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Santorini’s Unique Grape Varieties and Wines

Known for its breathtaking vistas and quintessential white-washed buildings, Santorini charms visitors from across the globe. More captivating, perhaps, are its exquisite wines, birthed from grapes that have overcome the island’s challenging environment. The minimal rainfall, vigorous winds, and nutrient-rich volcanic soil have endowed these grapes with an extraordinary flavor profile unique to Santorini’s terroir.

In this illuminating blog post, we’ll traverse the diverse grape varieties thriving on Santorini, and the exceptional wines they yield. You’ll delve into the captivating history and tradition of local wine-making, learning about its centuries-old evolution. Whether you’re a connoisseur, an avid traveler, or simply inquisitive, this post offers you a chance to indulge in the alluring world of Santorini’s wines and unveil what sets them apart as world-class.

Assyrtiko – The Emblematic Wine of Santorini

Assyrtiko, the distinctive white grape variety native to Santorini, has become synonymous with the island’s winemaking. This unique grape is among the world’s most rare and desirable, known for producing wines with a remarkable flavor profile and character. These wines capture the essence of the Santorini terroir. We will delve into Assyrtiko’s individual characteristics, its fascinating history, the vinification techniques employed, the impact of Santorini’s volcanic soil, and the optimal food pairings for an Assyrtiko wine experience.

The Characteristics and History of Assyrtiko

The Assyrtiko grape thrives under Santorini’s demanding conditions, including minimal rainfall, potent winds, and harsh sunlight. Its resilient thick skin shields against sun damage and water loss, while its high acidity ensures a perfect balance in ripeness and alcohol content. Assyrtiko’s grapes, with their transparent yellow-gold hue, produce juicy flavors hinting at lime, passion fruit, beeswax, flint, and a touch of salinity. The wines are notably bone-dry and light-bodied, distinguished by lively acidity and minerality. Notably, these wines can age gracefully, developing into more nuanced and smoky profiles.

With a storied past stretching back to the 16th century, it’s believed that Assyrtiko was introduced to Santorini by the Phoenicians. It’s a grape that has overcome adversity; not only did it survive the colossal eruption of 1627 BC that redefined the island’s landscape, but it also resisted the phylloxera plague that devastated European vineyards in the 19th century, thanks to Santorini’s sandy soil. Today, Assyrtiko proudly represents 70% of the island’s vineyards and has found a home in other Greek locales, as well as regions of Australia and the USA.

Vinification Process and the Role of Santorini’s Terroir

Assyrtiko’s wine is a true expression of Santorini’s terroir, reflecting every environmental detail from the soil and climate to the human touch. The terroir is particularly unique and formidable, composed of volcanic ash, lava, and pumice. This combination, rich in minerals yet scant in organic matter and water, along with the acidic soil, significantly contributes to the wine’s pronounced acidity. The blistering climate and minimal rainfall push the vines to extend their roots deeply in search of sustenance, while the strong winds cool the grapes, warding off diseases yet potentially harming the vines.

To adapt, Santorini’s winemakers employ the traditional “kouloura” or basket method of pruning. This ingenious technique involves shaping the vines into protective ground-hugging wreaths, which shield the grapes from environmental elements and help capture the early morning dew. The high vine density enhances competition, reducing yields but intensifying the grape flavors. These ungrafted, phylloxera-resistant vines, some over a century old, testify to the land’s enduring legacy.

The vinification of Assyrtiko aims to preserve the inherent qualities of the grape and its environ. The grapes, handpicked in August, undergo gentle pressing. Fermentation follows in stainless steel or oak, based on the winemaker’s vision. Some may opt for skin contact to deepen the wine’s attributes. After a few months or years maturing in tanks, barrels, or bottles, these wines are ready to tantalize palates worldwide.

Pairing Assyrtiko with Food: Ideal Combinations

The versatility of Assyrtiko makes it an exceptional wine for food pairing, complementing a diverse array of dishes. Its standout acidity and minerality make it an excellent partner for seafood, from shellfish like oysters, mussels, and scallops to various fish dishes such as sardines and grilled sea bass. Assyrtiko beautifully harmonizes with the bold flavors of Greek cuisine, be it a fresh tomato-feta salad, savory cheese pies, or succulent roasted lamb. Looking beyond the Mediterranean, it’s an exciting choice for Asian cuisines, pairing delightfully with spicy Thai curries, aromatic Indian biryanis, or vibrant Chinese stir-fries. Additionally, Assyrtiko serves wonderfully as an aperitif or a cooling beverage on a sunny day.

