Blue sea, white houses, pure holiday idyll. This is the common postcard image of the Greek islands. These images are especially true of Santorini - and it is THE Greek island in the wine sector, too. But by far not the only one.
"The almost 30 million tourists in Greece are our ambassadors. When they come home, they look for what they tasted on the islands - and that strengthens the potential of the island wines," says Constantinos Efstathiou, president of the marketing organisation Wines of Greece. That is why the islands are predestined for wine tourism. An important obstacle however, which explains why there is hardly a "Lugana effect" yet, is the different quality of the wines in the gastronomy on holiday compared to at home.
According to data from Wines of Greece, around 27% of Greece's vineyards are located on the islands including Crete, which represents 16,600 out of 61,500 hectares. Often, viticulture takes place under extreme conditions, which reduces yields. Large quantities are therefore not to be expected, which is why the wines are niche products. They also have a unique style.
Discerning grape varieties
This style comes from the islands' greatest treasure, their grape varieties. While Assyrtiko is reasonably well known, Serifiotiko, Vostilidi or Chidiriotiko are much less so. And not only the names of the varieties, but also the wine style needs explanation. "Thalassitis" is the name of the style as well as a Santorini wine from the Gaia winery, which means "made by the sea" and often expresses itself with salty minerality.
As a result, the wines are primarily aimed at a discerning audience that is often found in the specialist trade. This is a fortuitous opportunity as personalised service and advice is particularly pronounced here - as is the customers' willingness to engage with something new.
Many of the wines come from nature-friendly cultivation methods and were treated in the cellar according to low-intervention principles. On the one hand, this has to do with the climate, but above all it stems from the prevailing traditions.
Santorini and the Cyclades
Santorini is for many the epitome of a beautiful Greek island and at the same time of modern Greek wine. In 2022, Argyros was also the first Greek producer to be represented on Meininger's Finest 100 - and thus entered the premium wine world. Other producers like Hatzidakis have also achieved cult status. The largest producer, with 1,200 member vintners, is the Santo Wines cooperative.
Santorini stands for Assyrtiko. The island is hot, dry and barren. With the help of a very labour-intensive method called "koloura", the vines receive water that often drifts over the island in the form of mist. This also brings a salty minerality. Like many Greek islands, Santorini has remained free of phylloxera.
A huge demand from interested wine fans and the tourist (masses) meets a low supply. Yields are high when they exceed 20 hl/ha.
Separated by the caldera, a fairly new wine project is taking place on the neighbouring island of Thirassia, "Mikra Thira", with 2018 as its first vintage. The winery behind it is Gerovassiliou from Epanomi, just outside Thessaloniki. It is the first winery on the island. "The idea was inspired by the raw, natural beauty of this island and its unique terroir, which has the typical characteristics of Santorini and at the same time a character all its own," explains export manager Katerina Stamatelopoulou. Because the terroir is so similar, the wines are also marketed as Santorini PDO.
Other important wine islands in the Cyclades include Paros, Naxos and, to a lesser extent, Tinos.
Greece's green islands, off the western mainland, receive significantly more rainfall than the Aegean islands. From a wine perspective, Kefalonia is the most important island with Robola as the flagship grape variety.
Apart from Kefalonia, there is a considerable amount of viticulture on Zakynthos. The island's speciality is Verdea - an oxidative white wine cuvée made from local grape varieties, including Vostilidi, which are traditionally pressed and fermented together.
The unique feature here is that the different grape varieties are at different stages of ripeness - from unripe to overripe. The unripe grapes also explain the name. "Verde", Italian for green. After all, the Ionian Islands were often exposed to the influence of Italy, especially Venice, in their history.
For a long time, the wines were mainly for local consumption, and tourism has changed little in this respect. Zakynthos attracts mainly British tourists. On the other Ionian islands of Corfu, Lefkada, Ithaca, Paxos and Kythira, viticulture plays a subordinate role.
Greece's largest island, Crete, is a continent compared to the small Cyclades. A wide range of grape varieties, altitude profiles, wine styles, winemaker personalities. About 12% of Greece's vineyards are located on the popular holiday island, often well above 500 metres. Producers like Lyrarakis have achieved a bigger stage in the wine trade - as one of only a few have managed.
The fact that Crete lags behind the much smaller Santorini in terms of perception has a simple reason: around 70% of the wine, certainly not the best quality, stays on the island and flows down the throats of the millions of tourists. However, this is slowly changing.
As in the rest of Greece, many producers are already turning to indigenous varieties, although international varieties are more important in Crete than in the rest of the island cosmos. Since March 2022, Tsantali has been the exclusive distributor of wines from the Strataridakis winery in southern Crete, which covers both spectrums. Tsantali export manager Jannis Simeonidis reports that business was good until September 2022. Then, however, the reluctance to buy due to the crisis made itself felt.
Eastern and Northern Aegean
In simplified terms, this includes the islands of the southern Sporades, including the Dodecanese, which are located in a wide arc off the Turkish coast. In addition, there are Lesbos, Chios, Limnos and smaller islets to the north. The largest island is Rhodes, in the wine trade Samos is the most present origin. Here is a selection:
The island of Lesbos is mainly known for ouzo, there is little viticulture. In the volcanic west, the winery grows the almost forgotten red-skinned Chidiriotiko.
Samos is different, it island is quite visible on the market. Cavino, a big playerhas installed a facility at the Vakakis winery that produces half a million litres of wine. For this purpose, the company buys grapes from winegrowers and decides on the production. On Samos, mostly sweet Muscat is produced, partly at considerable altitude.
On the island of Ikaria, steep coasts frame the inland, which is rather untypically green for the region. Afianes is a special winery on a special island. Nikos Afianes produces still and even sparkling wines from the local grape variety Begleri, which can only be found there, which is rare on the Greek islands...
There is also a winery under English management on the tiny Dodecanese island of Lipsi.
- Other islands with viticulture:
Rhodes, Chios, Limnos, Patmos.