It's surprising where a glass of good wine, enjoyed on one of these balmy Athenian spring evenings, in the company of friends and with a wandering mind, can take you...
A few nights ago, the lemony-yellow Assyrtiko wine was glittering in my half-full glass, with golden highlights, just like the painted ceiling in the famous “Church with the Grapes” in the heart of Cappadocia, Turkey, where a cross is entwined by vines and grapes on a shining yellow ground (for an image of its splendour, see the end of this post).
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser” said Jesus, as reported in the Gospel of John (15.1), believed to have been written by his beloved disciple. Without being facetious, it can be said that of all the similes Christ uses for himself (e.g. a shepherd or gatekeeper in John 10.9 and 10.3) the vine seems to have been especially blessed, especially evocative in the minds of the Early Christians, gladdening the soul and giving pleasure as a manifestation of the Word of the Lord.
We do not know for sure when or where the grapevine was first cultivated and wine was first consumed. Humans have certainly known and used the fruit of the species vitis vinifera since the Neolithic period: the earliest evidence for grape-pressing in Europe discovered so far was found at the site of Dikili Tash in Northern Greece and is dated to ca. 4400 BC! Several millennia latter, in the 2nd millennium BC, wine is known to have been drunk by the Bronze Age people of the Caucasus, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Minoan Crete and the Greek Mainland and it was traded over long distances already in that distant past.
Even though we cannot trace the earliest origins and developments of Greek wine-making, viticulture became a key feature of Classical Greece, and wine-drinking was a central social activity. The Greeks even introduced a new youthful deity to be its patron: Dionysos, the God of wine, theatre and ecstasy.
The Assyrtiko that I was drinking that evening is one of Greece's most famous grape varieties, grown mainly on Santorini and the Cycladic Islands, but also found in other regions, especially Northern Greece (the Chalkidiki Peninsula) and the Peloponnese (around Monemvasia). It is a high-quality variety with good structure and high acidity, unusual for the hot climate of the areas where it is cultivated. It is distinguished by its strong aromatic complexity and distinctive character, which grows with ageing. A fine Santorini Assyrtiko features citrus fruit aromas, with scents of wild herbs and diverse mineral notes.
The latter are derived from the island's unique ecosystem and its porous soils, resulting from the enormous volcanic eruption of ca. 1600 BC. The secret of Santorini's wines are those volcanic soils, consisting of lava, ashes and pumice, combined with a typical Mediterranean climate of mild winters and hot, dry summers, with temperatures moderated by the strong meltemi winds of July and August. It may be due to these circumstances that Santorini's vines were never affected by the phylloxerra epidemic that ravaged Europe in the 19th century, making them one of the Old-World's only surviving native rootstocks.
One of the most striking aspects of Santorini's vine cultivation is the highly unusual traditional technique by which the plants are raised: they are wound into a low-lying circular basket shape, known as kouloura (ring), protecting the vine and grapes from the strong winds and the intense sunlight. On my visits to the island during our Cyclades cruises, I have learnt a lot from the expert winemakers at Argyros Estate (an award-winning local winery, listed as one of the 100 Top wineries in the World), who made me realize just how unique the island's winemaking method is, and how the entire process, from the erection of terrace walls of lava, via the laying out of the fields to the planting and pruning of the kouloures, and finally the harvest, is based on an impressive amount of hard and exacting manual labour and relies on constant care. Today Santorini’s wines are all classed as P.D.O. (Protected Designation of Origin) or P.G.I (Protected Geographic Indication) in the European labelling scheme, and the island is renowned as a well-organized destination with “Wine Roads”, fine restaurants, and opportunity for tastings at various wineries.
As a matter of fact, such “Wine Roads” initiatives have recently developed in many regions of Greece. One of them is Crete, the country's largest island and a very important area in terms of viticulture. One of the features that make Crete's vineyards unique is the fact that in the northern part of the island a range of self-rooted local varieties, having been cultivated there for millennia, are preserved mainly due to the long line of mountains that protect this coast from the hot African winds. Several Cretan grape varieties, both red and white, have received P.D.O appellation: Vilana, Kotsifali, Vidiano, Mandilari and Liatiko).
For other specialities from Santorini, also check out our posts on the island's famous tomatinia (cherry tomatoes) and on Santorini Fava, a delicious purée made of the distinctive yellow split peas grown on the island.
You can sample all of these local specialities on our Cyclades cruise.