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The Greek Aegean Islands are one of the world’s oldest wine-making regions. Their geographic location between Greece and Egypt made them a great trading hub in the ancient world, their prized wines marketed throughout the empires. The temperate climate, volcanic soils, abundant sunshine and climate moderators from the Aegean all contribute to outstanding grape growing conditions.
Though wine is produced in some capacity throughout the Aegean island system, the most important wine-making islands are Santorini, Rhodes, Crete and Samos.
The tradition of wine-making on Santorini, a.k.a. Thira, dates back to the Bronze Age. One of the most devastating volcanic eruptions in recorded history happened here around 1650 BC, covering the island in ash, pumice and lava, and destroying Minoan settlements. But in its wake, this contributed to very favorable soils for wine grapes, with some extant old vines that never suffered from Phylloxera. Assyrtiko is the region’s star white grape. It’s grown throughout Greece, but originated here, where the volcanic soils give it more acidity. In the blend known as Nykteri, it’s often blended with Aidani Aspro and Athiri. As dried grapes this blend is known as Liasta, used in the treasured Vinsanto dessert wine, which has its ancient origins on Santorini. Grapes are dried in the sun for several days, then pressed for their concentrated, sweet juice and aged sometimes for several years before release. Mezzo (rarely seen as an import) is a less sweet version of Vinsanto, consisting of grapes that have sun-dried for less time, or a mixture of juice from dried and un-dried grapes.
The leading red grapes are Mandilaria and Mavrotagano. Brouska (another import rareity) is a style of wine from the island that dates back to the Venetian occupation (13th-16th centuries) that is produced as red, white and rosé. This is one of the last holdouts of foot-pressed wine, though is also vinified in modern methods. In all there are some 40 indigenous grape varietals to be found here.
Rhodes benefits from having one of the shortest periods of rainfall in all of Greece. This island was the center of wine exportation to the ancient world. During the Middle Ages, the production of Malvasia (Malmsey) became popular and was the inspiration for cultivating the grape on Madeira in Portugal (though that style differs from this Malvasia). The island was also spared from Phylloxera. Two grapes which are often produced as blends elsewhere in Greece are vinified as varietal releases, the white Athiri and the red Mandilaria (known locally as Amorgiano). Rhodes is also known for its high quality Muscat releases.
While excavating an ancient structure on Crete, archaeologists discovered Minoan era wine presses, chalices, amphorae (that iconic two-handled, clay vessel) and wine grape seeds that date back to the 3rd century BC. Remarkably well preserved wine vessels were also found in the ancient palace of King Minos in Knossos. Most of the vineyards on Crete are planted on the north side of the island, where mountains protect them from the elements. The most popular wines are Archanes, Peza, Dafnes, and Sitia, along with good quality, non-classified table wines. The most popular white grapes are Vilana and the very rare indigenous Plyto, Thrapsathiri, and Dafni, as well as Chardonnay. Reds consist of Kotisfali, Mandelaria, Liatico (Aleatico in Italy) and Syrah.
Red wine was once available on Samos, however most of the vineyards died out due to Phylloxera and never replanted. Today, Samos is mostly known for dessert wines from Moschato Aspro, which are available with or without fortification, and with or without extensive ageing. ~Amanda Schuster
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