We’ve just arrived at the vineyard; it’s only 9 a.m. The van that brought us all here has stopped at the side of the road. We get out and, with oenologist Iliana Sidiropoulou as our guide, we start walking among the vines. The light soil that covers the entire island like a powdery ash is still cool. The morning dew has left dull marks on the grape clusters. Iliana stoops to pick up what appear to be two stones. “Andesitic rock and pumice stone, the main volcanic rocks found not only in the vineyards but all over the island for the past 3,500 years,” explains this enthusiastic professional who, with 20 years’ experience in the wine industry under her belt, began her involvement in food and wine tours just three years ago.
As Santorini became more widely recognized in the wine world, with high ratings from prestigious publications casting a spotlight on the particularity of its vineyards, wine tourism gained ground. This presented a new challenge. Local vintners had always known how to make high-quality wine, but they weren’t familiar with guided tours, and they lacked the infrastructure for receiving visitors. In fact, even today, most visits have a family feel about them, and are organized in a relaxed manner; it’s more like a day out with a friend. At the same time, a visit to a winery here may, in fact, mean that you will meet those directly responsible for production, which isn’t usually the case in popular wine-producing regions abroad.
For most of the vintners, the aim is double-fold: to show why Santorini is a unique wine-growing region and to introduce visitors to that excellent ambassador for Greek wine, the Assyrtiko grape, here in its birthplace, along with the other 47 lesser-known varieties cultivated on the island, including Aidani, Athiri, Mavrotragano and Voudomato.
“A visit to a winery here may, in fact, mean that you will meet those directly responsible for production, which isn’t usually the case in popular wine-producing regions abroad.”
Meanwhile, in our tour, we haven’t reached the wine stage yet. From the rocks that make up the soil, we now progress to the method of cultivation and to the vitally important kouloura, or “basket.” All the vines on the island are trained to grow directly on the ground, worked into the shape of a basket with no bottom, formed by the new shoots of the plant. The grape grows in the embrace of this kouloura, protected from the scorching sun, strong winds and lack of rainfall. According to local producers, this method was first developed due to the simple fact that the winegrowers had to set up their vineyards with very limited resources; they could not afford the cost of wire or other equipment to create a trellis system.
During the period of winter dormancy, November to March, the branches twist and curl around one another. Whoever trains them must remember precisely how they first guided them – the vines are usually, but not always, trained in a clockwise direction – so that, if necessary, they can unravel the plant.
Our acquaintance with the production process continues at the winery itself. We are sitting on the charming veranda of the Venetsanos Winery at Megalochori, captivated by a breathtaking view of the island and the caldera. Glasses stand on the table for the tasting experience, and the serving begins.
The first wine of the day is a refreshing, crisp Assyrtiko, accompanied by cheese, rusks and olives. We clink our glasses. This is the moment when the adage “wine brings us closer together” seems less of a cliche. In the next glass, delicate aromas of white flowers and citrus fruits prevail. One of our Australian companions points out that a wine tour is the best way – in terms of time, money and sheer pleasure – to explore the different versions of just one grape variety and, in this case, to discover the different wines made from the splendid, majestic Assyrtiko!
“All the vines on the island are trained to grow directly on the ground, worked into the shape of a basket with no bottom, formed by the new shoots of the plant.”
A young woman from Houston, Texas, joins in, saying that the reason she is on the tour is to try as many Vinsantos, the late-harvest dessert wines, as she can. The truth, however, is that you don’t have to be knowledgeable about wine to participate. The aim is to discover something interesting, to communicate and to try new tastes. These need not always be wine; there are other tours that include – in addition to the winery visit and wine tasting – cooking lessons and sightseeing related to gastronomy and food culture.
Our group, however, is staying with wine. The next stop is the Estate Argyros winery at Episkopi Gonia, near Kamari. The routine is now familiar: a talk, followed by tasting. New glasses and different wines await. Everyone chats to each other and shares their reactions; there is a common point of reference. Of all the wines, the 20-year-old Vinsanto makes the greatest impression. It is uncommon, complex and memorable.
The endnote from the Vinsanto lingers until the next winery, Domaine Sigalas at Baxes, a 20-minute drive away. By now, all the tour participants have become “connoisseurs.” In the courtyard, in the cool shade of a pergola, we savor the tastiest chloro (fresh goat cheese), accompanied by a glass of the vineyard’s Santorini, a wine with a flavor that captures the quintessence of the island itself. It is sea breeze and vinicultural integrity in a glass.
The tasting continues and with each new wine, our conversation gains greater life. The wines invigorate us as their strengths increase; more aromatic, heavier, more alcoholic. By now, we can recognize these changes and appreciate the differences that separate one taste experience from another.
What is it that a wine tour can teach you? You’ll learn to recognize characteristics such as minerality, intensity and roundness. You’ll find out about production methods and traditions of winemaking. What can you expect to drink? Some amazing wines, of course, although the quantity of each tasting is quite small; after all, in most cases you will be trying more than 15 different wines.
As your tour concludes, each of you will undoubtedly have found your wine of choice, your favorite winery. “A typical Santorini, a full-bodied Vinsanto, a lively Nychteri,” you’ll exclaim. In all likelihood, you will have also become both a connoisseur and an aficionado of Assyrtiko; so much so, that you will undoubtedly seek it out after returning home and share it with friends, giving them a taste of the Santorini magic you discovered.
The itineraries offered by Iliana Sidiropoulou are more gastronomically oriented and may include cooking and pairing lessons. They usually last about 4 hours. €90-150 per person, in groups of up to six but also individuals. Languages: English, French.
Emborio • Tel. (+30) 22860.831.03, (+30) 697.900.0568
Gastronomy, wine and culture are the main focus of the tours. You will need a half or full day for the tour and all that it includes. Each tour takes in up to three wineries. €85-150 per person, in groups of up to eight. Individual packages available. Language: English.
Messaria • Tel. (+30) 22860.341.23, (+30) 693.296.0062
SANTORINI WINE TOUR
Four different food and wine experiences are available, with tours and cooking classes as well, depending on the option that best suits you. Each tour may last up to five hours. €95-145 per person in groups of up to 10, but also available for individuals. Language: English.
Messaria • Tel. (+30) 22860.283.58, (+30) 693.708.4958