Greece Part 2: Learn About Wine in Santorini With a SAFOWI Wine Tour

Estate Argyros has a beautiful patio and view

 

When my friends and I decided we were visiting Santorini as part of our Greece trip, I knew a wine tour needed to be part of the itinerary. But which Santorini wine tour to choose? If you type “Santorini wine tours” into Google (which I did, numerous times) you’ll find options ranging from full island tours that stop at a winery or two for $50-$60 per person up to day-long private wine tours that can cost upwards of $1,000. You can also visit vineyards on your own.

After reading a host of reviews, I decided I wanted a wine-specific tour that would take part of a day as opposed to an entire day since we were only on the island for a weekend. After reading reviews of different vineyards, I also decided I preferred a tour over visiting solo because (1) I read that tour groups receive better service than individuals and (2) I don’t need to be trying to navigate transportation between vineyards in a foreign country.

With all this in mind, I settled on SAFOWI or Santorini Food and Wine Tours. My friends and I selected the Basic Wine Road Tour (100 euros per person for a group of 3 to 8 people, 50-euro deposit sent via PayPal in advance, 50 euros in cash paid at the end of the tour). If you are staying in Fira or Oia, pickup can be arranged, but since we were staying in Perissa, we had to get to the tour office, which is right down the street from the main bus station in Fira, for our 11 a.m. departure. Buses leave Perissa every 25 minutes so we were planning to hit the 10:25 bus, getting us there in plenty of time, but having arrived the night before, maybe having stayed up a little late, and being three girls getting ready in one tiny bathroom, of course we were running behind schedule, so the son of the owner of the tour company next door to our AirBnB gave us a ride into the city for 20 euros cash and a side of trying to convince us to take his wine tour instead.

Once arriving in Fira, we easily found our tour guide, Phenix Gilbert, who also owns SAFOWI, in her gold Fiat, and were off for a day of fun and education. Phenix owned a catering company in California when she visited Santorini and fell in love with the island and the culture. She eventually moved to Santorini, owning a California-themed restaurant on the island, and began learning about Greek wines as she paired them with her food and served them in her dining room. She realized Santorini was missing the thriving wine tourism that California enjoyed and launched SAFOWI wine tours in 2008.

 

Phenix leads SAFOWI wine tours in Santorini, Greece.
Phenix pours some wine for tasting at Gaia.

Our tour started with a brief history of Santorini and wine on the island. We learned that wine has been grown in Santorini since ancient times. The island used to be round, but a huge volcanic eruption around 1600 B.C. blew apart the western part of the island with the center collapsing into the sea, creating a caldera. The result is Santorini’s present shape, as well as its soil, which is rich in ash, lava, and pumice stone. The soil is in fact so dry and without any clay that phylloxera, the infamous parasite that has destroyed many a vineyard, cannot survive.

In the Middle Ages, when Santorini was occupied by ancient Venitians, winemakers on the island began creating Vinsanto. The Greek version of Italian Vin Santo (note the way the word is split or not split to differentiate the wine from the two regions) is made from the island’s flagship grape Assyrtiko, along with Athiri and Aidani, all white varietals, in passito style, meaning the grapes are dried in the sun after harvest. The final product is a sweet, nutty dessert wine that was used by the Catholic church and eventually as the official Eucharistic wine of the Russian Orthodox Church.

 

While you're in santorini, you definitely want to try some Greek wine.
Santorini has many beautiful vineyards where you can taste wine and see grapes growing.

 

Grapes grow all over Santorini but they aren’t trellised like they are at wineries in the United States. Because of the hot sun and lack of rain in the summer, the grapes are grown low to the ground. Instead of trimming old vines year after year, the vines are wound into a basket shape and the grapes grow inside, protecting them from the harsh sun and wind and allowing them to soak up any excess moisture. The baskets have to be hand harvested and grapes are grown all over the island. If you happen to be there during harvest season in early August, you’ll see grapes being picked everywhere you go. Farmers drive their grapes to the wineries, and the winemakers decide what they will purchase.

