In June 2010, I went to Greece for my honeymoon. Besides being a breathtakingly beautiful place, which I fully intend to visit again when I get the chance, it also happens to be where some of the earliest known wine was made. My trip took me from Athens in the mainland to the islands of Mykonos, Santorini, and Crete, the latter two of which have significant history of civilizations enjoying wine making and both drinking it for leisure and using it for ritual ceremonies and medical purposes. It’s too bad I had not had any of my formal wine education yet at that time. It was a wonderful trip and we soaked up the history and the scenery at every opportunity, but I think of the applied knowledge I’d have gained when drinking the Ouzo spirit on Santorini, or the Retsina on Crete. To quote Thucydides ( a Greek historian) “the peoples of the Mediterranean began to emerge from barbarism when they learned to cultivate the olive.” Indeed. From what I’ve read, the Minoans in Crete learned it from the ancient Egyptians, and shared it with more of mainland Greece. And of course the Greeks even had their own god of wine, Dionysus (known as Bacchus to the Romans) who brought with him much lore, worship, and dramas. He was also the god of fertility and so some of these stories are perhaps not appropriate for a wine blog! I saw evidence of this on our visit to the historic island of Delos at the temple of Dionysus.
Wine clearly was an integral part of their daily life. They introduced other European countries to wine making and used their wine for trade with them as well. When we were in Crete, we went to Knossos (one of the Palaces of King Minos and home of the legend of the labyrinth and the Minotaur), and the Heraklion museums, where there are references to and examples of wine making and drinking vessels in the ancient art on display. We also went to a wine and olive oil cooperative near the palace. This was my first exposure to a grower’s co-op and one that specialized in incredible olive oil and several types of Greek wines. Not having my knowledge of the varieties and types yet, I DO recall the Retsina we were able to try. The pine resin was quite distinct on the nose and the palate, and very unique indeed. This is the only type of wine that I know of, and that I believe exists, that is not made of grapes. We brought home 2 boxes of that olive oil, and would really like to make it an excuse to go back and get more. There were also ancient wine presses and other wine growing tools on display and a short film on the island, co-op, and its history in the trade. This was just an unexpected stop on our trip to Knossos, but a delicious and educational experience not soon forgotten.
Another main hub for winemaking in Greece is Santorini. I remember distinctly walking along the road from our hotel in Oia on the way to the local Taverna, and spotting vines but they were so low to the ground and small. But it wasn’t until just this year that I learned about how they adapted their growing methods to cope with the high winds and hot dry Mediterranean climate, with little moisture. Bush-training the vines in small dugouts slightly below ground level, or basket-training them both protect the vines from being damaged. I only wish I was able to go look at them again right now without too much trouble. I’ve been lucky enough to see many vines since then, and each one has taught me more. Apparently there is a wine museum on the island, which I will visit next time, along with Akrotiri, which was unfortunately closed for improvements. But hey, I climbed a steaming volcano cone!
The most well renowned Santorini wine is a sweet one named VinSanto. It is made from late-harvest Assyrtiko (at least 51%) grapes in the passito method, which means they are dried in the sun after harvesting for 12-14 days. It is aged for at least 2 years in oak and has 9% abv. It is golden-to amber and has complex apricot and raisin aromas. Its high acidity makes it a little more versatile in pairing with food beyond just a dessert. Its name comes from ‘vin’ (wine) and ‘santo’ meaning it came from Santorini. As a busy trade port in ancient times, all products coming from Santorini would be labelled ‘Santo’. It is now used for holy wine and dessert wine in Italy, and the Eucharistic wine elsewhere in Europe. It is legally recognized as coming from Santorini, though the Italians still use the name to indicate the wine making style. Regular ‘Santorini’-labelled wine is also predominently Assyrtiko (75%, with some Athiri and/or Aidani) and is a bone-dry wine that is acidic, minerally, and full of stone fruit.
Lately, we search out Greek restaurants in the area constantly to relive that trip, and at a local family taverna, I was able to discover a few more of these that I learned about in my WSET class for the first time. It is this constant journey of discovery that I love as much as the first taste or the history behind the wine.
If I am incorrect on any of these facts please feel free to chime in. I did a good amount of fact-checking, but I welcome your conversation and to learn anything right that I got wrong!