There is archeological evidence supporting the cultivation of the vine on Santorini that dates back almost 5000 years. However, it was the eruption of around 1600BC that made the unique wines of Santorini what they are today. The explosion left behind a mixture of volcanic ash, pumice stone and pieces of solidified lava and sand, which together make up the soil of Santorini, known as “aspa”. The soil has little to no organic matter, but is rich in essential minerals, except potassium, creating wines with a naturally low pH level and high acidity.
The volcanic soil in which the indigenous varieties of Santorini grow is responsible for the unique character of the wines. Additionally, the lack of clay in the soil gives the vines a natural immunity from Phylloxera, which
Despite these advantages, the growing conditions of Santorini are made more difficult because of the lack of rain, with an average of only 400mm per year. The rains fall mostly in the winter and seeps through the porous soil and rock, gathering deep into the earth, where it remains until the summer’s heat draws it near the surface to nourish the vines. The only other source of water available comes in the form of sea fog that envelops the island at night due to the reaction of the active volcano with the surrounding sea. The sea mist is absorbed by the soil, pumice and other volcanic rock and is returned to the vines during the day, when it is needed most. This salty spray that covers the grapes provide another dimension and special quality, boosting minerality and adding a pleasing, slightly briny character to the wine.
Cool, refreshing winds from the north called, “meltemia,” blanket the island during the summer, decreasing the temperature dramatically at night. This helps maintain the already bright acidity that Assyrtiko and the other native varieties inherently possess. These revitalizing winds also keep the vines from becoming infected with Botrytis and mildew, which greatly reduces the need to treat the vines.
Throughout the island of Santorini, there is an estimated 1400 hectares of vineyards still under cultivation. This has decreased from 2500 hectares planted in the 1960’s due to a combination of the island’s popularity as a travel destination and the increasing disinterest of the new generations of growers because of the extreme difficultly in vineyard maintenance. Though only a handful of the vineyards are certified organic, most of the growers cultivate their grapes using organic methods because of the natural resistance to disease and pests that the climate and volcanic environment have created.
The vineyard of Santorini is believed to be the world’s oldest, still under continuous cultivation, but the actual age of the vines is under debate. The vines are grown in the “koulara” method, which means they are woven into continuous circles to form a basket for protection from the strong winds and harsh summer sun. After many years of such training, the nutrients must pass through several meters of vine to finally reach the grapes, which greatly affects the yields of these old vines. Eventually the yields become so low, that the basket is cut completely off at the root of the plant near the surface of the soil. This is generally done when the baskets approach 75 years of age. A new plant eventually sprouts from a dormant eye on the old rootstock and a new basket will be formed that produces a harvest within 2-3 years. It is known that this procedure has been performed at least four or five times over these last centuries, making some of the original rootstock there hundreds of years old.