Loose The Zeus Juice - Finding Revelation in the Wines of Santorini (and other parts of Greece)

October 18, 2022
Will C. Farley

A piece in which the author writes about uniquely Greek wine, food, romance, and revelation. For a quick read on the wines of Santorini, check out the piece I wrote for the New York Post here. For a more comprehensive review of some wines, where to stay, where to visit, and more read on.

On the Ground

Landing in Santorini feels like a fever dream, especially if you don’t sleep on the plane en route to Athens from New York City. From the air you circle the caldera, a half moon of craggy fallen volcano rising out of the Mediterranean, and look out at the ragged landscape stippled with white-washed buildings. The inside of the crescent island is an almost vertical drop with vistas that provide some of the most stunning sunsets on earth.

From these perches high above the water you can see other islands from the Cycladic chain peeking through the mist. The obfuscated islands tease the imagination, and Odysseus’s wine-dark sea calls with untold adventure. This feeling of possibility almost excuses his twenty-year absence from his wife and son.

When I landed, I was still feeling my sleep deficit, adding to the psychotropic effects of the alien landscape. Sun-browned grasses waved lazily in the sea breeze, here and there dotted with bursts of vibrant color—reds, yellows, and purples painted across a sepia palate. My entire time in the country, Greeks told me how lucky I was to see these flowers, only in springs with heavy rains do they grow with such fervor and vivid color.

Bush vines, somewhere on Santorini.

As I rode my motor scooter to my hotel, bag strapped across my back, I settled in and started to notice bush vines springing from the ground. I stopped to get a closer look; the vines were woven into small baskets called kouloura that protect the grapes hanging inside the basket-like structure from the extreme winds whipping off the Mediterranean. The ancient Greeks called these winds the Meltemi, and for winemakers, they offer a blessing and a curse. While some producers have had recent success with traditional trellising, historically, bunches grown outside a kouloura were destroyed by the winds. But these same winds keep the island cool, even in the middle of summer, preserving the acidity in the grapes while they develop phenolic ripeness. They also blow away any of the (scant) moisture that could cause rot before harvest.

The winds were so strong I was almost pushed off the road while riding my scooter, my broad chest and shouldered luggage acting like a sail. I corrected and headed north and up the hill to my hotel, Lithi Luxury Retreat. The seven-suite boutique may not boast sunset views (follow the goat path straight uphill from your room to take in the sunsets from the trail overlooking the caldera), but each suite has either a private pool or jacuzzi, romantic breakfasts for two featuring all local produce every morning, and an infinity view of the eastern side of the island. Despite the romantic nature of my solo stay, I absolutely loved it and would stay there again in a heartbeat.

I don’t normally eat breakfast, but damn was it good. A feast for two.

The winemaking practices on Santorini are ancient, and since the early Middle Ages it has been one of the most important wine producers in the Mediterranean. In the ancient world, it was known for sweet wines. Konstantinos Lazarakis MW (Master of Wine), argues that the sun-dried  Vinsanto (“wine of Santorini”) is not just a rip off of the Italian Vin Santo (“holy wine”) but carries its own, older legacy of import to Russia, despite both being sun-dried wines.

Today Santorini is known more for its still wines, especially the concentrated, delicious whites. The primary grape variety on Santorini is Assyrtiko, but you can find very good wines made from Athiri, Aïdani, and Mavrotragano among others.

In the best conditions, Assyrtiko makes a highly acidic, aromatic, and concentrated wine with aging potential. Unlike a lot of warm-weather white wines, Assyrtiko shows only moderate fruit but the grapes retain a strong acid profile, mineral backbone, and smoky phenolics on the finish. They can be found growing all over the country, but the best come from Santorini. The volcanic soils are a natural phylloxera defense, meaning that unlike most of the winemaking world, the Assyrtiko of Santorini grows on its own rootstock. ”Old vine” takes a new meaning here, where some of the vines are estimated to be 200+ years old.

Before I came to the island I had enjoyed a few Assyrtikos (especially the wines of Paris Sigalas), but I left with some true gems.

Here are the best wineries to visit in Santorini, as well as some of my favorite wines, presented in no particular order:

Domaine Sigalas

Paris Sigalas has long been the biggest advocate for the potential of Santorini wines. For thirty years, he ran Domaine Sigalas and sought to prove that Assyrtiko was worthy of a seat at the table of fine European wine. Through his yearly bottling ”Nychteri” (a blend of multiple vineyard sites) he convinced the world that Assyrtiko has what it takes to be fine wine. Nychteri is a complex, textured wine full of aromas of herby phenolics, ripe citrus, nuts, and honey.

If you see one, it’s worth trying alongside one of his older “7 Villages” bottlings that showcase the different aspects of the island‘s terroir. Since 2020 things have changed a little bit, and Paris sold his stake in the winery to fund other projects, although, to my understanding, he is still making these projects on the Sigalas property. Keep an eye out for his new wine project called Oeno Π (“Oeno P”).

