As tourism and markets evolve, Santorini winegrowers see silver linings


“Santorini’s vineyards are perhaps among the oldest continuously cultivated in the world,” writes Karen MacNeil in The Wine Bible. However, until the 18th century, most of this wine was produced entirely for home consumption. Today, the wine culture and industry on the volcanic island continues to evolve, and some producers see new opportunities on the horizon.

The roots of the vines go down to 120 feet deep to get nutrients from the hard 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. By necessity, the grapes are harvested by hand.

“Winemaking in Santorini was initially done on hundreds of traditional canavas,” or farms, explains Marcos Kafouros, president of the Santo Wines cooperative. “It wasn’t until 1948 that the first modern winery was built in Santorini by the Venetsanos brothers.”

In 1956, disaster struck. A massive earthquake struck Santorini, impoverishing many residents and damaging the booming wine industry.

Santo Wines / Photo by Christos Drazos

Kafouros describes the following years as “difficult” and notes that the Santo cooperative worked with others to establish the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status of Santorini wine in 1971.

A tourism boom began in the late 1970s and continued through the 1990s, Kafouros says. Unfortunately, he presented his own problems.

“At least 11% of our island has been concreted in recent years,” said Nikos Zorzos, mayor of the Municipality of Santorini. “Our population has grown to 25,000 [from 15,500 in 2011] because the very success of Santorini has meant that everyone wants to work in tourism here.

Help came from the European Union which, from 2010 to 2017, subsidized the promotion of Santorini wine in the United States.

“At least 11% of our island has been concreted in recent years… The very success of Santorini has meant that everyone wants to work in tourism here.” –Nikos Zorzos, Mayor of the Municipality of Santorini

Meanwhile, the island adopted in 2012 a decree from the Ministry of the Environment in Athens banning construction on rural land. In 2018, the winegrowers of Santorini convinced the Greek Ministry of Culture to include the island’s traditional wine-making practices in the Greek catalog of intangible cultural heritage sites. Their goal? To show Santorini farmers that there was a potentially profitable alternative to uprooting their vines.

In 2018, the island produced each year nearly two million bottles of PDO wine (the Santorini PDO must be composed of at least 75% Assyrtiko grapes) and several thousand bottles of wines with protected geographical indication (PGI). ). The annual revenue from the PDO alone was 22 million euros (around $ 25.5 million) for an average production price of € 11.50 per bottle (around $ 13.40). Sales were 50% in Greece and 50% worldwide.

After decades of growth, however, Santorini’s wine industry suffered several natural disasters in 2019. The storms of March 30, April 9, and May 5 literally ripped the vines out of the ground.

Petros Vamvakousis, director of Venetsanos Winery, estimates that his label has lost 40% of its yield. “We got the message,” he says. “The vineyards of Santorini were not protected at all in extreme weather conditions.”

Then 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 around the world weren’t open, so for 11 months hardly anyone was buying,” he says. “Our sales collapsed to 4% of what they were in 2019. From 14,208 bottles exported per year to just 558 in 2020. It was a total disaster, and it happened to all the winegrowers in the Isle.”

And yet there was an unexpected bright side to the 2020 harvest. Heavy rains in 2019 helped enrich the stony volcanic soil, and fewer grapes were grown on the vine. As a result, more nutrients were available for the vines, “resulting in excellent quality grapes with good maturation, balanced acidity and a rich and complex aromatic bouquet,” explains Vamvakousis.

Santorini wine
Vassaltis vineyard / Courtesy of Vassaltis

Yannis Valambous, owner of Vassaltis Winery, has noticed another ray of hope in the unprecedented pandemic year.

“The pandemic and the inevitable slowdown in sales have led to an accumulation of stocks,” explains Valambous. “Instead of selling in 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 their current vintage.”

Consumer feedback on these aged bottles has been plentiful, says Valambous, “and reinforced the opinion we’ve always had: Assyrtiko is best enjoyed with a bit of aging and gets better over time. Until the pandemic, we had not had the chance to offer these stored vintages to the consumer. “

For Valambous, it is a glimmer of hope in the tumult.

“I hope that in the longer term, this will increase the perception and appreciation of consumers of the island’s wines.”


About Michael Brafford

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