As stated, the dominant grapes in Santorini are Assyrtiko, Athiri and Aidani, so most of the wines you’ll taste if you visit a winery will be white. Some wineries do make rosés and red wines with Mandalieria and Mavrotragano, though.

Stop 1: Gavalas Winery

Our first stop on our wine tour was Gavalas Winery where the family has been making wine since the end of the 19th century. We happened to be there during the beginning of August and were able to see Mr. Gavalas himself processing grapes, which was pretty neat. We also got a quick tour of the Gavalas winery, which was small but impressive. The winery uses mostly Russian oak with some barrels up to 150 years old and has rooms that have been used for making wine for hundreds of years.

 

Gavalas Winery in Santorini uses a variety of sizes and styles of barrels for aging wine.

 

After the tour, we sat down for a tasting, starting with Gavalas’ Santorini wine, which is made with Assyrtiko from the vineyard that’s considered to be the oldest in Greece. Santorini is one of Greece’s three PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) classified wines and must contain 75 percent Assyrtiko with the remaining 25 percent made up of Athiri and Aidani. Gavalas’ version is made with only 25 percent of the juice from the grapes—the early free run juice that is considered to be the best—and is aged in stainless steel for a dry, fruity, mineraly white wine that pairs well with Santorini’s cuisine of seafood, cheeses, and light meats. Next we tried the Santorini Natural Ferment, which was more full bodied with aromas of pear and white flowers and a longer finish that still contained plenty of the fresh minerality that Assyrtiko is known for.

Gavalas is one of only a few wineries to produce Katsano, a dry white with aromas of white flowers, candied lemons and white peaches. Made from 85 percent Katsano grapes and 15 percent Gaidouria grapes, this wine is unique and a treat to taste as both grape varietals are virtually unknown off the island and cover only 1 percent of the total vineyard at Gavalas. I snagged a bottle of this to bring home since I didn’t know when I might get a chance to taste it again.

 

Mr. Gavalas in action making wine for Gavalas Winery in Santorini
Mr. Gavalas sorting grapes during harvest at Gavalas Winery.

My favorite white was the Nykteri, another PDO wine of Santorini, that is made from mature Assyrtiko grapes aged in oak barrels. The name comes from the winemaking process of days past—originally, the harvest took place during the day, then the people on the farm would have a big party and stomp the grapes all night while the temperatures were cooler and the light was lower to protect the grape must from oxidation. The Greek word for “night” translates to “nykta,” and is the root of the name Nykteri. The grapes for Nykteri are harvested later than the grapes for Santorini, and therefore the wine is higher in acidity and higher in alcohol. You’ll notice Nykteri is dark gold in color with more complex aromas of citrus and pear, flavors of vanilla, nuts, and a long complex finish. This wine can also be aged longer because of its higher alcohol content.

Along with whites, we also sampled our first Vinsanto of the day. At Gavalas, Vinsanto is still made according to traditional techniques—the grapes are pressed by stomping them in a room that has been used for centuries. This Vinsanto was smooth and sweet with dominant flavors of raisins, prunes, dried figs, and honey.

Stop 2: Estate Argyros

Our next stop was Estate Argyros. A much more sweeping property, this tasting room is modern and white on the inside with a sprawling patio that is obviously built for visitors. We were presented with a little platter of cheeses, olives, fruits, breadsticks and precious Santorini tomato paste to sample alongside our wines.

 

At Estate Argyros, we got a little snack platter with our wine tasting

 

At Argyros we were able to taste three different Assyrtiko wines in succession. The first, Assyrtiko, was a Santorini aged in stainless steel and was dominated by the clean, mineral flavors I’d come to expect from the Assyrtiko grape. Next, the Estate Argyros Santorini was made with old vine Assyrtiko and this time 80 percent was aged in stainless steel with 20 percent aged separately for 6 months in French oak barrels. The touch of wood added a bit more body to the wine and brought out pronounced citrus flavors. Lastly, the Estate Argyros Oak Fermented is aged completely in French oak for six months, creating a totally different, buttery wine with flavors of honey and vanilla. Sampling the three wines side by side made for a unique way to experience the Assyrtiko grape.

