Santorini Rediscovers Its Forgotten Wines

The dominant style of Santorini white wines—brisk, acid-driven and clean—are actually a very modern creation. Zachary Sussman explores a crop of producers reinterpreting a pre-industrial, barrel-fermented style known as “Nykteri"—a far more accurate representation of the island's winemaking past.

When Homer famously wrote of the “wine-dark sea”—a poetic turn of phrase that recurs throughout the Illiad and the Odyssey—he didn’t specify the kind of wine he had in mind. The sea in question, of course, is the Aegean, which surrounds the tiny island of Santorini, but a lot has changed since the Trojan War. Today, the area has been receiving attention mostly for its whites, which taste of the sea, even if they don’t resemble it.

In many ways, Santorini entered the critical spotlight in the typical manner, hailed as one of the latest little-known wines to be “discovered” by adventurous sommeliers and journalists. Read any article on the subject—by now, there are dozens—and you’re bound to encounter the same basic talking points. At the risk of redundancy, here’s a brief summary:

Unlike just about everywhere else in Europe, Santorni’s sandy, volcanic soils miraculously resisted the 19th-century phylloxera epidemic that wiped out most of the continent’s vines. As a result, the island survives as one of the few European growing areas still using its original, un-grafted rootstock. Adding to this sense of geographical uniqueness—and as if specifically designed for journalistic photo-ops—the island’s growers adopt a unique training system called kouloura, whereby vines are woven into nest-like baskets close to the ground to retain moisture and shelter the grapes from wind.

All of this, the argument goes, combined with the native Assyrtiko grape’s inherent mineral cut, distinguishes Santorini as one of the Mediterranean’s most distinctive wines: a crisp yet deeply textured white that faithfully translates its inimitable place of origin.

On the basis of “geek factor” alone, the wines couldn’t help but appeal to a younger, more curious generation of drinkers, for whom the region’s idiosyncratic backstory has quickly become a cult fascination. Yet whenever the industry champions something new—or to put it more precisely, new to them—it never fails to make comparisons to more familiar wines.

Where Santorini is concerned, the reference point to which everyone keeps returning is none other than Chablis. The following comments from New York Times critic Eric Asimov exemplify this tendency: “These wines [from Santorini] in particular show pure briny, mineral flavors, as if they were the concentrated essence of millions of tiny seashells. Not once but several times during the blind tasting a comparison was made to Chablis, which cuts a similarly saline profile.”

The choice of Chablis, a rainy, landlocked region in Northern France, might seem like a counterintuitive model for discussing the wines of a sunny Mediterranean beach destination. Lest we forget, the island lies much closer on the map to Cairo, say, than it does to Paris.

In the context of Greece, where viticulture has been a fact of life since the dawn of Western civilization, the equation becomes all the more slippery. Nowhere, perhaps, is this tension more palpable than in Santorini, which, in many ways, stands as a microcosm for the Greek wine industry’s larger struggle to define its modern identity in relation to its ancient past.

Fortunately, as public awareness evolves, Santorini will outgrow the need to be viewed in terms of what it’s not. There’s no guarantee, however, that it will be understood for what it is. As such, the most confusing aspect of the whole Chablis identification has little to do with geographical or stylistic accuracy, but points to a deeper misreading of the area’s historical identity.

Rather than an established style, the type of wine in question—brisk, acid-driven and clean—represents something altogether new to the island. For centuries, production focused primarily upon Vinsanto, the local sweet wine made in the ancient method of sun drying the grapes after harvest. Before access to modern equipment, the island’s table wines tended to be richer, higher in alcohol and notably oxidative. It wasn’t until the late 1980s, when the large Boutari firm introduced a fresh set of practices to the island—including earlier picking dates and the use of temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks—that the first signs of Santorini’s modern winemaking identity emerged. A decade later, during the ‘90s, this new paradigm became widespread.

“The traditional style in Santorini couldn’t possibly have been a bright, high-acid, steely wine,” says Tara Q. Thomas, Greek wine expert and Executive Editor of Wine & Spirits magazine. “They just didn’t have the facility to make those. What we’re seeing is definitely a new style, and it has already been assumed that it’s the dominant one.”

