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- 13 Mar 2015 -

A piece of Heaven on Earth

Tired of doing the same old, same old for your next family vacation? Racking your brains to find a romantic get-away with your loved one which doesn’t break the bank? I have the answer for you and I already know you will send me an email to thank me for the recommendation. Save that email –  just spread the word!

Santorini is one of the prime destination in the Mediterranean and one of the top 5 wedding destinations. This legendary island of just over 10 miles long and 3 miles wide is a dichotomy in every sense of the word. Its very birth reminds me of ancient Greek mythologies, part of the island was born 3600 years ago as a result of a historic volcanic eruption which destroyed a thriving civilization. The volcano crater plunged into the deep blue waters whilst miles and miles of cliffs were created, they are now adorned by the famed blue-topped caldera houses which garners international acclaim. 

White pumice gravels, sand and black lava rocks covered the island which created an original topography for its vegetation. The locals are super proud of  their produce, particularly Santorini tomatoes (mini pumpkin look alike objects the size of a golf ball) has the most concentrated tomato taste on this planet, white eggplant, fresh caught fishes of any specie you can think of (but you must try the squid, octopus and calamari!),  not to mention the grapes for the making of their liquid gold. 

No sightseeing tour is complete without a visit to at least 2-3 vineyards in Santorini. There are numerous given the winemaking tradition started from the inception of this ancient civilization. Today some of the most famous ones are Boutari, Santo, Gaia, Sigales and Gavalas. The very peculiar, almost miraculous terrain merits a mention as it is shocking how an island with poor soils, strong winds blowing in all directions, brutal sun and minuscule rainfall is able to produce wines of such concentration, salinity and minerality so perfectly exemplifies its terrior and a perfect compliment to local cuisine.

Assyritiko is the most prized white, along with Aidani and Athiri. Producers are making beautiful adaptations of these single varietal or blended whites, there are also varying qualities of reds from Mavrotragano and  Mandilaria. Gone are the days of wines from your local Greek tavern which reminds you of retsina, we are talking about award winning fresh wines which puts Santorini on the wine map, winning over 90 in the Wine Spectator 100 point scale and a mecca which draws in wine producers, gourmands, celebrities and the like.

I often draw analogies between grapevines and human beings. It is hard to imagine how grapes grown in Santorini proven to possess the most complicated DNA, and  having to combat such harsh growing conditions are able to survive and prosper. It is precisely it’s tough personality and upbringing that allows it to flourish without grafting onto an American rootstock which was the only way to protect vines against the phylloxera epidemic that wiped out some of the most prized vineyards in the world. The way grapes are grown is pretty mind blowing, I was enlightened by Petros Vamvakousis , winemaker and manager of Boutari Winery, a well-respected brand in the wine world.

“…You can spot “Kaloura” baskets sprinkled all around the fields as you drive around the island.  These are long, century old bush-trained grapevines. They are twirled into baskets (think bird’s nests) covered with dried leaves on top - a traditional method to preserve humidity and safeguard the precious grapes from the strong winds and scorching sunrays….”.   

As a proud Santorinian, Petros witnessed and partook in the development of the local wine scene, “Most families have their own vineyards, they made wine or sold their grapes and/or wines to cooperatives such as Santo or sold Vinsanto and semi-dry wines to other countries such as Russia and Ukraine for blending… It was Yiannis Boutaris (with his family company Boutari, one of the oldest in Greece) who discovered the innate potential of the local grapes and experimented with different vinification equipment and technology. Stainless steel tanks, cooling systems, pneumatic presses and temperature-controlled fermentation may be the norm today but this is pretty ground breaking stuff back in 1989.”  The man was clearly ahead of his times, his conviction was not shared by the locals at the outset which put his apprentice, Petros in a very difficult position.

 

Wine Theater in Boutari Winery, Santorini

“I was tasked with visiting numerous vineyards 5-6 times a year, we experimented with various indigenous grapes, created a database documenting the parcel of vineyard they grew on, particular growing conditions, down to the type of  fertilizers and all factors which yields a particular type of wine. We knew we had to change some grape growing practices to yield the quality we desire including bringing harvest a month early which was unthinkable for the locals.” You could sense the tension in the air,  this was a hard subject for Petros to recount.

“…At the outset we had to pay double, times were hard. The locals were very skeptical of us and I was in an impossible position…it took a while to win some buy-in!  Slowly but surely we won their hearts as they saw how we embraced them as our own – knowledge and success was always shared, we kept to our word and we always paid on time.” The rest was history…soon enough tourists and sommeliers became ambassadors of Greek wines. The export market flourished. Everyone witnessed the development of wine tourism and felt a sense of achievement as they played an integral part of the value chain.

And the legend lives on today. Assyrtiko, once an unknown grape varietal now has an international following. Well-known chefs are crafting a modern approach to traditional cuisine with fresh local ingredients; hip hotels are on the rise, so are the number and styles of  weddings on the island and its waters. Santorini continues to be the golden child of the Greek gods, its paradox and beauty never seize to amaze.

Daily flights depart London Heathrow and Helsinki for Santorini, there are also direct flights via Athens… Don’t forget the cruise option to travel by sea. The best time to visit is July to October.  Check out www.yamasworld.com based in Shanghai for a tailor made excursion to savor the complete Greek experience.

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