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Will We Let Santorini Be More Than Just a Source for “Beach Wines”?

Santorini rose to fame thanks to a single style of bright, crisp assyrtiko. But it’s capable of so much more.

To many of us, the island of Santorini conjures images that could be cut from a cringe-worthy vacation episode of The Kardashians: luxury villas and private yachts and white-domed villages perched above the radiant Aegean Sea. But after just a short drive from the airport, you begin to see signs of the “other” Santorini: the scattered patches of ancient, bush-trained vines growing out of the sand right along the side of the road.

Most tourists scoot by on their ATVs unaware. But within the wine community, the region has generated serious buzz as one of the hottest “emerging” regions to watch. Fodder for countless articles and Top Five lists, its reputation has been built around a specific set of talking points, which celebrate it—along with assyrtiko, Santorini’s star indigenous grape—as the archetypal Mediterranean white: bright, lemony and bracingly mineral.

If ever a wine were designed to sell a picture-postcard vision of the Greek isles, it would be Santorini. The words of Vine Pair co-founder Adam Teeter exemplify the kind of coverage it has received: “You can be transported to this island paradise with each bottle you open, and thanks to the fact that these wines are still under the radar, the best ones can be found for around twenty bucks—definitely much cheaper than a plane ticket!”

For all their enthusiasm, stories like this tend to omit an important part of the conversation: historical context. As it turns out, this easy, breezy Santorini we’ve come to know is a very modern invention. Engineered in the 1980s, when the introduction of stainless-steel fermentation tanks radically sanitized the production process, the style signaled a deliberate adjustment to the international market, ushering in new era of polished, commercially-driven wines. By the time Santorini started making U.S. headlines, this squeaky-clean version of assyrtiko was already definitive.

Most regions never outgrow this sound-byte period of their development. No sooner have they bubbled to the surface of our awareness than we’ve discarded them for some other bright, shiny object. Santorini, on the other hand, has been enjoying “next big thing” status for a while—too long, I’d argue, for its up-and-coming status to remain entirely credible.

Today, all evidence suggests that the region is evolving from “emerging” to, well, emerged. But having risen to fame thanks to a single style, it now faces some difficult questions: Is it destined to remain a one-hit wonder, forever stamped as another sunny Mediterranean wine? Or, as it continues to carve out its own vision of maturity, will it find a way to surpass the novelty phase and successfully embrace a more complex paradigm—ideally, one capable of expressing the full spectrum of what Santorini might mean?

“If all we do is follow the dominant style—clear, commercial, lemony and easy-drinking—we will end up with a homogenous view of Santorini, and never expand the zone’s complexity or discover what Santorini and assyrtiko can finally give to us, and to the world.”

It isn’t every day that we catch a wine region in mid-transition like this. A region’s evolution tends to be big, messy and full of contradictions. The social and economic forces that shape them generally extend across large areas of land and encompass dozens of appellations and sub-appellations, each with its own hierarchy of producers, ranging from large to small, boutique to industrial. During periods of cultural reorganization, the larger narrative can take years to cohere, often intelligible only in hindsight.

But unlike, say, Champagne or Bordeaux, Santorini is tiny. Drivable from top to bottom in under an hour, it offers a controlled environment in which to observe the changes that are actively redefining it. What comes into focus is a wine region’s coming of age.

This transformation hasn’t been subtle. Since 2010, three new wineries have been constructed, to say nothing of a rash of privately contracted labels eager to cash in. That might not sound like much—but for a place where only a decade ago it was possible to count the total number of producers on two hands, the impact has been staggering. Given the attendant spike in demand, grape prices have more than tripled, up from 80 cents per kilo in 2009 to over three dollars today. Now that even the most established wineries struggle each harvest to secure their desired amounts, the big fear is that Santorini is becoming a victim of its own success.

“A whole lot of people have come to the island to jump on the gravy train of Santorini fame,” says importer Ted Diamantis of Diamond Importers, whose portfolio includes both Santos Wines, Santorini’s co-operative winery, and Domaine Sigalas, one of its iconic independent estates. “They’re in for a quick buck, but what’s lacking is a long-term vision for where to go from here.”

