Getting to know Greek wines: Santorini and the grape assyrtiko

Santorini is famous for its sunsets but it is also known for its wine. There are 13 wineries on an island that is only 11 miles long and 7 miles wide. White grapes make up 80 percent of the grapes grown on the island. And, of the white grapes, they are predominantly assyrtiko, with a small percentage aidani and athiri.

Assyrtiko is indigenous to Santorini, but is also grown in other parts of Greece. It is a white wine that tastes like a red grape and can be vegetal if picked too young. Assyrtiko produces a wine with great aging potential, but very limited aromas. Assyrtiko ranges from austere minerality and acid to caramel and oxidized notes. However, the wine is not oxidized. In fact, malolactic fermentation does not take place in any of the white wines of Santorini.

There are three PDOs (Protected Denomination of Origin) in Santorini and all three are white wines. PDO Santorini is a minimum of 80 percent assyrtiko, and 20 percent can be either athiri or aidani.

PDO Nykteri is the same as PDO Santorini but must spend at least three months in barrel (it can also be barrel fermented). The name Nykteri means “working at night” as historically the grapes were pressed at night. PDO Vinsanto, not to be mistaken for Italy’s Vin Santo, must be at least 50 percent assyrtiko, and aidani is added for fruity aromatics. After picking the grapes, they are left in the sun to “burn” for 5-10 days. Although Vinsanto is made with white grapes, it is a caramel brown color.

What makes Santorini all the more unique are the vineyards. Instead of trellises, the vines are grown in what is called a kouloura, which means circle or basket. The basket is formed to protect the grapes from hot sun and strong winds. Many of the vines are more than 150 years old. The baskets are not planted in a straight row because new vines are grown from the branch of a basket. A vine branch is replanted into the ground and sets its roots where it wants. Once it has set its roots, it is disconnected from the original basket. The vines are then wrapped in a circle with rocks placed below for aeration. The baskets must be hand-harvested and result in smaller yields.

Santorini Vineyards Kouloura vine

The acidity of the wine comes from the soil of Santorini, which is volcanic and sandy. All of the vines are on un-grafted rootstock because Santorini was never affected by phylloxera. The roots go very deep, seeking water that is stored in the pumice stone.

In Santorini, the vineyards are not very big. Any given vineyard is approximately one hectare (2½ acres) and typically the number of hectares a winery owns are not all in the same location.

Meet some of the producers of Santorini:

Santo Wines

— Santo Wine Cooperative

Started in 1970, Santo Wine Cooperative consists of 1,000 members. With 2 million liters of wine made on the entire island of Santorini, Santo makes 1 million liters of the wine, or half of the wine on the island. However, as more wineries open each year, Santo receives less grapes. Santo is the only winery to make a sparkling wine from assyrtiko, as well as a grand reserve assyrtiko, which is aged 2 years.

Gavalas Winery

— Gavalas Winery

The Gavalas family started making wine in the 19th century; George Gavalas is the fourth generation in his family producing Gavalas wine. With two hectares planted, and additional purchasing of grapes, Gavalas produces 80,000 bottles. Gavalas has an all-female winemaking team with agronomist Maria Drakomathioulaki and enologist Margarita Kavamolegou.


— Boutari

Boutari changed the story of Santorini wine. It was the first private winery and public tasting room in Santorini when it was established in 1989. It was also the first exported wine from Santorini. Today Boutari produces wine in six regions in Greece and one in France.


— Hatzidakis

Organic since 1996, Hatzidakis produces 11 labels, seven of which are assyrtiko-based wines. Santorini doesn’t struggle with diseases and Hatzidakis believes that by producing organically, the environment benefits, the plants are healthier and they get better results.


— Sigalas

Sigalas is a mathematician from Santorini. While his family had made wine for generations, he started making it in his cellar in 1991. Friends loved the wine so much, he began producing wine commercially and in 1998 moved to the current property in Oia on the north side of Santorini. Growing only indigenous varietals (assyrtiko, aidani, athiri, mandilaria and mavrotragano), Sigalas is the only producer on Santorini to plant vines in a trellis vineyard. The red grape navrotragano is planted this way to reduce tannins, and while there are casualties due to the wind, the vines are 15 years old and compensate with higher yields.

Venetsanos Winery


Taking two years to build, from 1947-1949, Venetsanos was the first industrial winery in Santorini and the Cycladic Islands. George Venetsanos was the first enologist on Santorini and built the winery inside a cliff in order to be located above the port for direct access to shipping and to use gravity when producing wine. Venetsanos stopped production in 1979. In 2015, winemaker Ioanna Vamvakouri partnered with the property owners and brothers Nikos and Vangelis Zorzos to begin producing wine again under the Venetsanos label.

Read the original story in the Napa Valley Register