There are two ways to arrive at Santorini. You can glide into the airport at high speed, gaze delightedly out of the plane’s window at the great glistening Bay that the Island’s western shore seems to girdle like a giant crab’s claw, and feel very 21st Century as you sweep through customs towards your hire car.
Or you can creep into the Bay from the West on a tiny boat, and gaze in amazement at the steepling cliffs of glowing red rock that climb and climb up to a distant fringe of tiny white buildings half way to the sky. You could walk there if you’re brave. Take a cable car if you’re not. Or ride a donkey. Don’t let the 21st Century intrude on this magic place. Ride the donkey.
Santorini. The southernmost of the Cyclades. The most isolated. On the very fringe of Europe. Santorini. Half the island that it was. The other half was blown away by a colossal volcanic eruption in 1613 BC which destroyed a 2000-year-old society there and the blast may well have brought down the whole Minoan civilization with it.
But stand on those giddy cliffs to the Island’s west and you can make out what is now a vast volcanic crater filled by the inviting waters of the Aegean Sea, because enough of the ancient volcano’s cone still pokes above the surface as rocky isles and islets circling the Bay.
Breathtaking. Emotional. Thirst-making. Does Santorini have wine that can match the emotional power of this scene? Oh yes, it does. It has white wines as dry and proud as its arid, sun-parched rock. Assyrtiko. Aidani, Athiri. Unfamiliar names? Sure. These are Santorini’s white grapes, with Assyrtiko the undisputed leader, producing wines that mirror the gaunt beauty of the island.
There are other styles too – amphora wines, orange ones, and the mouthwateringly brilliant sweet VinSanto. But as the sunset spreads like liquid crimson across the waves to the West, a glass of chilled, challenging, lip-smacking, bone-dry white unlike any other in Europe is what I crave.
And that is what Santrorini does best. It wasn’t always like this. In the time of the Russian Czars, Santorini provided galleys-full of high-strength wines fit for the icy North. 44 wineries supplied the Big Bear’s needs. That all came to an abrupt halt in 1917 with the Russian Revolution, and for generations Santorini’s wine languished. As tourists discovered the Island’s delights, and money was easier to make by providing food and shelter, Santorini’s whole wine narrative could have been eclipsed by holiday homes and abandoned fields of vines.
No, it was too precious for that. Indeed its vine culture is unlike any other in the world, and you couldn’t let that go.
Forget the beauty of the Bay for a moment. Head inland, a bit to the East, as the headlands of the cliffs begin their slow descent to sea level on the far side of the Island. Look at the soil. Bleak. Lava-grey. Strewn with rocks. Feel the wind. Relentless. Keen. If you’re unlucky it can reach fifty miles an hour, blasting across the open slopes. And the sun. Relentless again. It can shine for 350 days a year. And does it ever rain? Barely. How can anything grow here? How can a vine survive?
Well… “only just”… is the answer. A typical vine in a typical vineyard wouldn’t stand a chance. But Santorini has spawned a remarkable group of vine varieties able to cope with such stress, and evolved a remarkable way of helping these vines to grow and prosper.
The vines are grown in little hollows, one to each hollow. The vine’s branches are woven into a circular basket. The hollow protects the vine from the wind. The basket shape spreads its leaves across like a chapel’s roof. This stops the grapes from baking, but also catches the summer dew and the sea mists which then drip onto the vine’s roots. This may well be the only moisture a Santorini vine gets all summer.
And you can’t mechanize these vineyards. With pumice and lava littering the knobbly soil, you can’t get a tractor in. And no machine can prune these vines or pick their fruit. The coil of vine wood expands for about 10 years, then the basket of wood and leaf bulges above its protective corral, and it must be cut back, by hand, by back-breaking labour, to start all over again. But the roots stay. The vine plagues of Europe have never reached Santorini. Some of these vines have roots over 500 years old. Does anywhere in Europe have vine roots more venerable than that?
Santorini may be a paradise. But it is a harsh paradise. Yet harsh conditions often produce the greatest wines, so long as men and women are prepared to strive and sweat. On Santorini, they still make that commitment, and the result is some of the most remarkable wines that Europe has to offer – challenging, mouth-watering, with the bite of salted lemons, the dry scent of citrus groves, and the thrilling tension that comes from being the gritty survivors of a volcanic shock that blew half the island away, and, one day, might come back for the half that remains.