Regardless what the future holds, when it comes to raw materials, few areas have been blessed like Santorini. The byproduct of the cataclysmic “Minoan eruption,” which obliterated an entire civilization over three millennia ago, the island’s volcanic soils impart an unmistakably smoky minerality and were, in the 19th century, resistant to the phylloxera epidemic that ravaged Europe’s vineyards. As a result, Santorini boasts some of the oldest un-grafted vines in existence. Add to the equation the extremely dynamic assyrtiko grape, which has been adapting to its native environment for thousands of years, and what you get is one of the most mind-bendingly unique viticultural locations on earth.

No one who has ever set foot in the island’s vineyards could deny that Santorini possesses all the necessary ingredients to achieve the kind of greatness we associate with only a handful of places. But what remains unclear is how it will choose to define itself in relation to that potential.

“We have to decide what kind of Santorini we want to make before we can ever hope to make it a famous terroir that lasts in time and has specific quality characteristics,” says Kostas Stamou, former manager of the Hatzidakis winery, which, before the passing of winemaker Haridimos Hatzidakis this past August, was renowned for producing some of the island’s most soulfully expressive wines. “If all we do is follow the dominant style—clear, commercial, lemony and easy-drinking—we will end up with a homogenous view of Santorini, and never expand the zone’s complexity or discover what Santorini and assyrtiko can finally give to us, and to the world.”

Even if the push toward profitability shows no signs of relenting, the good news is that a larger conversation is now taking place among some of the island’s top producers as they work to deepen their understanding of the area’s identity.

This past year, for example, winemaker Paris Sigalas of Domaine Sigalas launched his 7 Villages project, for which he vinifies a separate wine from each of Santorini’s sub-villages, delivering a fascinating study in the island’s contrasting terroirs. Similarly, there has been a movement toward age-worthy single-vineyard expressions, such as Hatzidakis’ Mylos cuvée—the product of late-harvested grapes sourced from a tiny high-elevation plot of 100-year-old assyrtiko vines in the village of Pyrgos Kallistis—and the Kavalieros bottling from Sigalas, which is aged on the lees for 18 months before spending two additional years in bottle.

Attuned to a richer and far more ambitious register, these site-designated bottlings set a new bar for the region. They also demonstrate a willingness to break out of a uniform aesthetic for the sake of embodying a deeper sense of place. All of this raises larger questions about what “typicity” truly means for a grape like assyrtiko. Some feel that the dominant tank-fermented approach risks stripping the grape of its true varietal character, resulting in wines that lack the textural weight and depth that constitute Santorini’s authentic signature.

“These cultivars spent thousands of years acclimating to this hot, dry climate,” says importer Dionysi Grevenitis, who represents the Hatzidakis and Koutsoyannopoulos estates in the U.S. market, two wineries associated with a more traditional approach. “They’ve developed thick skins, and don’t naturally lend themselves toward fresh, easy-drinking wines, but unctuous, full-bodied wines with high alcohol content. So when you allow assyrtiko to absorb a little bit of oxygen, all sorts of things begin to happen that are far more profound and compelling than crisp minerality and laser-like focus.”

The qualities he’s describing find their most powerful realization in the ongoing effort to reclaim the forgotten barrel-fermented category known as Nykteri, which pays homage to Santorini’s pre-technological past. An approximation of the rustic winemaking practices of a century ago—when late-harvest grapes were harvested at night to avoid spoilage, then pressed and left to mature for several years in old wooden barrels—the style’s revival has offered winemakers the chance to reinterpret Santorini through the lens of a completely different paradigm: richer, riper, higher in alcohol and often noticeably oxidative. Although examples vary from one winery to the next, the category provides a powerful counterpoint to Santorini’s popular image as a bright, summery wine.

And that’s why the island has arrived at such a complicated crossroads. No longer just one thing, Santorini now spans multiple expressions. It’s at once the “beach wine” lifted from the latest Vogue roundup and one of the wine world’s most arresting expressions of place; the culmination of thousands of years of viticultural tradition and the latest “up-and-coming” industry fetish—and part of its challenge is to unify these identities into a single wine culture.

It’s an open question how Santorini will navigate that challenge. But perhaps the most critical question is one we should be posing to ourselves.

As consumers, we’re obsessed with the cult of the new, chronically latching onto wines that are obscure or on-trend. Only rarely do we commit the time and energy required to appreciate them beyond a superficial depth. No matter how great its aspirations, a region like Santorini can only blossom into maturity if there’s room in the market for it to grow into a more complex version of itself. That isn’t so much a matter of whether Santorini is willing to invest in its own promise, but whether we’re willing to invest in it ourselves.

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