Venetsanos Winery provides a spectacular view of the caldera.

Under Minoan rule, wines had been made for thousands of years on Santorini, or Thira, as the then completely circular island was known. Ancient wine presses have been found at Akrotiri, a once prosperous Bronze Age port settlement uncovered in the south of modern-day Santorini.

Santorini’s winemaking – along with much else – came to a sudden hiatus around 1600 BC with a massive volcanic eruption. The violence left the Santorini island group in the Greek Cyclades a shadow of its former self, with a large part becoming submerged, forming a massive caldera and the modern-day archipelago. 

Elephant Hill cellar door.

Mikra Thira ( facebook.com/mikrathira) is the first winery on Therasia, part of the Santorini island group, making a unique expression of the native assyrtiko grape from this Elysian landscape. From pure pumice-packed soils, the wine is distinctive in its wild herbal aromas and mineral notes – and finesse. Mikra Thira is a collaboration of three Titans of the modern Greek wine industry: Vangelis Gerovassiliou, Vassilis Tsaktsarlis and Ioanna Vamvakouri.

Gerovassiliou wears many hats. He runs the Biblia Chora Winery ( biblichora.gr) in the Pangeon region on the mainland. Previously Gerovassiliou was an acclaimed oenologist who rescued the long-forgotten local variety malagousia, now a beloved, intensely aromatic grape that is increasingly cultivated in many Greek wine-producing regions.

These present-day winemakers in Santorini are the beneficiaries of the island’s severe geological mishap. Its terroir, though exacting, is a vigneron’s playground.

Santorini has some of the oldest vines in the world, certainly in Greece. Its acidic volcanic soils, bereft of clay, resisted disease, drought and the dreaded phylloxera, unlike other parts of Europe. And they also resisted the Ottoman intervention: the occupiers didn’t have much use for land it couldn’t grow much else on. 

That’s not to imply that the vignerons here don’t need to intervene. The strong prevailing winds and arid conditions have forced them to be creative, training their vines into a koulara (‘basket’ shapes), the tendrils wrapped close-packed around the trunk, sheltering the vines and trapping the morning dew for sustenance. Regardless, production is constantly at risk from strong winds that can destroy over half a vintage.

Santorini’s most significant variety is the white grape, assyrtiko, accounting for more than 80% of the wines made. It’s a perfect fit: hardy and late-ripening, it retains acidity even in the heat. Assyrtiko is typically vinified into a crisp, mineral dry style that suits the abundant fresh seafood and summery lifestyle. Wines are typically classified into either Santorini – usually unoaked and bone-dry – and Nykteri (meaning ‘working the night away’), traditionally picked at night, has low extraction and is aged in oak for at least three months. In both cases, assyrtiko must account for at least three-quarters of the grape content to bear the name. 

Gai’a Wines.

Gai’a Wines ( gaiawines.gr) is one of the leading producers on the main Santorini island, making wines full of poise and finesse. Established in 1994 by agronomist Leon Karatsalos and winemaker Yiannis Paraskevopoulos, it is one of the pioneers of the modern Greek wine revival. The duo likes to push the boundaries of one of their favourites, the assyrtiko variety. Since 2009, they have submerged 500 bottles of the current vintage of their flagship Thalassitis Assyrtiko roughly 20 metres deep off the east coast of Santorini for four light-starved and oxygen-deprived years. Resting in Poseidon’s cellars produces interesting results for the wine, evoking: “A smoky aromatic dimension ... [and becoming] astonishingly rounder, giving the impression of an evolved wine … a rare hybrid that balances youth and maturity,” as winemaker Paraskevopoulos keenly notes. Gai’a Wild Ferment Assyrtiko is another case in point. Fermented with native wild yeasts, each batch is uniquely different, dependent on what Mother Nature brings 

Estate Argyros is home to some of the island’s oldest vines.

Established in 1903, Estate Argyros ( estateargyros.com) is run by one of the oldest Greek wine families and the largest private owner on Santorini, across more than 120ha of vineyards with an average vine age of 70 years. Argyros wines exude quality and elegance, with an ability to age. 

For fourth-generation winemaker, Matthew Argyros, the real taste of Santorini is assyrtiko. “It’s a multi-dynamic variety that can give us extraordinary results.” Argyros takes a simple approach to life and his winemaking. 

Pressed for any tricks to taming the vagaries of Santorini’s conditions, he simply offers: “As there is no recipe, there are no secrets. Winemaking is a mystical process, which I like to share through my wines.” 

