“Santorini’s vineyards may be among the oldest under continuous cultivation in the world,” writes Karen MacNeil in The Wine Bible. However, until the 18th century, most of that wine was produced entirely for domestic consumption. Today, wine culture and industry on the volcanic island continues to evolve, and some producers see increased opportunity on the horizon.
Vines’ roots descend as deep as 120 feet to procure nutrients from the harsh but mineral-rich, volcanic soil. And to protect the grapes from Santorini’s semi-desert climate, the vines themselves are grown in koulouras, or round, low baskets woven close to the earth. Out of necessity, grapes are hand-harvested.
“Winemaking in Santorini was initially done on hundreds of traditional canavas,” or farms, says Marcos Kafouros, president of the cooperative Santo Wines. “It wasn’t until 1948 that first modern winery was built on Santorini by the Venetsanos brothers.”
In 1956, disaster struck. A massive earthquake hit Santorini, impoverishing many residents and damaging the burgeoning wine industry.
Kafouros calls the years that followed “difficult,” and notes that the Santo cooperative worked alongside others to establish Santorini wine’s Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status in 1971.
A tourism boom began in the late 1970s and continued through the 1990s, says Kafouros. Unfortunately, it presented its own problems.
“At least 11% of our island has been concreted over in recent years,” said Nikos Zorzos, mayor of Santorini Municipality. “Our population has shot up to 25,000 [from 15,500 in 2011] because Santorini’s very success has meant that everyone wants to work in tourism here.”
Help came by way of the European Union which, from 2010 to 2017, subsidized the promotion of wine from Santorini in the U.S.
“At least 11% of our island has been concreted over in recent years… Santorini’s very success has meant that everyone wants to work in tourism here.” —Nikos Zorzos, mayor of Santorini Municipality
Meanwhile, the island adopted a 2012 decree from the Ministry of Environment in Athens that prohibited construction on rural land. In 2018, Santorini winemakers convinced the Greek Ministry of Culture to include the island’s traditional viticultural practices in the Greek catalogue of Intangible Cultural Heritage Sites. Their aim? To show Santorini’s farmers that there was a potentially profitable alternative to digging up their vineyards.
By 2018, the island produced nearly two million bottles of PDO wine annually (Santorini PDO must be made from at least 75% Assyrtiko grapes) and many thousands of bottles of Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) wines. The annual income from PDO alone was €22 million (approximately $25.5 million) from an average production price of €11.50 per bottle (approximately $13.40). Sales were 50% within Greece and 50% worldwide.
After decades of growth, however, Santorini’s wine industry suffered several natural disasters in 2019. Storms on March 30, April 9 and May 5 quite literally ripped vines out of the ground.
Petros Vamvakousis, manager of Venetsanos Winery, estimates his label lost 40% of its yield. “We got the message,” he says. “Vineyards on Santorini were wholly unprotected in extreme climate conditions.”
Next came the pandemic. Vamvakousis describes the impact of the 2020 lockdowns as “terrible” because, in addition to the loss of tourism, most of Santorini’s wines are sold in restaurants.
“But restaurants worldwide were not open, and so, for 11 months, almost no one was buying,” he says. “Our sales collapsed to 4% of what they were in 2019. From 14,208 bottles exported per annum down to a mere 558 in 2020. This was a total disaster, and it happened to all winemakers on the island.”
And yet, there was an unexpected bright side to the 2020 harvest. The heavy rains of 2019 helped to enrich the stony volcanic soil, and fewer grapes were grown on the vine. As a result, more nutrients were available to the vines, “leading to grapes of excellent quality with right maturation, acidity in balance and rich complicated aromatic bouquet,” says Vamvakousis.
Yannis Valambous, owner of Vassaltis Winery, noticed another silver lining to the unprecedented pandemic year.
“The pandemic and the unavoidable slowdown in sales meant a build-up of stocks,” says Valambous. “Instead of selling out within a year, sales took almost two years, at the height of the pandemic, so our customers who returned in 2020 were able to enjoy a 2018 Assyrtiko as a current vintage.”
Consumer feedback to these aged bottles was strong, Valambous says, “and re-enforced the view we always had: Assyrtiko is best enjoyed with some aging and does improve as time goes by. Until the pandemic we hadn’t had the chance to offer these stockpiled vintages to the consumer.”
For Valambous, it’s a silver lining amid tumult.
“Hopefully, longer term, this will increase consumer perception and appreciation of the island’s wines.”