The Influence of Volcanic Soil on Santorini’s Wine Profile

The distinct flavors and qualities of Santorini’s wines can be largely attributed to the island’s unique volcanic soil, borne from its dramatic geological past. This soil blend, containing volcanic ash, lava, and pumice, is teeming with minerals while poor in organic content and water. Additionally, the soil’s acidity, ranging from a pH of 5.5 to 6.5, significantly contributes to the wine’s marked acidity. The local climate presents both challenges and benefits; it’s hot and arid with scant annual rainfall averaging 350 mm. Such conditions compel the vine roots to burrow deeply in search of moisture and nutrients. Meanwhile, strong and continuous winds cool the grapes and fend off disease, though they pose a risk to the vines themselves. We will dive into how these elements impact grape cultivation and the signature style and essence of the wines. Additionally, we’ll examine other varietals that flourish in volcanic soil and some signature wines defined by their volcanic influences.

Understanding Volcanic Terroir

The term “terroir” refers to the set of environmental conditions that influence grape growth and the ultimate character of the wine. These factors encompass the soil, climate, and human practices. Volcanic terroir arises from the decomposition of volcanic rocks and is known for producing young, shallow, acidic soils. Despite this uniformity, volcanic terroirs greatly vary based on their specific chemistry and climatic surroundings.

There are distinct benefits and drawbacks to volcanic soils in viticulture. On the plus side, its porosity ensures excellent drainage, which prevents the detrimental effects of excessive moisture and root diseases. It also conserves and radiates heat, aiding in grape maturation and bolstering their flavor profile. Minerals such as iron, magnesium, potassium, and phosphorus—the building blocks for plant health—are abundant. These soils also endow the wines with a notable minerality and salinity, often expressed as a savory, ash-like, or smoky undertone.

Conversely, the very attributes that give volcanic soil its identity also pose challenges. Its infertility and acidic nature can restrict crop volumes and grape variety. Furthermore, it requires skillful management to avoid erosion and nutrient loss. The physical nature of volcanic soil—whether hard, stony, or sandy—can complicate cultivation. Additionally, the whims of volcanic activity, including eruptions and seismic events, can wreak havoc on vineyards and supporting structures. Even the volcano’s emissions can influence soil chemistry, affecting the consistency and quality of the grape production.

Other Varietals Thriving in Volcanic Soil

Assyrtiko isn’t the sole grape variety that prospers in Santorini’s volcanic terrain. Indigenous white grapes like Athiri and Aidani also flourish, often blended with Assyrtiko to create both dry and sweet wines. Athiri is known for its low acidity and aromatic qualities, contributing floral and fruity nuances, while Aidani features high acidity and provides a burst of citrus and herbal complexity to the wines. The island also gives rise to red wines from Mandilaria and Mavrotragano grapes, both well-adapted to volcanic soil. Mandilaria imparts a deep color and full-bodied experience with spicy, earthy notes, whereas Mavrotragano, although scarce and yielding little, delivers complex and refined wines with a tapestry of red fruit and mineral flavors.

Iconic Wines Shaped by the Volcano

Santorini’s volcanic terroir has given rise to some of the world’s most iconic and recognizable wines, rooted in a deep history and tradition. Vinsanto stands out among these, a sweet wine crafted from sun-dried grapes—predominantly Assyrtiko, alongside Athiri and Aidani. These grapes are dessicated on mats for 10 to 14 days to concentrate their sugar and flavors before undergoing fermentation and maturing in oak barrels over two years. This results in a sumptuous, amber hue with a symphony of dried fruit, honey, caramel, nut, and spice notes. Vinsanto, protected under PDO status, can only be authentically produced in Santorini, adhering to rigorous standards and practices. It’s often celebrated as a dessert wine or paired with cheese, nuts, or chocolate.

Nykteri is another standout among Santorini wines, known for its dry profile and is made from overripe Assyrtiko grapes, harvested nocturnally to maintain freshness and acidity. Following pressing and fermenting in oak, Nykteri is aged for a minimum of three months. The outcome is a rich and complex wine, imbued with aromatic notes of citrus, peach, apple, honey, and oak. Like Vinsanto, Nykteri claims PDO status and is an excellent companion to seafood, cheese, or meat dishes.

Ancient Methods and Modern Innovation in Santorini Wine-making

The art of wine-making in Santorini is a captivating fusion of time-honored techniques and cutting-edge innovation. It mirrors the island’s deep cultural heritage and its agile response to modern challenges like climate change. Here, we delve into the time-tested vine training method known as (kouloura), examine the significant influence of ancient vines on wine excellence, and highlight the ingenuity and adaptability shaping contemporary viticulture on this storied island.

