Terroir, tourism and the trouble for Santorini’s wine industry

Santorini's wine culture is one of the oldest in the world but it faces an existential threat from tourism, which offers producers a financial boost while gradually squeezing vineyards off the island. Adam Lechmere talks to its winemakers about the challenge to survive

Words by Adam Lechmere

Yannis Paraskevopoulos, owner of Gaia Wines, located on the east coast of Santorini

The ruins of Akrotiri on Santorini are one of the least-known wonders of the world. This was a city destroyed by a volcanic eruption, more than a thousand years before Pompeii met the same fate. Perfectly preserved under layers of volcanic dust, Akrotiri flourished 3,500 years ago and was destroyed around 1600BCE. When Britons were still wearing animal skins, the Akrotirians wove silk, painted exquisite murals, made fine jewellery and furniture, and benefited from a sophisticated sewerage system. Some say that this extraordinary prehistoric civilisation was the origin of the myth of the lost city of Atlantis.

The cataclysmic eruption that devastated Akrotiri created Santorini as we know it today: the craggy half-ring of islands, the central caldera the drowned crater of the massive volcano. The volcano is the source of the island’s wine culture, which is a little younger than the lost city but only by a few hundred years. That culture is now in danger of going the same way as Akrotiri.

The ruins of Akrotiri
The ruins of Akrotiri on Santorini. Raised walkways and paths have been constructed to allow visitors a closer look.

Grapes have been grown here for 34 centuries. Because of Santorini’s unique volcanic microclimate, the early growers developed a method of vine training called kouloura: the shoots are plaited into a wreath, creating a nest of branch and leaf inside which the grapes grow, protected from the endless winds that blow over the island. The kouloure also catch the night mists that come up from the sea; irrigation is forbidden and for months these sea-frets are the vines’ only source of moisture. Kouloure have root systems that can be 400 years old: there’s no phylloxera on the island; when a kouloura is about 80 years old the crown is cut off and new growth encouraged; the roots remain. ‘It’s like the Jurassic Park of vineyards,’ said oenologist Lefteris Anagnostou of the winery Anhydrous (the name means ‘waterless’).

The island used to be covered in vines, and as late as the 1960s there were more than 4,000ha of Assyrtiko and other indigenous varieties. In 1980, there was half that hectarage; today there is some 1,100ha of vineyard supplying 21 wineries. That number, according to some experts, is diminishing.

Viniculture on Santorini is a fragile business. The grey volcanic soils resemble nothing so much as a moonscape. Vines are widely spaced so as to maximise access to sparse nutrients; kouloure can only be worked by hand and yields are minuscule: an average of 10 hectolitres per hectare (for comparison, in the Douro, which is equally dry, yields are 30hl/ha). The 2019 harvest on Santorini is called ‘the pocket harvest’ because it was less than half the average.

'Vines are widely spaced so as to maximise access to sparse nutrients'

In this rarefied terroir, Assyrtiko is king – it accounts for 80 per cent of the vines, with other indigenous whites Athiri and Aidani, some hectares of Syrah, and the local reds Mandilaria and Mavrotragano making up the rest. On Santorini, Assyrtiko produces powerful, full-bodied wines with up to 15 per cent alcohol. They might be opulent, even unctuous (sometimes they remind you of a northern Rhône white but are most often compared to white Burgundy). They are distinguished by rippling acidity and a fine-grained mineral texture.

At Gaia, a winery whose airy veranda sits literally on the beach, the sea informs the wines. Their Thalassitis (‘wine of the sea’) has much more sodium than normal. ‘It comes from the sea-spray,’ says owner Yannis Paraskevopoulos. ‘The grapes are covered in a fine layer of salt.’

Santorini wines have a cornucopia of flavours, from bracing citrus and tangy sherbet, through grapefruit, lemon or tangerine zest, orange flower, preserved lemon, honeysuckle, hibiscus; they are electric and lipsmackingly tannic (at Gaia, winemaker Leto Paraskevopoulos – daughter of Yannis – accentuates the texture with what she calls an ‘aggressive’ batonnage regime).

Lees ageing is widely practised. At Artemis Karamolegos, which makes the Wine Society’s Exhibition Santorini, the Papas single vineyard Assyrtiko is aged two years on lees in stainless steel tanks. Weighty, mouthfilling, yet beautifully poised – if I had to choose a Santorini white to stand as an example of excellence, this would be it.

