Reputed to have some of the oldest grapevines on earth, with roots dating to over 400 years old, the island of Santorini in Greece is experiencing some changes that could propel its age worthy Assyrtiko wines into luxury price territory.
Long known for its bracingly high acid Assyrtiko wines, which some call the ‘White Burgundy of Greece,’ wine has been produced on the island since early Greek and Roman times. Originally much larger, the island was destroyed by a volcano that erupted in the 1630s BC, causing some people to speculate that Santorini is the site of the lost city of Atlantis.
The Unique Properties of Assyrtiko from Santorini
Today the soil of the small island is primarily volcanic with very little organic matter or clay – the plus side to this is that the soil is resistant to phylloxera, the down side being that it cannot hold water very well. It also has very low potassium, contributing to low pH, or high acid, in its wines. The climate is dry and windy, forcing the vines to hug the earth in a unique training system – the ‘Kouloura’ – that sees the vines pruned in the shape of a wreath; only the grape bunches that grow inside the wreath shape are protected from the wind and can reach maturity. Once the koulouri gets too large, it is cut off and a new wreath is formed. However, the original roots stay in the ground, resulting in grapevines that are hundreds of years old.
All of these growing factors contribute to Assyrtiko’s unique style, with complex citrus and mineral notes and a very high acidity that makes its wine the perfect match for seafood. Due to its low pH, Assyrtiko wines can easily last for decades. Some producers are now ageing them in partial oak, which lends toast and honey notes and can result in even more complex savoury notes as the wines age. Under the PDO Santorini regulations, Assyrtiko must make up a minimum of 75% of the blend, but it is permissible add the white grapes Athiri (provides subdued notes of white fruit) and Aidani (rounds and softens).
Yiannis Paraskevopoulos, owner of Gaia Winery, recounts an incident where Darrell Corti of Corti Brothers Market in California, shared a bottle of 1849 Assyrtiko with 10 Santorini winemakers. They were all astounded by how fresh and vibrant the wine tasted after more than 150 years in the bottle.
Factors Propelling Santorini Assyrtiko in the Luxury Market
Assyrtiko has always been one of the best-known wines from Greece, but recent events have forced producers to raise their prices. While most Assyrtiko wines are not yet at the $100 luxury wine price, the day could be fast approaching. This is because of dwindling vineyard land, changing employment demographics and global warming.
Yiannis Valambous of Vassaltis Winery explained that in the 1980s there were over 3,600 hectares of vineyards on the island, but today this figure has dwindled to a mere 1,100. A number of factors have caused this reduction, first among them being the growth of tourism on the island and the vast expansion of hotels, restaurants, vacation homes and other infrastructure to support over two million visitors each year, not including cruise ship passengers (GTP, 2018). All of this, according to Valambous, has forced the price of land to increase, with current land prices as high as 300,000 to 500,000 million euros per hectare.
Another factor is the back-breaking work of tending an Assyrtiko vineyard on Santorini. All vineyard pruning and harvesting must be done by hand, with most workers having to rest on their knees to perform the complicated work. Many young people prefer to work at more comfortable jobs with higher pay, than spend time in the hot sun and wind trying to eak out an existence in a centuries old tradition of tending the kouloura wreath vines. It is much more financially rewarding to sell the old family vineyards to developers, who will rip out the old vines and replace them with buildings.
Finally, global warming is also taking a toll on production numbers, with the searing heat of 2017 causing grape harvest across Greece to fall by 50%, followed by another loss of 30% in 2018. According to Konstantinos Lazarakis MW, author of The Wines of Greece: ‘In the last 45 years temperatures have risen 2.4˚C. Rainfall has declined.’ Many Santorini grape growers are concerned that if something doesn’t change, in 20 years there will be no vines at all.
Given these factors, Assyrtiko in Santorini is quickly assuming the attributes of luxury wine: unique in style and heritage, from special vineyards, it is scarce, it has an elevated price point, and it is a pleasure and privilege to drink. Though it has not yet achieved a luxury price point and it is not yet bought and sold on the secondary market, it is becoming rarer as the years unfold. After all, according to Valambous, the price of Santorini Assyrtiko has increased 453% in last 40 years!
- The Wines of Greece by Konstantinos Lazarakis MW, Oxford: Infinite Ideas Classic Wine Library (2018)
- Wines of Greece Association (https://winesofgreece.org/)
- GTP – Greek Travel Pages Headlines (Oct. 2018). By N Krinos. Available at https://news.gtp.gr/2018/10/29/thira-mayor-santorini-365-day-tourism-destination/
- Euronews (Feb 2019) Watch: Climate change hits Greek wine as grape harvest falls 30%. Available at: https://www.euronews.com/2019/09/02/watch-climate-change-hits-greek-wine-as-grape-harvest-falls-30
- Personal interviews with Santorini Producers
Dr Liz Thach MW is a wine journalist, educator and researcher. She has published more than 150 articles and nine wine books, including Luxury Wine Marketing with co-author Peter Yeung. She currently works at Sonoma State University in California as the Distinguished Professor of Wine & Management.
Geography: Located between the 34th and 42nd parallels, Greece has a true Mediterranean climate and is surrounded by four different seas, with more than 3,000 islands. According to the Wines of Greece Association, there are nearly 1,300 wineries, 61.5 thousand hectares of vineyards, and they produce around 2.5 million hectoliters of wine annually.
Grape Varieties: Greece has 300 indigenous grape varieties from which it produces 90% of its wine, with the remaining 10% coming from adopted international varieties. The most widely planted Greek grape varieties are: Savatiano (white); Rhoditis (rosé) and Agiorgitiko (red). However, the most well-known are the white Assyrtiko grape and red Xinomavro, because these are the most widely exported. The island of Santorini is most famous for Assyrtiko, which makes up 70% of is production.
Viticulture: Due to is drier climate, many of the vineyards in Greece are farmed organically. Trellis systems range from the modern VSP (vertical shoot position) to natural bush vines. The most famous and unique trellis system adopted is the ‘Kouloura’, where the vine is pruned into a wreath shape that lays flat on the ground, and is mostly found on the windy volcanic island of Santorini.
Winemaking: White wine accounts for 61% of production and red/rosé wine 39%. Many of the wines are designed to pair with Greek cuisine, with a focus on seafood, fresh vegetables and lamb. Natural winemaking is quite common amongst small producers, who have found a market exporting their wine to wine shops and wine bars and specialists around the world. The ancient wine ‘Retsina’, fermented with the addition of pine resin, is still made in Greece and is beginning to gain popularity again after a period of declining interest.
Regions: Greece is roughly divided into four major regions: the North composed of Thrace, Macedonia, Thessaly and Epirus; Central Greece including Sterea, the Peloponnese and the Ionian Islands to the west; the Aegean Islands where Santorini resides along with Rhodes, Samos and other winemaking islands, and the island of Crete.