How this Greek island's grapes became some of the most expensive in the world

Santorini produces some of the world's most sought after grapes
Santorini produces some of the world's most sought after grapes - Ruby Martin

Santorini assyrtiko is a dream of a white, prized for its bone-dry minerality, its scent of meadow flowers and salt – at once soothingly floral and stingingly marine – and its pithy flavour of lemons and white grapefruit.

It’s also, suddenly, one of the most expensive of any regional appellation. Some of the best wines, such as Domaine Sigalas Assyrtiko 2021, Santorini (14.5%; Hedonism, £35.80), which combines a chiffony lightness with a stern mineral core, sell on tight allocation. It’s a long way from the cheap taverna carafes that were so many people’s introduction to Greek wine. So how did this happen?

In 1956, Santorini was shaken by an earthquake and hundreds of homes were destroyed. ‘The island was pretty much abandoned as people fled to the mainland for work, leaving the vineyards to survive on their own,’ says Greek expert and oenologist Sofia Perpera. When Greek winemaker and, later, mayor of Thessaloniki Yiannis Boutaris visited the island in the 1980s, he found the wine scene in a bad way.

‘They were harvesting in late September, and most of the wine was sold in bulk [unbottled] to Athens,’ his son Stelios once told me. The wine might have been flabby and oxidised but the place, Boutaris realised, had the potential to be a ‘beautiful vineyard’. He built a new winery and instigated a shift towards earlier picking.

With new technology – stainless steel tanks and temperature controls – Santorini assyrtiko began to emerge as a crisp swoosh of a wine. Soon, creatives including the late Haridimos Hatzidakis, who founded his eponymous winery in 1997, were making artisan versions that attracted sommeliers’ interest.

Yet it’s only in the past few years that grape prices have multiplied. Santorini has around 1,200 growers with an average vineyard holding of less than one hectare. Before 2016, the average price of 1kg of assyrtiko (you need that amount of grapes to make one bottle of wine) was €1. In 2016, with the opening of new wineries, ‘there was a huge shift in demand,’ says Perpera. Prices jumped to €3 per kg, then as high as €6 per kg. ‘This year, a hailstorm in June and heatwaves [means] production could be almost halved, putting additional pressure on pricing,’ notes Perpera.

Moreover, Santorini’s booming tourism and rising demand for luxury hotels is piling on more pressure. ‘The current law is supposed to protect existing vineyards from being pulled up for commercial development, but there are always exceptions,’ says Perpera.

Santorini assyrtiko’s scarcity makes me savour it even more. In the summer, I enjoyed the peachy limestone flavours of Artemis Karamolegos Pyritis 2020 (13%; amathusdrinks.com, £45) with fresh crab. Dr Yiannis Paraskevopoulos, of Gaia wines, says his excellent Wild Ferment Assyrtiko (13.5%; Noble Green Wines, £42) is good with fresh oysters. Pricey wines, but Santorini’s volcanic terroir brings a thrilling quality that isn’t replicated elsewhere.

Still, if you look beyond the island you can find more affordable ones. Assyrtiko is, after all, quite extraordinary: a white grape capable of producing fresh wines even when grown in searing heat – something the world’s winemakers may increasingly value in years to come.

Try these...

Left to right: Athlon Greek Assyrtiko, Lyrarakis Assyrtiko, The Society’s Exhibition Santorini Assyrtiko
Left to right: Athlon Greek Assyrtiko, Lyrarakis Assyrtiko, The Society’s Exhibition Santorini Assyrtiko

Athlon Greek Assyrtiko 2022, Greece

(12%; Aldi, £6.99)

Assyrtiko grown in Macedonia in mainland Greece and blended with a little chardonnay to create a fresh, clean, lemony wine.

Lyrarakis Assyrtiko 2022, Crete

(13.5%; Majestic, £12.99 or £10.99 in a mixed six)

A refreshing, citrussy assyrtiko, made on Crete by Domaine Lyrarakis. Look out for this producer’s other wines, made from native grapes.

The Society’s Exhibition Santorini Assyrtiko 2021, Santorini

(13%; The Wine Society, £17.50)
Made by Artemis Karamolegos from 50-year old vines, this is an excellent assyrtiko.

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