Australia’s only assyrtiko wine – made by Jim Barry Wines – is thanks to Estate Argyros. With Yiannis Argyros’ blessing, winemaker Peter Barry took eight cuttings of their Santorini clone back home to Australia to plant in 2008. The winery has championed assyrtiko at its Lodge Hill Vineyard in the Clare Valley since producing its first commercial vintage in 2016, even adopting the Santorini circular basket approach for growing some of the vines there. 

Craggy Range.

Back in Santorini, even after three decades on the island, Paris Sigalas, of Domaine Sigalas ( sigalas-wine.com), still loves the anticipation of harvest. It fills him with loving memories of helping his old man crush grapes. “Accompanied by a lot of wine, singing and dancing … turning grapes into wine still fills me with a certain joy I didn’t know before,” he says. That love is reflected in the elegance in his wines. 

Elsewhere on the island, the family behind Gavalas Winery ( gavalaswines.gr) started out making wine for local consumption and for themselves from a small canava (private winery). Unlike most other families, they are fifth-generation winemakers and still going strong after more than 200 years. 

In the 1930s, Gavalas began exporting to Alexandria in Egypt, shipping wines in huge barrels filled from goat skins that were carried by mules from their vineyards to the old Santorini port of Fira.

Vagelis Gavalas loves playing with the dynamic assyrtiko and exploring its limits, but he has another passion: reviving very rare local varieties. His katsano and gaidouria field blend – with honey and lemon blossom aromas – is an excellent example of these grapes. Another rare variety is voudomato, a red grape that Gavalas makes in a rosé style with, as he describes it, “cherries and pomegranate, hints of butterscotch”. Rare varieties beget rare flavour profiles, it seems. 

Yannis Valambous at Vassaltis Winery ( vassaltis.com) is also experimenting with different indigenous Santorini varieties. His free-run juice, spontaneous-fermented Gramina Assyrtiko is made for “freshness and finesse”, he says, while the late-harvested, oxidative-aged Plethora Assyrtiko is “quirky, not to be served Saturday night at a trendy restaurant”. It needs contemplation, like a fine red wine. Decanting is not optional. 

Artemis Karamolegos is a humble and shy third-generation Santorini winemaker who lets his expressive wines do the talking. Artemis Karamolegos Winery (artemiskaramolegos-winery.com) produces different styles of assyrtiko from old vines, some more than 100 years old, mainly grown at altitude. Karamolegos believes minimal intervention creates maximum depth and richness in his wines. He is also exploring natural wines through his Mystirio range, producing the very first orange assyrtiko wine of Santorini. 

Rare indigenous varieties get the treatment at Gavalas Winery.

The other indigenous white grapes of Santorini, athiri and aidani, are typically blended, softening the steely lines of assyrtiko, or as part of the sweeter-styled vinsanto.

Santorini’s vinsanto represents a significant part of its ancient winemaking tradition dating back thousands of years. This naturally sweet, dark red or amber-hued wine, now made predominantly from assyrtiko grapes, shot to fame under the Venetian’s occupation of the island during the Middle Ages. The style proved very popular, as the high alcohol and sweetness allowed the wine to maintain its appeal even after long sea voyages. The Venetians loved it so much, the style was adopted back in Italy, first in Tuscany but now throughout, as Vin Santo (‘holy wine’), a modern-day classic Italian dessert wine.

Made in a passito style from grapes lain flat to dry in the sun after harvest, Matthew Argyros, from Estate Argyros, is not one to rush this wine. “To achieve the quintessential Argyros style, patience is required,” he says. “Wines are kept in cellars for years, or, in the case of vinsantos, decades.” 

The estate’s vinsanto is made from berries, picked from a 150 year old Episkopi vineyard, that have been dried for up to 12 days under the Cycladic sun, then fermented and aged four years in French oak barrels. This wine is pure sweet sunshine in a bottle.

Artemis Karamolegos Winery, makers of an orange assyrtiko.

Assyrtiko Inspiration 

Undoubtedly, the success of assyrtiko has inspired other winemakers in Greece and beyond to plant the variety away from Santorini – and not without good reason. The results are on occasions impressive, at times even better than that.

French-born Stephane Derenoncourt was lured by what he describes as the “shock of energy” on the small island of Tinos. Lying about 160km off the Athens coast heading east just before you get to Mykonos, this is an island paradise with crystal pure waters and wines to match. 

