Friday, August 16, 2013

Vineyards in the Wind

Santorini vineyard -- low lying.
The Greek island of Santorini is beautiful, but can be decidedly windswept. This doesn't matter when you're lying on your pool-side sun lounger sheltered by an attractive rustic stone wall, or a glass screen thoughtfully installed in your resort hotel, but it matters a lot if you're trying to grow anything. It's also rather a challenge that Santorini has no permanent rivers, streams or springs: all the water for agriculture falls as rain.

A fine rosé from the mandilaria grape.
A delicious white from the assyrtiko grape.
Yet Santorini has a famous, if boutique-sized, wine industry. The enterprising vine-growers of the island train their grape vines to grow close to the ground in a circular 'nest', with the grapes nestling inside. This prevents the winds from doing their worst, and saves what little moisture there is. The characteristic basket-shaped vine is called “kalathi” or “niabelo” in the local dialect.

The vine clustering on the dry soil.
A 'vine nest', obviously past its use-by date.
The distinctive palate of Santorini wines owes a lot to the volcanic soil in which the vines are grown, producing some very good, sharp, minerally white wines; and to the hot sun, giving the famous sweet Vin Santo. As for the grape varieties, they are decided local: Assyrtiko (covering 80% of the vineyards) Aidani and Athiri are the grape varieties participating in the AOC 'Santorini' dry white wine, and in the AOC 'Vinsanto' dessert white wine. Red regional wines are also produced from the varieties Mandilaria and Mavrotragano.

A nice selection.
Tasting the local produce. With a view.
This useful site has lots of information and pictures, and tells us that:
Along with other adapted horticultural species, Santorini’s vineyards cover a surface of 1400 hectares. The cultivated vines are stretched from the sea level to the caldera cliffs of 250m of altitude. The archeological statements show that viticulture was already present on the island in the 17th century B.C. (vineyard devastated by the volcanic explosion around 1600). From 1200 B.C. to today, there has been a continuous cultivation of vines.
Santorini also has the distinction of being phylloxera-free, so the vines on the island do not need to be grafted. There are ten or eleven wineries you can visit to taste and purchase, plus lots of local family cellars.

As well as its unique local wines, Santorini rather amazingly manages to produce other local agricultural specialities - all grown close to the ground, of course: indigenous farm products like fava peas (like split peas), cherry tomatoes, white eggplants and the wild crocus plant (from which saffron is gathered).

Dried fava beans.
Fava beans - look like split peas.

Cactus jam (from fico d'India or prickly pear fruit)
A few local agricultural specialities.
Scallops with fava bean pureé, garnished with local capers - delish!
Along with vines, we know from the wall murals that many of these plants were being cultivated on Santorini - Ancient Thera - in the 17th century BC when Akrotiri flourished and the volcano ended it all. But they're back.

Did I mention that it's windy? This imported eucalypt has bent to the breeze.

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