The Greek islands are the destination par excellence for all kinds of travelers. History, culture, good weather, beaches of a wild natural beauty, wine and food are what make the whimsical geography of Greece so appealing to hedonistic visitors seeking a summer of discovery.
Let’s focus on wine, which after all is the heart and soul of these specials. The same geographical and topographical characteristics are what make Greek viticultural practices so particular and unique.
When growing grapes in such a mountainous region, it is difficult to mechanize vineyard tasks. This means lots of manual labor. As a result, most of the vines are spur pruned and head trained, which also provides some protection from the heat. (The yearly average exceeds 21ºC.)
Santorini: The windy island
The vines growing on the islands, especially Santorini, have to withstand strong winds, which requires a special kind of training method: the old wood is woven into a basket very low off the ground, with the grapes growing inside of the ring. In addition, the vines are typically planted in small furrows to shield them from the wind. These hollows also provide the plant’s root system with better access to the scarce water reserves in the subsoil of this famously arid region.
Santorini is a wind-swept volcanic island marked by an ancestral beauty that puts us in touch with the passage of time. A “must” among travel destinations, the island, along with Crete, faces the challenging task of managing its tourism in order to relieve pressure on the wine sector.
The Santorini OPAP, the Santorini of wine, is an enclave of dry and sweet whites made from old vines of the indigenous Assyrtiko variety. It produces dry wines of astonishing concentration and striking aromatic intensity, with a nose steeped in a minerally sea of citrus (lemon), and high acidity and alcohol.
The winds on Santorini are so strong they can actually stop photosynthesis in the plant. This slows down maturation, keeping acidity levels high.
The sweet wines are known as Vinsanto (like in Italy’s Tuscany region). They are made from late-harvested grapes dried in the blazing sun for up to 14 days. The wines then age in oak barrels for at least two years.
The result is a spirited wine, the sweetness balanced by fresh acidity. The most evolved Vinsantos display oxidative notes of caramel and dried fruit.
Crete: Rising from the ashes
In terms of volume, Crete has always been the wine epicenter among the Greek islands. Overrun by the tourism industry, the languishing wine sector is experiencing a rebirth thanks to new investors and widespread enthusiasm about the potential of the island’s wines.
Crete is home to the most important wine producers in Greece, and the island recently saw a “silent wine revolution,” as described by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson in their World Atlas of Wine (published by Blume in Spain).
The best vineyards, planted at relatively high elevations, are coming back to life thanks in part to winegrowers who believe in reviving ancestral varieties, especially Lyrarakis, which has the potential of producing excellent varietals. It is worth remembering that the area was spared the devastation of phylloxera in the 19th century.
The specific geography of the island and the location of its finest vineyards, shielded from hot southern winds by a mountain range, creates a unique microclimate. Here the vineyards reap the benefits of a characteristic mist that sets in during a certain time on very hot summer days.
Crete’s appellation of origin comprises five regions, which all have a wealth of varietal diversity. A true garden of local varieties, both white and red, with a history as great as the intensity they bring to the glass.
So… what should we drink?
Whereas in Santorini, the flagship Assyrtiko reigns supreme, Crete is home to many indigenous varieties that map out a much wider vinicultural spectrum.
- If you love strong, intense reds, the varietals from the Archanes region, made from the local Kotsifali grape, are a great bet.
- If you like reds but seek the sweeter side of life, this variety is for you: Liatiko (variety named after the time of year when it is harvested, the month of July). The grape produces sweet wines that are usually found on the dessert menu. The region? Dafnes.
- Our next recommendation hails from Peza: if you’re a fan of etymological curiosities and whites, the Villana variety offers very floral, interesting dry wines.
- Cretan rosé wines usually blend local varieties with timeless grapes like Grenache, Carignan and Syrah. Check out those from the Kritikos region, quite possibly more interesting than the whites.
On the Greek islands, the wine world is rising from its ashes. The newfound balance between tourism and viticulture is giving the entire Greek wine sector a second chance.
These wines grew out of very particular practices and over time reaped the benefits of technological advances in vinification to once again take their rightful place on the Wine Olympus.