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In 2014, for the first time in 27 years, I revisited Santorini, Greece. Boy, has it changed since 1987.
For one thing, it’s a lot more crowded. More interestingly, though, winemaking is now a booming business in Greece, particularly in Santorini where the quality of the wines is nothing like what I tasted in the ’80s. Back then, the only thing on offer was the gag-inducing retsina (a traditional Greek wine flavored with pine resin).
In fact, because of Santorini's rich, burnt orange volcanic soil and its distinctive mineral content, the island’s assyrtiko wines, in particular, have garnered local winemakers an international reputation for quality. Today, the island features at least 13 wineries.
The first winery I visited on Santorini was Santo Wines. Located just outside the postcard village of Pyrgos, the winery, arguably the most beautiful in Greece, clings precariously to the towering rocks overlooking the caldera. The impressive white terrace offers a view of Fira, the main town, in the distance.
With the cheerful Stela Kasiola as my guide, we toured the winery and its facilities — including the various winemaking tanks, a wedding gazebo and an impressive boutique, where you can purchase wines and other products made by Santo Wines. Products include tomato paste, fava beans and caper leaves as well as Korres soaps and body lotion made from assyrtiko grapes.
After the tour, we took our seats at a table overlooking the caldera to get down to the business at hand: tasting wines. As we sipped vintages and grazed on olives and cubes of white cheese, my guide introduced me to all seven of their volcanic wines, explaining the properties of each. The distinctive assyrtiko grape, she told me, is the one indigenous to Santorini, which boasts a winemaking tradition that reaches back at least 3,500 years.
“It all started with the volcano,” Kasiola said. “The black rock, the black sand — the minerality of the volcanic terroir is what gives the wines their unique taste.”
A little tipsy, I left Santo Wines on foot, eventually arriving at Gavalas Winery more than an hour later. (I don’t recommend this approach in high summer.) There are buses between villages, but their routes are not necessarily direct, and sometimes the buses don’t appear at all. I would recommend booking a car and driver.
Gavalas Winery is a family-owned business that has been in existence for three centuries. The winery’s sweet Vin Santo wine and Santorini vintages have been warmly reviewed by the Washington Post and have garnered medals from Decanter and from various international wine competitions in California and Europe. While equipped with modern facilities, the winery’s cobbled courtyard, cavernous interior and old stone foot-pressing area — still in use — speak to a much earlier time.
When I made a surprise visit last August, the staff was very busy between group tours and with checking wine quality before sending bottles out, yet still managed to find the time for some friendly chit-chat. Since I couldn’t handle any more alcohol, they allowed me to visit the grounds and relax in their lovely courtyard with a bottle of mineral water.
My last visit that day was to the Sigalas Winery, situated on the flat plain outside the scenic town of Oia, where the world goes to catch one of the planet’s most celebrated sunsets. I took the bus and then walked — and walked. I had misunderstood Panayiota Kalogeropoulou, the hospitality director of Sigalas Winery, when she said that the tasting room was only 10 minutes from the top of the hill. She meant by car.
By the time I arrived an hour later, it was only a few hours until sunset. However, since the winery’s lovely terrace and vast fields face west, this was a bonus. On entering the tasting room — all crisp whites and subdued grays, with high ceilings, marble-top tables and black cast-iron chairs — I felt I could stay forever.
The affable Kalogeropoulou, who manages the bar but could easily run the company, sat me down at the big wooden marble-topped counter to taste a variety of Sigalas wines. As she poured me one of the winery’s assyrtiko wines, she filled me in on the owner’s story.
“Mr. Sigalas was a mathematician,” she said. “But he quit his job because he fell in love with wine. He was doing it at first just for his friends, but it became a passion.”
The same can be said for Kalogeropoulou, who left her job in Athens to work for Sigalas on a four-month trial. It has now been eight years.
As I sat on the terrace sipping wine and chewing on the best stuffed vine leaves I’ve ever tasted, surrounded by mountains to the south, vineyards to the west and with the sun dipping into the Aegean Sea, I could see why she still has never left.