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Published:  23 July, 2008

Natural hazards and a low export profile are relatively moderate concerns for grape growers and winemakers on Santorini. For with young workers deserting viticulture for tourism, the island's vineyards are in danger of dying out with the older generation. Joanne Simon visits an historic wine island fighting for survival

The world is about to lose one of its most interesting wine regions.' These words, uttered by the usually upbeat winemaker Yannis Paraskevopoulos, had haunted me since my return from an eye-opening trip to Greece last year. Interrupting our conversation about his (successful) attempts to produce world-class red wine at his Gaia winery near Koutsi in the Peloponnese, Paraskevopoulos was referring -to my surprise, I admit -to the Cycladic island of Santorini, where he consults and also vinifies his own white wines at Canava Arghyros. Back then, you see, I did not know much about Santorini's wine industry, let alone any of the finer details, like the practice of training vines into baskets (of which more later), or even the versatile minerality of the white Assyrtiko grape, which has its origins on Santorini. For me, the island was little more than a potential holiday destination. In fact, it was only when I sampled Paraskevopoulos' elegant yet structured, citrussy yet almost metallic 2001 Thalassitis (from the Greek word thalassa, meaning of the sea', and made from Assyrtiko) that his words -about losing a wine as expressive of terroir as a Sancerre or a Puligny-Montrachet' -sank in. There are no more young people working in the vineyards; only a few old men who still do it out of love,' he said. Vineyards are small, often less than a hectare, so it's labour-intensive and relatively unrewarding. It's understandable that people would rather build tourist accommodation, make a fortune in three months and then go skiing in St Moritz, than be on their knees in the dirt. And I'm not sure there is much we can do about it.' Intrigued, I vowed to visit Santorini before its wine industry succumbed to the more lucrative onslaught of tourism. And when I went, it was early January, when a chill wind howled through ghost towns boarded up for winter, and the population was pruned down from the summer high of around 40,000 to the 5,000-odd who don't habitually take to the slopes.

Blown apart If anything, the starkness of winter serves only to accentuate Santorini's rugged beauty. Originally called Strongyle (meaning round') and then Kalliste (most beautiful'), the island's crescent shape today is the result of a catastrophic volcanic eruption - the largest in recorded history - that destroyed everything on the island around 1500BC. Fortunately, it appears that most of Kalliste's inhabitants had time (and enough savvy) to flee the island before the eruption -indeed, Pompeii-style excavations at the ancient village of Akrotiri reveal that theirs was a highly organised society. Each house came equipped with a bath, as well as clay amphorae whose exquisite decorations, still intact, clearly depict whether they were used to store grain or olive oil or wine. Amazingly, those used for wine are decorated with different symbols, revealing that, far from having had one primitive form of fermented grape juice, these people had different wines - and, what's more, a fairly sophisticated classification system. When people returned they found a wasteland whose new shape offered no protection from the incessant northerly gale. Once blessed with fertile soils, now layers of lava, ash and smashed pumice stone made it impossible to grow trees, let alone crops for feeding animals. Even today, there is hardly a cow or goat in sight, and the only things that grow with any degree of success are cherry tomatoes, capers and fava beans (all intensely flavoursome). The grape stock consists mainly of Assyrtiko, plus small amounts of Athiri, Aidani and the red Mandelaria. Their survival on Santorini is due only to the ingenuity of those ancient growers who came up with the idea of weaving the best cane (or two) of each vine into an increasingly deep basket to protect grapes from being sandblasted or sunburnt, and to retain moisture (here, summer mists supplement just 200mm of rain a year). I've never seen anything like the large vine baskets' of Santorini's older vineyards and, with phylloxera unable to survive in the island's volcanic soil, I mean old'. When I asked Paraskevopoulos to estimate the age of the oldest vines, he invited me to take a wild guess.

Supply and demand A rich history, innovative viticultural techniques, ancient vines, phylloxera-free soils, one of the world's most stunning vineyard settings, tourists providing a captive market Into this heady mix is thrown the widely planted Assyrtiko -arguably Greece's finest white noble variety, because of its ability to achieve ripeness with a high degree of natural acidity. You'd expect Santorini's modern winemakers to have it made (give or take the occasional battle against the elements). After all, their ancestors were laughing from the mid-18th century onwards, when terraced vineyards covering most of their 73km2 island supplied wine to the extremely lucrative Russian market (although this disappeared overnight with the Bolshevik Revolution). There is certainly no shortage of enthusiasm or talent on the modern winemaking front. But, put simply, how do you make consistently good wine (let alone market it) without a consistent supply of grapes? Large-scale abandonment of Santorini's vineyards dates back to an earthquake in 1956 that forced many inhabitants to move to the mainland or abroad. Others decided to replant their vineyards with tomatoes (at one stage, Santorini had ten tomato paste factories). And then came the tourists with their accommodation needs, which saw property prices shoot up and landowners cash in. Vineyards, which used to cover 3,500 hectares (ha), or 84% of Santorini, now account for just 1,200ha. And yields, too, have shrunk over the decades, from 40hl/ha to under 10hl/ha each year. Of course, small yields due to old, stretched vines result in concentrated wines that are full of character. This is certainly the case with Assyrtiko, and it's no wonder that Santorini has had an Appellation of High Quality Origin for its dry white wines since 1972. Less clear is why it still lacks a Controlled Appellation of Origin (the Greek equivalent of Europe's VQPRD) for Vinsanto, the dessert wine made from sun-dried grapes. (Indeed, the Italian Vin Santo must be considered to have Greek origins, with medieval Venetians having learnt a thing or two during their 300-year sojourn on the island.) But I digress. The point is that all ten wineries on Santorini have to make do with 3,000-4,000 tons of grapes between them in a good' year, or as little as 1,200 tons in a bad one, like 2002 (when yields were down from an average 250-500kg per strema', or 1,000m2, to just 50kg).