Gai’a’s Ammonite, but ceci n'est pas une wine

Gai’a Wines

Finding Gai’a is incredibly easy. If you can find the airport, it’s just next door. The converted industrial building houses extremely delicious examples of Santorini Assyrtiko that veer toward the mineral, almost as if the wines were hewn from the volcanic hillsides. “Thalassitis” and “Wild Ferment” are the standard bearers, but the newer bottling “Ammonite” is sweeping the Greek vinerati off their feet. It was recently ranked number one at the 50 Great Greek Wine Awards, founded by Yiannis Karakasis MW (Master of Wine) but supported by other MWs like Mark Andrew (founder of Noble Rot, the best wine publication, sorry everyone else), Lenka Sedlackova, Caro Maurer, and Demetri Walters, as well as Master Sommelier Stefan Neumann and writer Wojciech Bońkowski.

Their note on Ammonite: 

”Expressive, precise, and very mineral, pure sea spray and flint. Delightful. Lovely presence on the palate with a steely backbone. Salty, fresh, and stony, this is long and beautifully balanced. Fantastic length and drive concentrated but super fresh on the mid-palate—a wine with a towering personality and brilliant oak handling. […] It rests for over 15 months on its organic lees, and a small percentage matures in new French oak barrels.“

Estate Argyros

Winemaker Matthaios Argyros is a force on and off the island. A fierce advocate for the potential of their wines, he diligently seeks out new expressions while farming his father’s (and father’s father’s, and father’s father’s father’s) old vines. Cuvée Monsignori is a benchmark wine for Estate Argyros. With grapes from a plot of 200+ year-old vines, the wine retains an almost impossible lift through its’ high alcohol and bracing mineral structure. The nose and palate are all salty lemon tart with touches of juicy citrus. It’s truly an exceptional Assyrtiko.

2017 Pure in magnum, as god intended.

Volcanic Slope Vineyards

Not content with focusing on single-estate expressions, Matthaios create Volcanic Slope Vineyards to produce a wine that represents the platonic ideal of Santorini Assyrtiko. Featuring grapes from two old vine parcels (~200 years old) in Pyrgos and Megalochori, VSV’s “Pure” is vinified in concrete with native yeasts and on the lees for 14 months. The results are as pure as advertised. White flowers, zesty citrus, and acacia wood leap out of the glass but are set against flint and other steely minerals. The depth of this wine is something altogether different. It’s almost endless; a concentrated sawblade of flavor vibrates long after you finish drinking. I’ve tasted two of the three vintages and find that I prefer the 2017 to the 2018, but really with this wine you can’t go wrong.

Trading Santorini for Sifnos

This is a totally real place that I rode to before having delicious grilled fish on the beach.

Not content to only explore well-trodden ground (Santorini is home to a few thousand, but sees a reported 2 million visitors a year), I sailed out to a small and decidedly less tourist-focused island called Sifnos.

The three and a half days I spent exploring this glorious island will live forever in a sepia-tinged scent memory. The salty sea breeze carries fragrant scrub of sage, thyme, and marjoram across the island, up the sheep paths, and over the peaks that served as strongholds throughout the Roman, Venitian, and Ottoman ages. Fresh fish crackle over an open flame, braised baby goat slowly burbles on a broad hearth, and the pines and fresh flowers newly in bloom mingle their scents with the smoke emanating from the live fires. All across the island old men and women were white washing walls and accenting doors and domes with deep Mediterranean blue in anticipation of the coming tourist season.

Sifnos is in harmony and full of flavors, textures, sounds, sights, and scents that serve out a haptic experience. It’s a wonder there isn’t a deeply entrenched winemaking culture on the island.

Whatever is lacking is more than made up for by the enthusiasm of the locals for pairing great Greek wines with classic Cycladic cuisine. People like Giannis Arvanitis, a former sommelier and current F&B manager for the boutique Verina properties, are more than happy to point you in the direction of great food and wine on the island. I stayed at Verina Terra in the tiny seaside village of Platis Gialos and spent too short a time nerding out with Giannis about Champagne and under-the-radar Assyrtiko.

Omega3 in Platis Gialos at dusk

My trip was a few weeks before “peak“ tourist season, and never one to drink and scoot, I stayed local in the evenings. Luckily for me, I was staying 100 meters from Omega3, a fish and wine bar helmed by Giorgos Samoilis (a chef with a molecular biology background) that has been called ”the chicest shack in the Aegean.” Each night I sidled up to the bar and sampled beautifully prepared food alongside fun wines I hadn’t tried before. There was a consommé-like fish stock alongside sweet Sifniot crackers with an aged local goat cheese spread, perfectly paired with a zippy but lush Assyrtiko. There was lamb mastelo over a bed of mashed chickpeas and pine nuts in a wine reduction; what more could I ask for than a Xinomavro with a few years of bottle age?