Derenoncourt, along with Alexandros Avatangelos and Gerard Margeon, have established a growing cult following for their T-Oinos label (toinos.com). The huge granite boulders that dot their vineyard landscape provide a spectacular backdrop and, according to Derenoncourt, a truly different expression of assyrtiko. “It’s riper, rounder, more fruit-forward, but still with its clean crystalline length,” he explains. 

 A day at Te Awanga Estate.

Angelos Iatridis’ wines at Alpha Estate (alpha-estate.com), in the northern Amyndeon region are all about balance, and according to Iatridis, “crisp, pure expression”. If you could bottle poise, this would be it. His assyrtiko range is first class. Iatridis intends to take it to next level though with a plan to develop 130 single blocks into 130 different wines, with assyrtiko chief among them. Iatridis clearly likes challenges. 

As does George Skouras (skouras.gr). He thanks his Enduro Kawasaki motorbike for the selection of his vineyards. He painstakingly scoured the mountainous terrain of Nemea in the northern Peloponnese in search of the best vines on the best terroir. That was some time ago, but sometimes his back still pains him, he laments. Skouras’s diverse and impressive range though pays testament to his dedication. His assyrtiko is grown at altitude, creating a powerful expression, blessed by the mountain clime. 

The dry white and sweet wines of Greece – found so emphatically in the island of Santorini and embodied in assyrtiko – are pure examples of identity. Perfectly suited to the unique terroir and cuisine, these wines are complex, extroverted and made to be enjoyed. All up, an explosive combination. 

Gavalas Winery initially only made wine for local consumption. 

Wines to Try

2019 Mikra Thira Terrasea Assyrtiko, A$75, has wafts of wild herbal aromas and a textural mouthfeel of white-fleshed fruits with salty flake notes. Pure and powerful. greeceandgrapes.com

2018 Gai’a Wild Ferment Assyrtiko, A$75, is a beguiling mix of acacia-floral and citrus aromas with vanilla-oak notes and a deep minerality on the palate, with a spine of well-balanced acidity. Expect nuanced honey-fruit flavours with bottle age. dejavuwines.com.au

2019 Estate Argyros Assyrtiko, A$48, starts from grapes meticulously selected from 60-year-old vineyards. Bright pale yellow in colour with a floral-citrus nose, this wine delivers an exquisite crisp burst of refreshing acidity on the palate. A note of quince and a juicy taut sensation. Great with fried whitebait and shared with a group of friends. dejavuwines.com.au and jimscellars.com.au

2012 Estate Argyros Vinsanto, A$80, is dark caramel in colour, with a heady scent of sweet spice, its silky texture offers honey and cinnamon with citrus notes. Sheer bliss in a bottle. dejavuwines.com.au and jimscellars.com.au

2020 Domaine Sigalas Santorini Assyrtiko, A$55, is youthful, full of chalky acidity, but with layers of flavours – and elegance. jovalwinegroup.com.au and jimscellars.com.au

2019 Gavalas Santorini Blue Assyrtiko, A$70, is an impressive offering: a classic unoaked example, replete with steely vibrancy and a rich, lingering nutty mouthfeel. inopolis.com and worldwine.com.au

2018 Vassaltis Santorini Assyrtiko, A$85, is a full-bodied burst of citrus and grapefruit, with a hint of mint, replete with a nutty, creamy minerality. A bit of bottle age has done its job here – impressively so. byzantinewinemerchants.com.au

2016 Artemis Karamolegos Santorini, A$42, is a predominant assyrtiko-athiri-aidani blend. Floral-schist bouquet leads to stone fruit layered flavours, with cool mint notes. A textural beauty. cosmicwines.com.au

2020 T-Oinos Clos Stegasta Assyrtiko, A$80, is manually harvested in three stages for optimal ripening, fermented with local wild yeasts and suspended for six months on lees. houseofwine.gr

2017 Alpha Estate Ecosystem Aghia Kiriaki Assyrtiko, A$30, is right on point: taut, crystalline but wonderfully textural – and balanced. Delicious. estatewines.com.au and greeceandgrapes.com

2016 Santo Wines Nykteri (Assyrtiko/Athiri/Aidani blend), A$25, has delicate floral aromas but with a rich, flor de sal texture. Take to a local Greek taverna for saganaki (appetisers). floxwines.com

West Cape Howe in Mount Barker.