil instead of volcanic sand, Gaia has the ridiculous advantage of being the only winery we’ve ever seen that’s right on a blue-water beach. In a partnership that also turns out amazing agiorgitiko in Nemea and showcases techniques mastered during years in France, Gaia has been producing two of Santorini’s best-known assyrtikos since 1994, Thalassitis and Thalassitis Oak Fermented. The French complexity in these bottles will delight many, as will sipping them beneath wind-tossed trees only feet from the Aegean. The word “sea” happens to be thalassa in Greek. Thus, Thalassitis.
Domaine Sigalas comes across as one of the island’s upstarts, eternally unsatisfied with the status quo. They’ll proudly lead you through a tasting of traditional Santorini assyrtikos but also explain how the boss does this or that piece of the process differently from anybody else on the island. This includes planting certain grapes in experimental rows (not koulouras) as in Italy, France or California, just to see what happens. As Sigalas is the closest major wine operation to the postcard seaside village of Oia, plan your visit last on any day and head over to catch the sunset celebration. This daily event draws quite a crowd into narrow streets, but we think it’s worth seeing at least once in your life, followed by dinner in one of the village’s many open-air seafood restaurants.
In general, Santorini’s cuisine is simple and delicious, with more than a nod to the rustic and traditional. It’s hard to imagine any restaurant on the island not offering tomato balls (fried fritters, actually) and pureed fava dip – the island’s shameless “grandma foods” that nobody seems to be able to get enough of.
Still, in keeping with its seaside location and its growing reputation, from the main town of Fira to its affluent sibling Pyrgos to the light-strung beachfront at Kamari, Santorini is now home to a handful of fine-dining, chef-driven restaurants working with the same set of paints but painting very different pictures. Assyrtiko is almost certainly your wine, so be ready to let super-fresh Aegean fish (sea bream is a favorite), octopus and mussels be your entrée.
Selene in Pyrgos is one of the finest examples of this new crop, along with Assyrtiko in the crush of Fira. When dinnertime nears, you can head toward these respected success stories, or simply let your imaginations guide your footsteps through villages with evocative names like Vourvoulos, Imerovigli and Firostefani.
With its long history weaving together the ups and downs of Greek civilization and its legend reaching back to the Lost City of Atlantis, Santorini is never short of magic. From sunrise to sunset until late into the night, it rewards your energy, your curiosity, your openness and your enthusiasm with a tireless array of unique flavors. Though you’ve seen Santorini in postcards of Greece since before you can remember, we’d suggest you let this small island become, for you and yours, so very much more than a postcard.
A QUINTET OF SANTORINI HIGHLIGHTS
VOLCANO TIME From the air, it’s easy to gaze out over the caldera – the place where the long-ago volcano erupted and caused the land to crumble into the sea, leaving curved pieces of dark volcanic residue around the edges. The caldera can (and should) be appreciated, whether by excursion boat or helicopter – or at least while gazing out from the dramatic cliffs at Fira or Oia.
OH THE ANTIQUITY Santorini may or may not be all that remains of Atlantis, but the impressive excavation at Akrotiri along the south coast opens a window onto the now-departed Minoan civilization. Long associated with Crete (and Sir Arthur Evans’ controversially reconstructed 19th century site at Knossos), the followers of King Minos reward your attention in a less artificial way at Akrotiri.
TO THE BEACH In the grand scheme of things, other Greek islands are more about their beaches than Santorini – but then again, many don’t have much else to be about. Still, the unique volcanic world of Santorini serves up some unique beach experiences, often described according to the color of their sand. Kamari and Perissa on the flatter eastern shore offer “organized” beach days, while Amoudi Bay beneath the cliffs at Oia serves up swimming in deep, clear water directly from the rocks.
COOKING CLASSES Selene, one of the island’s most respected restaurants, has created a collection of classes for mastering dishes from the Santorini menu, many traditional but others not so much. There are both lunch and dinner classes for individuals, some featuring detailed introductions to assyrtiko and other local wine grapes by the eatery’s accomplished sommelier. Other classes are offered to groups by the chef at the Artemis Karamolegos Winery.
THOSE DONKEYS Santorini’s so-called Old Port is no longer the main arrival point, considering the popularity of flying from Athens on Sky Express and the busy newer port facilities surrounded by hair-raising mountain switchbacks at Athinios Bay. Still, riding donkeys up from the old docks to the main town of Fira remains THE quintessential Santorini experience. It’s a little like seeing the Grand Canyon – it really doesn’t matter if others have seen it before you.