As a testament to the potential of the modern Greek wine industry, then, the wines show extraordinary promise. But to view them as Santorini’s definitive or archetypal expression fails to account for the historical context. As importer Dionysi Grevenitis explains: “The situation makes the job of introducing the history of the wine and the more traditional version of it a little more challenging, since palates are skewed to that fresher and more linear expression of Assyrtiko,” he says. “People don’t know enough about the region to realize that this isn’t traditional.”

There is that word again: “traditional.” Without fail, it keeps resurfacing, not just with regard to Santorini, but within the larger cultural conversation about wine. We use the word liberally, but upon closer examination what exactly does it mean? After all, despite our best efforts to define it, the concept of tradition is highly relative, and the question always remains: “Traditional” in relationship to what?

In the context of Greece, where viticulture has been a fact of life since the dawn of Western civilization, the equation becomes all the more slippery. Nowhere, perhaps, is this tension more palpable than in Santorini, which, in many ways, stands as a microcosm for the Greek wine industry’s larger struggle to define its modern identity in relation to its ancient past.

If the ascendance of the post-‘90s “stainless steel” approach cemented the island’s reputation, over the past decade or so a handful of local producers have attempted to respond to tradition by reinterpreting an older, pre-industrial, barrel-fermented style known as “Nykteri,” which has been omitted from the popular narrative.

The origins of Nykteri remain unclear, but the most likely explanation dates back at least a hundred years, to the era when Vinsanto dominated the island’s production. The category’s name, which translates to “from the night” or “night’s work,” refers to the practice of picking and pressing the late harvest grapes during the cooler nighttime hours to prevent them from spoiling. The free run juice was then drained into old wooden barrels, where it would be left to mature for several years without being “topped up” or refilled. As a result, oxidative aging took place under a veil of flor, which imparted a sherry-like quality. Intended only for local consumption, the finished product was decidedly richer, broader and more concentrated, with alcohol levels typically reaching 15 percent or higher.

Today, a handful of the island’s wineries make a version of Nykteri. Although some have appropriated the name for commercial purposes, merely to designate a more expensive bottling, top estates like Sigalas, Hatzidakis and Koutsoyannopoulos have intentionally designed their Nykteri with the style’s historical precedent in mind. “When I asked George Koutsoyannopoulos why he decided to make a Nykteri wine,” Grevenitis mentions, “he told me that he wanted to make the kind of wine his grandfathers made.”

In this spirit, it’s tempting to view Nykteri as the “real” or “traditional” dry wine of Santorini. It certainly does a much closer job of approximating what the island’s wines would have resembled in the past. Yet the style as it exists today remains just that: an approximation, which diverges from the original in significant ways.

For one thing, the official parameters for Nykteri production weren’t codified until 2002. They also happen to be quite nebulous, requiring only alcohol levels in excess of 13.5 percent and maturation in barrel for at least three months. This criteria, which could apply to just about any oaked white, leaves room for interpretation. “There is a struggle to understand Nykteri today because it was never clearly defined,” says Ted Diamantis of the Greek-focused company Diamond Importers. “It was more of a local tradition.”

Although most contemporary Nykteri is made as a single-varietal wine, previously it would have been blended from the island’s three main grapes: not just Assyrtiko, but Athiri and Aidani as well. More to the point, none of the examples available in the US market undergo oxidative aging, perhaps for fear of alienating modern drinkers. In this respect, rather than the faithful reproduction of tradition, Nykteri operates as a contemporary homage, of sorts, bringing the past to bear creatively on the present.

According to Kostas Stamou of the Hatzidakis winery, “The point is that the Nykteri of the present imitates the character of Nykteri of the past, but in a modern way.” Or as Grevenitis puts it: “If you taste the current style of Nykteri, it wouldn’t be exactly what it was 100 years ago, but it might be 80 percent and still have a traditional feel.”

That’s the funny thing about tradition, though. It can’t help but evolve. In some sense, therein lies the paradox: The moment you attempt to recreate tradition, you’re already standing outside it.