When most people think about vacationing in Santorini they envision romance, whitewashed buildings covered with bright blue domes, and of course, those famous volcano sunsets. Most people don’t think about wine tasting, however.
While that’s not surprising—Santorini’s desert climate is not exactly conducive to viticulture as we know it—it is a shame. And that’s because all the things that make the island an unexpected wine destination also make it an incredibly unique wine lover’s experience.
I’m thrilled to give you the lowdown on what makes the wine scene so special, and to share—fresh off my own trip to the island last month—some recommendations for how to make the most of a wine vacation there.
Santorini as a Wine Destination
Let me start by answering a basic question that I’m sure is at the forefront of everyone’s mind—when did Santorini become a wine destination? Believe it or not, winemaking on the island dates back more than three thousand years.
It is also a huge part of present day agriculture. In fact, roughly 80 percent of the crops produced in Santorini are for wine production.
To understand how grapes can thrive in such a hot, dry climate, you basically need to throw out everything you ever learned about terroir and remember that adaptation is possible. Or as I like to put it, in the words of Ian Malcom from Jurassic Park, “Life finds a way.” That’s pretty much how it happens in Santorini—grape cultivation is the antithesis of what it looks like in every other region.
Without getting into too much detail, the vines there are trained to grow in circular crowns rather than up in the air, which protects the grapes from the wind and hot sun (it also helps suck in moisture from the air, which keeps the vines hydrated).
The soil in Santorini is also fairly unique, in that it’s volcanic soil (yes, from the same volcano that makes all those beautiful sunsets possible). While Santorini isn’t the only wine region in the world that boasts volcanic soil, it definitely adds a layer of minerality to the wines that you don’t find in a lot of places.
What to Drink in Santorini
Now that the basics are out of the way, let’s move on to the wine itself. Santorini wines skew heavily toward whites, and one white in particular—Assyrtiko—which constitutes about 65 percent of the grapes grown on the island.
Assyrtiko wines are light and acidic, which makes them great on their own or paired with food. They can take on a heavier, more buttery taste in a blend, however. Nykteri is one of the more common blends offered on the island; if you can get your hands on a reserve, I’d highly recommend trying it.
The other wine you have to try while you are there—and I do mean HAVE TO–is Vinsanto, the dessert wine. It was the one bottle I brought back to New York despite not being a dessert wine person—it was just that good.
The best way to describe the taste is burnt salted caramel; if you pair it with dark chocolate I swear your eyes will roll back in your head.
Exploring the Santorini Vineyards
Finally, what’s the best way to go wine tasting on the island? Like most wine destinations, there are two ways: schedule your own tastings at individual wineries, or book a wine tour. There are pros and cons to each of course.
If you do your own tastings, you have the freedom to pick the wineries, but you have to take taxis from place to place, which can add up quickly (most vineyards are a bit off the beaten path). If you opt for a tour, on the other hand, you get more background on the history of Santorini winemaking, and it’s logistically a lot easier—but you only get to see a few pre-selected wineries.
When I was there, we did both, and I actually think that’s the best way to go if wine tasting is a big focus of your trip. A variety of companies offer tours, most in the afternoon and at sunset. We opted for a sunset one, because obviously, and it was fantastic.
A lesson in drinking, pairing, and enjoying wine in general as much as it was a lesson in Santorini varietals (our guide was fantastic). For a full list of tour options, I’d suggest browsing the Get Your Guide website (search Santorini wine tours and your travel dates).
If you’d rather do your own wine tour, in turn, you can find a pretty extensive list of Santorini vineyards on a website called Santorini Secrets. Here are a few I’d recommend based on my trip:
Santo Wines: If you’re going to visit one winery in Santorini this is the one you should visit. It’s by far the most popular on the island, and while I admit that made me skeptical at first, it ended up being one of my favorite wine tasting experiences there.
Yes, it was full of tourists, but it wasn’t the annoying tourist scene that I feared. Instead it was quiet and relaxing, with beautiful sunset views. Tasting-wise, they offer a range of options, from six-wine flights to an unbelievable 18 (I kid you not).
While the tasting is self-guided (meaning, they give you written descriptions instead of walking you through it), it was nice in this setting because it made it easier to sit back and enjoy the sunset.
Artemis Karamolegos: This one I recommend largely because it has an amazing restaurant attached to it. So, you can go for an evening tasting and then stay for dinner afterward. As an added bonus, the tastings are really cheap—10 Euros gets you 4-6 wines and a tour of the winery. We even had our own private guide.
Venetsanos: As I learned on my tour, this winery is known for two things: one, being the oldest winery in Santorini, and two, being built from the top down into the ground (a structural wonder, if you will).
If you’re planning to do an organized wine tour, don’t bother doing this one on your own—they will hit it on the tour. If you’re not though, it’s worth a visit. Another winery with impeccable sunset views (it’s also walkable from Santo Wines—just 15 minutes down the road).
Hadjidakis: I never actually made it to this winery, but I regret it, because a lot of people say it’s the best wine in Santorini. It’s also a modest little establishment—a good balance to bigger places like Santo Wines.
The owner, who passed away last year, was known for producing the first single vineyard Assyrtiko, and for putting it on the map both in Greece and all over the world.
Koutsoyannopoulos: I saved this one for last, purely because in addition to being a winery it’s a WINE MUSEUM. IN A WINE CAVE. How cool is that??? This is another one to which I didn’t make it, and it’s probably my biggest regret from the trip (though I suppose a reason to go back).
Happy wine trails!
By Reagan Daly