Traditional Vine Training: The Kouloura Method

The ingenious kouloura approach to pruning and training vines has been a staple in Santorini for centuries. This technique molds the vines into ground-level, circular wreaths, forming a natural basket that shields the grapes from harsh winds and intense sunlight, while also capturing the nourishing morning dew. Vines are densely planted—up to 3000 per hectare—to stoke competition and limit yields, enhancing the grapes’ concentration and flavor profile. Remarkably, some of these centurion vines were never grafted, owing to their innate resistance to the pesky phylloxera. Kouloura stands as a sustainable, enduring method allowing vines to thrive amidst Santorini’s challenges, such as minimal rainfall and strong winds.

The Impact of Age-Old Vines on Wine Quality

The venerable age of Santorini’s vines is widely recognized for boosting wine quality. Producing fewer, yet more intense fruit, these old vines boast deep roots that tap into the earth’s moisture and nutrients, offering a clearer expression of the local terroir. Beyond this, the historic legacy and tradition they carry add prestigious value to the wines produced. Boasting some of the planet’s most ancient vines—some dating back to the 16th century and others surpassing 400 years—these botanical elders have withstood cataclysmic events like the 1627 BC eruption and the rampant phylloxera epidemic, thanks to the protective volcanic soil. These venerable vines are a cherished legacy, yielding some of the most unique and exquisite wines available.

Innovation and Adaptation in Santorini’s Winemaking

Wine production in Santorini isn’t just rooted in antiquity; it’s a forward-facing craft marked by innovation and adjustment. Vineyard owners have embraced modern techniques and technologies, including stainless steel tanks, oak aging, deliberate skin contact, precise temperature controls, and eco-conscious farming practices like organic and biodynamic cultivation. Moreover, they’re pioneering new wine styles—from sparkling and rosé to orange and natural wines—to cater to changing consumer tastes. Facing the realities of climate change, such as extreme heat and drought, winemakers are adapting their methods, from tweaking harvest times to implementing advanced irrigation strategies. This ensures the preservation of the wines’ vital freshness and acidity. Santorini’s winemaking is a vibrant, ever-evolving craft, representing a harmonious blend of heritage and progressive innovation, underlining the island’s resilience and creative spirit.


Santorini proves to be a captivating destination for wine lovers, blending ancient methods with modern innovation. The island’s wines are born from grapes uniquely adapted to its volcanic soil, harsh climate, and powerful winds, cultivating a taste that is truly reflective of Santorini’s terroir. The star of the show is Assyrtiko, an emblematic dry white wine known for its robust acidity and minerality, coupled with hints of citrus, passion fruit, and flint.

Beyond Assyrtiko, the island is home to native white grapes such as Athiri and Aidani, and red varieties like Mandilaria and Mavrotragano. Notable wines include Vinsanto, a luscious sweet wine crafted from sun-dried grapes, and Nykteri, a white wine made from grapes that have reached a pinnacle of ripeness. In preserving the traditional ‘kouloura’ vine training method, Santorini’s vintners safeguard the grapes against elemental extremes, while the storied age-old vines yield fruit that is scarce, yet rich in concentration and complexity.

Santorini’s winemakers have not shied away from embracing innovation: oak barrels, skin contact fermentation, and sustainable organic farming have found their way into production processes, alongside experiments with new wine styles such as sparkling, rosé, orange, and natural wines. They’ve also risen to meet the challenges posed by climate change, innovating in harvesting, irrigation, and grape selection to ensure the continuance of their cherished craft.

We trust you’ve found this exploration into Santorini’s distinctive grapes and wines enlightening. For those keen to delve deeper into the island’s wine culture and history or to savor these exceptional wines firsthand, we extend an invitation to visit our website and arrange a wine tour. It’s a chance to tour premier wineries, engage with the winemakers, and unlock the secrets held within Santorini’s volcanic soils. Don’t miss this opportunity to immerse yourself in one of the most enchanting wine regions globally. Reach out today, and let us orchestrate an unforgettable wine experience for you in Santorini.


What grapes are grown in Santorini?

Santorini is renowned for its unique and robust grape varieties. Among them, the Assyrtiko grape stands out as the island’s star, famed for its crisp and aromatic profile. Other notable varieties include Aidani and Athiri, which also contribute to the island’s distinguished wine offerings.

What is special about Santorini wine?

The allure of Santorini wines lies in their extraordinary character, shaped by the volcanic soil and sea mist climate of the region. This terroir imparts a unique minerality to the wines, with Assyrtiko wines boasting high acidity and age-worthiness, making them truly exceptional.

What is the most popular wine in Santorini?

Without a doubt, the Assyrtiko wine reigns as Santorini’s most celebrated varietal. Its crisp acidity, coupled with its strong mineral undertones, make it both a popular local treasure and an internationally acclaimed delight.

Is Greece known for grapes?

Indeed, Greece has a storied history with viticulture, dating back to ancient times. The country is peppered with indigenous grape varieties that have become synonymous with its rich heritage, earning it a respected spot on the global wine map.

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