Time to protect Santorini’s special sense of place

Santorini's Assyrtiko wines demonstrate the power of terroir and have never tasted better, says David Kermode. Now that the world appreciates their quality, isn't it about time we recognised the need to safeguard their future?

Words by David Kermode

A coastal vineyard on Santorini

Believe it or not, there are still plenty of people who insist terroir is a myth. Just as there are those who believe the earth is flat or still think Brexit was a good idea, these individuals – some of them scientists – reject the notion that a sense of place, with the soils and meteorological conditions particular to it, can really be reflected in a bottle of wine. I have a simple suggestion for these doubters: they should head for Santorini to seek out its signature grape, Assyrtiko.

With its miraculous ability to retain high acidity in scorching summer sunshine, Assyrtiko is now much sought after, with enjoyable examples to be found on the other side of the world in Australia, as well as on the Greek mainland, but it quite simply never tastes the way it does when it comes from Santorini, the small craggy crescent of islands to which it is indigenous. So how can that be?

Assyrtiko from other parts of the world quite simply never tastes the way it does when it comes from Santorini

Created by the mother of all eruptions in 1600 BCE that left the awe-inspiring caldera visitors gawp at today, Santorini offers a glimpse of what the moon might one day be like should Elon Musk have his way with lunar mass tourism. Strikingly beautiful, in a ragged way, it is a wonder that anything grows on the harsh volcanic soil which, at the height of summer, has the effect of a pizza stone with the Cycladic winds acting as a fan oven to boot. Irrigation is forbidden (save for infant vines), as the desalinated water on which Santorini depends is in such short supply. To counter these effects, its early pioneers (wine has been produced here for 34 centuries) developed a unique training system: the ‘kouloura’, resembling a bird’s nest with the new shoots plaited into a wreath to protect young growth while trapping precious moisture from the morning mists.

An example of the kouloura
An example of the ‘kouloura’, which trap precious moisture from the morning mists for the grapes inside

As a result, vine stress is high and yields are correspondingly low (10 hectolitres per hectare, so broadly a fifth of the average yield elsewhere), the conditions inhibit phylloxera meaning the vines are ungrafted (many are hundreds of years old), with their berries covered in a fine dusting of salt swept in on the sea breeze – all of these being contributory factors to Santorini Assyrtiko’s extraordinary USP.

The resulting wines offer mesmerising fruit intensity, profound complexity and scintillating, sometimes almost alarming, salinity. Though some draw comparisons with Burgundy, or even the Northern Rhône, Santorini Assyrtiko is something else entirely: something distinctive, different and very special.

Crowds of people gather to watch a sunset on Santorini
Crowds of tourists gather on Santorini to get the all-important sunset shot

Winemaking leaves its own imprint, of course – with bâttonage (stirring to agitate the lees) used effectively to develop texture – but the wines quite clearly owe their unique character chiefly to their surroundings, even when oak is used to encourage partial oxidation in a richly exuberant style known as ‘Nykteri’, which can achieve duty-bingeing levels of alcohol north of 15%.

Even before tax hikes are taken into account, the wines are justifiably expensive – befitting the low yields and challenges of production – increasingly fashionable and, worryingly, also under threat, as the mass tourism that is consuming Santorini threatens to gobble up its precious vineyards too (as Adam Lechmere reported from Santorini in June, such plots would now make more money as car parks). Efforts are afoot to create a UNESCO World Heritage Site, something that needs to happen fast.

I have been to Santorini three times over the past 20 years, during which time it has sadly changed beyond recognition as a result of the tourist invasion. I have been a fan of the wines for a similar period and they have never tasted better, just as they have never cost as much as they do now. So here’s hoping it is not too late for Santorini’s distinctive terroir to be protected, just as its wines have been recognised.


  • Sigalas Santorini 2021 (£36, The Great Wine Co) From the winery founded by Paris Sigalas, one of the early pioneers who put Santorini on the fine wine map, this comes from 60-year-old vines, undergoing bâttonage for three months in stainless steel. At 14.5%, it might not be suited to summer-afternoon sipping but it offers great intensity, with a wonderful balance of fresh, zesty citrus acidity and ripe fleshy pineapple, with its trademark salinity. Hugely enjoyable now, this is really one to tuck away in the cellar.
  • Bruno Paillard Rosé Premiere Cuvee (£62.45, Wanderlust Wines) Bruno Paillard was just 27 when he founded his eponymous Champagne House in 1981. Since then, he has been a pioneer – the first to display a disgorgement date on every single bottle, for example – and his cuvées are renowned for their signature purity of fruit. The Rosé Premiere Cuvée is no exception: a beguiling copper colour, the nose offers aromas reminiscent of a Provençal fruit stall at the height of summer, with ripe peach, strawberry and pink grapefruit. There’s a secret amount of Chardonnay in the mix, which no doubt adds to the charm and finesse offered by this gastronomic rosé Champagne.
  • Miguel Torres, Manso de Velasco 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon (£32.50 Vinvm) Named after the founder governor of Curicó, the city where these 115-year-old ungrafted vines grow, this is Chilean Cabernet at its most delectable. Offering an enticing varietal signature, there are lifted notes of wild blackberry and ripe blackcurrant, atop graphite, fresh oregano, peppery spice and soft leather, with tannins so velvety smooth you could probably sleep on them.
David Kermode 2021
By David Kermode

David Kermode is a journalist and broadcaster with two decades of experience across TV, radio and print media, and a lifelong love of wine and spirits. Don’t miss his weekly podcast, The Drinking Hour.