Living Santorini Greek Wines: Let the Lava Flow
My first remembrance of this mystical island was the Byzantine chants drifting on Sunday morning through my open window on the edge of the caldera. The chanting Greek priests in the Cathedral of Thera set the bar high for further Santorini experience. Several visits in the coming years proved that a surprise was welcomed around every corner on those September island vacations.
A very fond encounter, on one hectic noontime visit in the village of Thera, made friends for life with Yannis and his mother, Ruella. The touristic streets and paths in the center of Thera were filled with the Cruise Ship visitors, yet the littlest shop under the steps near the postoffice proved to be the perfect refuge. It was the strumming guitar and the humming to a Greek fisherman’s song that drew me in to sit and listen. Captain John, Yannis’ friend, put down the guitar and we all greeted each other. The postcards, lottery tickets and the aging souvenirs on dusty long forgotten shelves were behind Yannis. His diploma of Notary and the religious icon art on the walls, and the stacks of documents in organized piles proved the 60-year-old man was more than perceived. Yannis lived on Santorini his entire life. He and mother, Ruella, perhaps at age 80, lived steps away in the vine-draped whitewashed house, situated on a narrow path in a Greek courtyard. A rusted and dented Vespa motor scooter gave Yannis his mobility. The shop was alway open.
The full white beard and the stock of white flowing locks contrasted with the well tanned face and arms on his near five foot frame. St. Nicholas in khaki shirt and pants was more of the total vision of his appearance. Yannis spoke english, though a nod and the Greek expression, “Nai” or yes, always with a smile, made most conversation flow. The visitors to the shop were steady and regulars of local commerce, some farmers, fishermen and several realtors. In island government, Yannis made the official transactions happen. He knew them all. Captain John, the guitarist, but also island real estate developer, was a fine friend. In fact, Yannis had dozens of very close friends, very few local family members, and was a life-long bachelor.
The ability as an outsider to be humbled with acceptance into the home of a proud and stoic traditional family on Santorini is very special. The thongs of tourists and day trippers that come to this speck in the Aegean Sea, an angelic perch above the crater of a still active volcano, dominate a very short island season. The year-round families and businesses endure for the considerable “off-season”, in an isolated and protective life. Ruella, on her four and one half-foot height, and dressed for decades in her widow’s black, maintained a simple house. Discarded olive oil tins hang filled with fresh herbs, amongst the red bougainvillea flowers that climb the front porch. Cats sit on the stoop and canaries sing in the wire hanging cages in and out of the house. Cycladic dark cedar furniture, linens and religious icons fill the house. The china cabinet and several fine porcelain vases fill the one wall with the photograph of Ruella’s second son, Father Vlavianos, the Greek Orthodox Arch Bishop in Chicago, IL, USA. The invitation to eat dinner and join with Captain John, at their home with Ruella to cook was easy to accept.
I love all Greek food. I will try anything, yet, much of the local foods of Santorini are imported, with exception of produce and some fishing. Yannis’ household was all natural: locally caught, locally grown, and most importantly locally pressed and bottled!
The night began with a dram of raki. The distilled spirit had a tendril of fennel immersed in the thick bottomed aged glass wine bottle. It was potent and hot on the throat, made to open the senses. Yiamas was the toast to our health. Soon Ruella’s icebox was opened to produce the dark green unlabeled wine bottle from Yannis’ vineyard. Yannis proudly talked about his father and grandfather’s grape vines. Several acres on a track of land toward the caldera road to the Village of Pyrgos is the location of the vineyard. The soil is ocher, appears very dry, contains one small cinderblock tin roofed structure and a wire fence encircles it with one gate. Tourbuses on way to Akrotiri rumble past this nondiscript location without fanfare. The grapes are white Assyrtiko and Athiri. The rows of Yannis’ grapes are non existent, as the land is planted in clusters. The vine stems are now ancient and five-inch base stems throw off the vines each year in the volcanic soil of Santorini. The morning air is rich in moisture up from the sea far below in the crater. The heat of midday pulls the sugars up into the grapes. Very little rain in the summer and fall months requires the porous subsoil to give up the winter deposits from deep below the surface. These characteristics make a dry, citrus aroma, hinting of salt, acidic full-bodied wine.
Yannis explained the family church. Most older family landowners retain a small church on their property. It is used for religious events from year to year and maintained with the proper icons and candles and offerings. Yannis takes the harvested September grapes to his church and spreads them to air dry on the stone pavement adjoining the church for ten to 14 days. Covered with gauze to protect from birds, they mellow and concentrate the sugars ready for pressing. Soon the grapes are brought to a local press and filtered and barreled. They are stored near the church and some are bottled.
The dinner was wonderful. The start became a hit as a filefish was baked in garlic and olive oil and the crusty local bread combined well. Ruella grows the special baby white eggplant, unique to the island. These were sliced into discs and fried in light egg and flour batter. The finish was the morning harvested local rooster, baked on Greek oregano stems, and feta cheese cubes over warm slices. Horta greens were bathed in lemon juice, salt and olive oil. The desert was local pastry shop, daily baked, sweets. The local made wine was two years in the process and paired perfectly with the food. It was a couple of percentages more in alcohol, but refreshing to taste. The night went a bit longer that imagined. We all laughed and Captain John played more guitar.
When September comes the vineyard owner must act. Three days after the dinner we went to the vines. The time was right. Yannis opened the little structure, we took wicker baskets, hook-shaped paring knives and we headed to the closer grapes. The vines are twisted into wreath like circles. Inspecting the grape bunches was a shocking treat. Those nearer the ground were so robust in swollen juice, that each grape pressed against its neighbor into a cubic block of grape bunch. A flick of the wrist and the block fell into the wicker, then on to the next. Several baskets finished the task. At noon, the work was, well, hard. A breeze was blowing off the lip of the crater’s edge. We transferred all to the little church, said a prayer, and had a sip of last years wine out of a plastic liter jug, a little warm but alright. All was perfect to finish a great day. I am certain the grapes seasoned and were pressed into a fine batch. Yannis was a perfect host this visit.
Yannis hopped onto his Vespa and had plenty of people looking for him back at his little shop. The restaurants on Santorini are supplied by several commercial wineries. A carafe at a favorite taverna is the way to go. I especially like the dry wines of Santos Winery, and Boutari assyrtiko white is readily available away from Greece. Prices have risen some over the years but the cost is worth the pleasure.