A glimmer of hope You can always blame the weather for annual fluctuations: poor winter rainfall and/or strong winds during flowering make for a bad vintage (and the good news is that 2003 is already looking more promising than 2002). But land, without question, poses the biggest ongoing headache. If you sell the land, you get as much money as you would cultivating it for 50 years,' shrugs oenologist Haridimos Hatzidakis, a former Boutari winemaker now performing miracles in his tiny cave' winery, dug into an organic vineyard near the southern, hillside village of Pyrgos Kallistis. His well-made wines (40,000 bottles in total, ranging from the crisply modern white Santorini' to the more traditional, barrel-matured Nykteri', and available in the UK through Eclectic Wines) speak volumes for his sound, modern techniques. Hatzidakis knows that his greatest challenges lie in the vineyard -his stated aim is to broaden the grape varieties, as well as to improve the quality of the Santorinian vineyard'. For starters, he believes the early-ripening but rare Mavrotragano (red) variety has far more potential than the angular, tannic Mandilaria, and his soft, round red wine bears this out. He also believes that vines should be trained into smaller crowns' rather than big baskets, pointing out that so much wood prevents the concentration of nutrients in the berries. But persuading growers to abandon generations of tradition is, at best, a heated debate (as only the Greeks can be heated). And, as we watch a grizzled grape grower loosen the soil around his recently pruned and trained vines, Hatzidakis shakes his head: Only the old people still do this strong work. I don't know what will happen when they go -there is no one behind them.' But therein, paradoxically, lies a glimmer of hope: I am quite optimistic,' says Elli Tentzeraki, the oenologist at Sigalas winery, whose owner, Paris Sigalas, is determined to halt the decline of grape growing in northern Santorini, where his is the only winery left, and to replant vineyards with forgotten' varieties like Mavrotragano, using organic principles. Good viticulturists will come from other parts,' insists Tentzeraki. Why not? Assyrtiko is one of the world's best white varieties, because it can be vinified fresh or matured in barrel or sun-dried, and our soil gives it a unique herbal, mineral character, which becomes almost petrolly as it ages. People understand that, so they will come here. And they will have a willingness to try new things, instead of inheriting the mistakes of the old people.' The winery's Assyrtikos, labelled as Sigalas Santorini and Sigalas Barrel' Santorini respectively, have recently won bronze and silver medals at the International Wine & Spirit Competition (IWSC), as has its Vinsanto, made from 70% Assyrtiko and 30% Aidani. Producing 100,000 bottles a year under six different labels, Sigalas exports its wine to the US, Germany, France and Japan, and is currently seeking a UK agent.

The irony of tourism Equally keen to increase exports is Stela Kasiola, the marketing manager at SantoWines, a co-operative with 1,100 active members. But you can't export if you can't guarantee grapes,' she sighs, so before we can develop a proper marketing and sales strategy, we have to help our cultivators stabilise their production.' SantoWines' promotions manager, Nick Dinos, explains the dual role of the co-operative: We are a business, but we also have a social duty to protect the future of our growers. If there is no one to take over from them, one solution is to introduce corporate farming, whereby we employ people to maintain the land. But the laws on employment are very strict, so we will need backing from other big companies before we talk to the government.' Making 24 different styles of wine (including its 2002 IWSC gold medal-winning 1996 Vinsanto), the winery building is impressive, following the contours of the volcanic caldera. But built in 1990, when demographic studies failed to predict the impact of tourism, it uses only around 20% of its 5,000-ton storage capacity. A bad capital investment,' says Dinos, putting it mildly. But the construction of an on-site Wine Promotion Centre (which surely has one of the island's best views) is one thing that has paid off: SantoWines has 40,000 visitors a year. So perhaps tourism is not all bad news for the wine industry?' I suggest, mischievously. To which Kasiola replies: Tourists come here to experience a traditional island way of life, but that traditional way of life is disappearing. It's a vicious circle.' Petros Vamvakousis, manager at Boutari's 1,500-ton capacity Megalochori winery, whose hospitality and multi-media centre attracted 30,000 people last year, agrees with Kasiola and predicts a shift back to viticulture. In the past 20 years, tourism has been the most important income for locals, but things are changing. These days, visitors want to experience new things, so it's not so easy just to be a hotel or a restaurant manager. You have to offer more,' he says. Importantly, Boutari -one of Greece's oldest and biggest companies -appears to have a corporate plan in place to secure Santorini's future grape requirements. When the old people have finished their work, our plan is to rent their vineyards and use our own staff to cultivate the grapes,' says Vamvakousis. Passionate oenologists already doing good things with the small quantities at their disposal; a move towards a better-balanced relationship between viticulture and tourism; and a company like Boutari (whose Santorini and Kallisti labels are available at Oddbins and Tesco) getting ready to flex its corporate muscle It all augurs well for the survival of a wine region whose disappearance would, indeed, be a tragedy.