The entrance to Estate Argyros
'You can make more money from a car park than a vineyard,' admits Dimitris Kekas of Estate Argyros

The quality of Santorini’s wines isn’t in question. ‘[Santorini Assyrtiko] combines a fantastic dry extract with a salinity and power that is truly unforgettable,’ enthuses Terry Kandylis, group wine director of the Caprice Group in London and a champion of Santorini. But will such encomiums be enough to save them from the ravages of tourism?

Domaine Sigalas owns 8ha of vines and rents 32ha from about 20 growers – only two of whom actually farm the vines. And this is where hard maths kicks in. You can make far more money selling your tiny plot to a developer than you can selling your grapes. Sigalas CEO Stellios Boutaris says that just over half a hectare is worth €350,000. ‘A developer can put up a hotel and make that back in a few years. For us, it takes forever.’ Every time he gets wind of an owner wanting to sell their vineyard, he’s instantly on the phone to try to persuade them to sell to him.

A deep-voiced, energetic man with a wide smile, Boutaris runs Sigalas and Kir-Yianni, which was founded by his father in northwest Greece in 1970. His attitude is typical of many on Santorini: he celebrates his unique wine heritage as he battles to preserve it. He enumerates the multiple threats of tourism and climate change. One example among many is that the itinerant vineyard workers can’t find anywhere to stay. He intends to ‘buy an old hotel and turn it into beds for workers.’ It’s an expensive option, he admits.

An example of koulara
Kouloura is a method of vine training that creates a nest of branch and leaf, inside which the grapes grow

At the Santo cooperative, the sun-drenched restaurant terrace is filled with diners wrapped in red blankets against the wind. By law, all wineries must join Santo, even if most are ‘sleeping’ members. When we arrive, we’re dismayed by the hordes of tourists but the food is delicious, the wine perfectly matched, and the staff friendly and efficient. It’s delightful to look over the purple-blue Aegean at the volcanic caldera while enjoying a lunch of crab salad and scallops.

Established in 1911, Santo is a serious operation with a gravity-fed winery and nursery dedicated to preserving old vines. As the biggest wine tourism centre in Greece, it’s also a lucrative attraction, with parking space for a dozen or more of the coaches that grind up and down the road.

A man tending to vines in a coastal vineyard on Santorini
Several wines produced on Santorini are heavily influenced by the sea because of vineyards' proximity to the coast

‘Since the 1980s, Santorini has lost half its vineyards to wine tourism,’ marketing manager Anastasios Terzidis says. He notes that the zoning laws that control development are toothless – ‘they’re not ideal’ – but he is hopeful about the protection UNESCO World Heritage Site status may bring in this respect.

Santo is a neat example of the dilemma of tourism. You long for visitors to keep your economy afloat but then they come in their millions and wreck your only asset: the natural beauty of the land. The subject comes up again and again. Dimitris Kekas, sales manager at Argyros, reckons that there will be no more than six wineries on Santorini in 10 years’ time. ‘You can make more money from a car park than a vineyard.’

It might look like a one-sided battle but Santorini has some influential champions. Kandylis’s boss, Richard Caring, for example, tasked his wine director (who is Greek) with putting together ‘a good Greek wine list’ for his new restaurant Bacchanalia in London’s Mayfair. There are nine Santorini Assyrtikos on the list. At Core by Clare Smyth, head sommelier Gareth Ferreira is also a fan. There are many more: Santorini Assyrtiko is exactly the style of serious gastronomic white that any good sommelier loves to offer.

Workers on Santorini harvest grapes with a hilltop town in the background

Tourism has brought ‘tremendous pressure’ on the island’s vineyards, Kandylis says, ‘But as the reputation and prices of the wines grow, I am more optimistic than Dimitris [Kekas]. I believe and hope that we will stop sacrificing vineyards to build more hotels.’

At Sigalas, Stellios Boutaris stands in his timeless vineyard and radiates optimism. The more Assyrtiko is known the better it will be, he says. Look at the margins – a palette of Assyrtiko from Kir-Yianni on the mainland is worth €5,000. On Santorini, it’s three times that. Yes, there are challenges: with the weather, with tourism, with labour. ‘But here, everything’s a challenge,’ he says, before throwing his head back with laughter.