 

The tasting room at Estate Argyros in Santorini is sleek and modern

 

We also got to sample the Atlantis Rosé, which was a blend of Assyrtiko and a red grape, Mandilaria. My friends and I had already sampled this rosé the night before at a local restaurant for dinner and were huge fans of the easy drinking light bodied wine with strawberry and cherry flavors.

 

The patio at vineyard at Estate Agyros is scenic

 

To finish, we were treated to two vintages of Vinsanto paired with Argyros’ own Vinsanto-infused chocolate. First we sampled the Vinsanto that had been aged for 4 years in the barrel, which was made with a blend of 80% Assyrtiko, 10% Aidani and 10% Athiri. This vintage was lighter with flavors of apricots, orange zest and honey. We also got to sample the 20 year vintage, which was made with the same blend, but was a much deeper amber in color with richer butterscotch and raisin flavors. Both were delicious, making Argyros Vinsantos my favorites of the day.

 

Make sure you taste the Vinsanto at Estate Argyros

Stop 3: Gaia

I could tell our third stop of the day would be different when we pulled up. Instead of a traditional building, Gaia is located on the sea in a refurbished tomato processing factory and the tasting room has a relaxed, deconstructed atmosphere. The Santorini winery is one of two owned by winemaker Yiannis Paraskevopoulos—the other is located in Nemea.

 

Gaia winery in Santorini is housed in an old tomato factory

 

For our tasting here, we settled at a lovely table with a sea view. We started with Gaia’s take on the Santorini style wine, called Thalassitis. A bone-dry wine with honeysuckle aromas and a very crisp finish, this Santorini is made with mature grapes from 70- to 80-year old ungrafted vines. The Thalassitis Oak Fermented Santorini is made in a French technique where the Assyrtiko free-run grape must ferments in French oak casks, then is aged sur lie for five to six months. The resulting wine is more complex with notes of smoke and citrus, lending itself to heavier pairings than your typical white wine.

 

At Gaia in Santorini you can sip locally made wine by the sea

 

The Assyrtiko by Gaia Wild Ferment is made with grapes from the upland vineyard of Pyrgos. The grapes are left in contact with the skins for 12 hours at around 50 degrees Fahrenheit, then they are placed in 1,000-liter INOX tanks and in new 225-liter French oak barrels. The temperature is allowed to rise naturally and fermentation develops at its own gradual pace. Something different takes place in every barrel, and the winemaker only chooses the ones that he feels will add to his unique vision for the wine. This wine featured fruity, honey flavors and was very distinctive.

Gaia does also make a Vinsanto, but as you might have noticed, this winemaker enjoys some twists on tradition. For his version, some of the grapes are dried in the summer sun in traditional passito style, but some are dried in the shade to maintain more freshness in the fruit. The grapes are pressed exceptionally slowly, then placed in old casks to ferment until the alcohol level reaches 13 or 14 percent. It then ages in the casks for at least 10 years and is bottled without any fining or filtration. The resulting wine has the sweet, nutty honey notes of your typical Vinsanto, but there is a balancing acidity from the fruit that is aged in the shade. If you think you don’t like dessert wines, this might be an option to try.

The end of the Wine Tour

Our tour wrapped up mid-afternoon and the couple who joined us on our tour needed to return to their hotel, so Phenix took them to Oia where they were staying. We wanted a lunch suggestion, so she recommended Ammoudi Bay, a beautiful little inlet at the base of Oia where you can dine right on the water. Check out my full guide to Santorini for more info on Ammoudi Bay. The bay can be a long walk and a difficult, traffic-filled drive, but Phenix dropped us right at the base of the steep two-lane hill it’s located at the bottom of—a perfect end to our wine excursion.

Wine is available for purchase at each stop on the wine tour and most wineries will provide a special WineSkin bag for a small additional fee that will protect your wine on the plane for the ride home. Of course, there is the whole weight issue.

If you’re staying in Santorini for a few days or longer and want to take a wine tour, I suggest scheduling it for the beginning of your trip. This way you’ll be much more knowledgeable when reading menus in restaurants for the rest of your stay. Most of the restaurants in Santorini carry mostly Greek wine with a focus on varietals from the islands.

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