After a few days of hiking, lounging, eating, and drinking it was time to move on. I slowly boarded the boat for Crete and more adventure with a zen-like placidity bourne from my days in paradise.

Cretan [sic] Diversions

Agiou Titou, indeed.

Upon arrival in Heraklion, I was thrust into a grimy cityscape of tourists and immediately understood why my friends in Athens disdained the city. “To see the real Crete you have to get out in the country,” they all said. I didn’t listen, and unfortunately for me, they were right. Heraklion reminded me a lot of living in Turkey and vacationing on the coast in Bodrum or Izmir. Raki flowed freely, hookah lounges were packed, and waiters harried you out front of their restaurants demanding that you stay and eat “the best meal in Heraklion.” Color me skeptical.

What is likely the best restaurant in the city sits at the end of a back-alley just outside of the hustle and bustle of the city center. Since 1998 Peskesi has focused on  preserving Cretan foodways and reviving traditional dishes. They source largely from their own farms and create a dining experience that doesn’t cut corners. Heritage breeds of pork and lamb from their own pastures are slowly roasted, grilled, or smoked until falling apart tender, wild snails and herbs are foraged before being cooked in wood ovens with olive oil and local sea salt, and local soft cheeses are rolled in phyllo and fried and presented in a truly delicious spread. It all sounds simple, but the concentration of flavor is incredibly intense—clearly a product that was lovingly grown or raised and respected by the chefs. Finishing the meal with traditional Cretan brandy is a must.

If you are still feeling like a drink or snack step next door to Opus, a Cretan wine bar where you can taste across the island. Crete is a wild island with many wines that match the rugged, mountainous landscape, but a few are thoughtful and complex. It’s like you can taste the 7,000+ years of winemaking history in each glass. Some standouts to be on the lookout for are Lyrarakis‘s ”Dafni Psarades,” Diamantakis‘s ”Petali,” and Douloufakis‘s ”Dafnios.”

After one night in Heraklion, I’d had enough and decided to light out a day early into the wild unknowns. I drove east and south, making my way over mountain passes that my little car wasn’t really equipped for. After a few hours, I found myself descending towards the beaches on the southern coast. Sitting in a small town, sipping a coffee with the texture of sludge, I watched the horizon thinking about how North Africa was just over the horizon. This is exactly the Zorba-like experience I was looking for in Crete, and I spent the next few days driving around the eastern reaches of the island, reading, swimming, and eating.

Look at these perfectly fried cheesy, salty doughballs featuring a fresh squeeze of lemon.

The most notable meal outside of Peskesi was in a tiny village called Latsida on my last night in Crete. Taverna Milaras Emm is a family-run tavern that serves Cretan classics like they always have. I started with some beautifully fried doughballs stuffed with salty local cheese, garden-picked snails cooked in olive oil and rosemary, and baby goat long braised in local wine. Through pantomime, the owner invited me into the kitchen to meet his family and say hello to his friends. We shared a drink, and I made my way back to prepare for the return trip to Athens.

Athens - City of Tasty Treats

Athens is a mysterious and ancient city. Winding streets snake across the landscape, with small alleys darting off here and there in no discernable pattern. On some, you can half hear snatches of song or the clinking of cutlery. Are these simply Athenians enjoying the beautiful night at home al fresco, or is this a hidden gem of a restaurant, one you’d never find in a guidebook? 

The bricolage architecture, old and new jammed on top of one another, gives the city a dreamlike quality, where every building is thrown into relief against the grand temple of Athena Parthenos that dominates the skyline. The cobbles gently give way to flagstone tiles in the squares surrounding orthodox churches, where the censers throw the smell of worship into the streets alongside the wafting smells of fresh bread and grilled meats, a maddeningly divine mixture.

I love Athens and was very excited to have another day to explore before returning to New York. In a twist of luck, my friend Vianny was flying back on the same flight, which meant we could wander the city together to eat and drink. The food and drink scenes are thriving. Following cocktails at two amazing bars The Clumsies and Baba au Rum (both of which were awarded a top 20 ranking in the “World‘s 50 Best” awards), I switched back to wine. Bouncing from the bustling sidewalk natural wine cafe Heteroclito to the more serious Oinoscent, we caught up on where we had been and what we’ve been doing.

Your author, ecstatic about the Pure.

While we bopped from Oinoscent to a few other spots for dinner and drinks (s.i.x. dogs and a place called Εστιατόριο Αυλή Avli), it was at Oinoscent that my trip came full circle. On the list was a bottle of Volcanic Slope Vineyards Pure 2018, which I gleefully ordered.

Wine is meant to be shared, and opening the bottle with Vianny allowed me to experience it for the first time all over again. The precision, balance, and finish in the Assyrtiko whisked me back to the Santorini in my mind, and I savored it, knowing that the minuscule production volume means that it‘s a long shot that I’ll encounter it in the future. Maybe somewhere, someday, but at least it lives in my memory, just pure and unadulterated flavor. And for now, that’s enough.

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