“The ferry to Santorini is canceled due to high winds.”
No, no, no, this was NOT happening! Not after getting up at 6am to drive an hour to Heraklion, Crete, return our rental car, and schlep our bags over to the ferry terminal. And not after having to postpone our tour of Santorini wineries for a YEAR due to COVID. We were getting to that island today no matter what.
A line of angry passengers quickly started to form at the ticket desk. My husband and I managed to get in early, about 40 passengers back. But you could see the line stretching behind us like a snake, with the tail a couple of hundred people back at the other end of the port.
In front of us, each passenger left the window looking even more defeated than before they spoke with the ferry staff. One loudly proclaimed to the line that no one could tell them if there would be a ferry the next day, or the day after that!
After some quick thinking, we got on our phones and started looking at flights. One by one, they were booking up in front of our eyes.
I managed to snag a flight and hurriedly entered payment information, trying not to cringe at the number of digits in the price. Success! We had a flight that would arrive in Santorini that night.
While not how I expected to start our time on this famous white-and-blue bedazzled island, we did make it there after a long day of travel.
I’m so glad we did because I wouldn’t have been able to tell you about this incredible Santorini wineries tour we took with Santorini Wine Trails.
But before I get into the guided tour, let me give you a little background on Santorini wine.
In case you didn’t know, the Greek Island of Santorini is technically an active volcano. You know all those beautiful photos you see of the cliffs and the sapphire water below? Well, that’s because the middle part of the island collapsed in a past eruption.
I don’t know about you, but I’d be a little nervous living on a ticking time bomb. Anyways, what does this have to do with wine, you ask?
Well, the soil, of course! It’s a mix of lava and volcanic ash, mainly composed of pumice. Yes, like those stones you use to exfoliate.
What’s cool about this is that the volcanic soil is resistant to diseases. So, Santorini has never had to deal with phylloxera — that root louse that has infected vines throughout most of the rest of the world.
This means that Santorini vineyards haven’t had to be replanted, making them some of the oldest vines in the world. We’re talking as old as 200 years!
If you haven’t already gathered from my ferry story (or rather, nightmare), Santorini can have some issues with wind.
August had apparently been relatively calm, but September roared in like a lion. Seriously, when we first walked to our hotel room, I was a little nervous we might get blown into the caldera!
The strong winds mean they have to use a special pruning technique on the vines to protect the grapes. More on that in a bit.
Outside of the wind, Santorini has mild winters and long hot summers. There’s very little rain during the growing season, so the vines get a lot of their water from the air. They absorb the humidity and the mist from the sea breeze.
There isn’t much vintage variation, but they’re seeing more of this with climate change. Things like higher rainfall, heat waves, and night humidity can impact the quality and quantity of each vintage.
On a side note, if South Africa is also on your travel bucket list, make sure to check out my recommendations for Stellenbosch wineries.
Santorini has about 40 different native grape varieties grown on 1,300 hectares of vineyards. Now, the island is not that big so basically, everywhere you go you see vineyards planted.
Some of these are owned by the island’s 20 wineries but many are independently farmed. In fact, there are 1,200 farmers growing grapes.
On the tour, we learned that some of the plots of land can be less than an acre, but are owned by a whole bunch of different people. The land has been split up over generations, so if you’re in the 5th generation, your inheritance may be down to like 4 vines. Crazy, right?
Santorini produces 3 million bottles of wine a year. The Santorini PDO, or Protected Designation of Origin, covers red and white wines made in both dry and sweet styles.
If you don’t know what a PDO is, it’s basically Europe’s way of saying only agricultural products made in a specific area and of a certain quality can use the protected name. For example, you can’t call a fortified wine “Port” unless it’s made in Douro Valley, Portugal.
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Santorini White Wines
Assyrtiko is the belle of Santorini’s ball. This lady is about 75% of the vineyard plantings on the island. Assyrtiko grapes make wines with perfumed aromas, balanced acidity, and citrus and stone fruit flavors.
Often, she’s a single varietal. But you’ll also find her blended with Santorini’s other common white grapes, Aidani and Athiri.
Santorini Red Wines
Mandilaria, also found on Crete, is the most widespread red grape on Santorini. He’s sometimes blended with Assyrtiko to make a dry red (scandalous!). Or dried in the sun to make him sweet.
Mavrotragano is another up-and-coming Santorini red. He was almost extinct until being revived a few years ago. He makes full-bodied, high-alcohol wines that only get better with age (yes, please!).
Vinsanto: Santorini’s Sweet Wine
This late-harvested lady lays out in the sun for up to 14 days (that’s gotta be some tan!). This concentrates the sugars in the grapes and makes them high enough that fermentation stops on its own, leaving a sweet wine.
Vinsanto is aged in oak for at least two years, but many producers age her for far longer. This gives her flavors of dried fruit, caramel, and nuts. One of my favorite dessert wines.
BTW, if you haven’t yet, make sure to grab my free Wine Tasting Planner. It has 20+ wine night theme ideas, including the exact ones I’ve used for my wine tastings. Plus, a timeline, food pairings, games, free printables, worksheets, and more. Get your copy here.
Santorini Wineries Tour
When looking for the best Santorini wine tours, I saw a lot of options that focused on the popular caldera views of Santo Winery and Venetsanos Winery. There was less emphasis on visiting wineries with the best wines. And it wasn’t clear that the guides were educated or experienced in the wine industry.
Santorini Wine Trails stood out to me because Iliana, the guide, studied winemaking in both Athens and Bordeaux. She has also worked in the wine industry at a winery, as a sommelier, and in wine communications. Clearly, she knows her stuff!
Plus, the 5 out of 5 rating on TripAdvisor doesn’t hurt either.
Her tour focuses on family-owned wineries producing some of Santorini’s best wines. All her tours are currently private at a very reasonable rate. And there are options for wine lovers, foodies, and sunset experiences.
We opted for the wine lover tour, which included pick-up and drop-off at our hotel, a visit to a vineyard, and wine tasting at 3 of the best Santorini wineries with food pairings.
Our tour started with a visit to one of the island’s oldest vineyards.
When you first see a Santorini vineyard, it looks a little strange. There aren’t the typical tall rows of vines creeping along trellises. They’re low to the ground and form these basket-like shapes.
This technique is called a “kouloura” and the grapes grow in the center of the basket, protecting them from Santorini’s harsh winds.
Iliana explained that it takes about 15-20 minutes to prune each vine this way. This is done twice per year so it’s pretty time-consuming. This is currently the only place in the world where you can see this technique used.
Iliana also explained Santorini’s soil composition and we got to see and feel samples of the different volcanic rocks.
After getting up close and personal with the vines, we headed to our first winery.
The Gavalas family has been making wine for five generations. These days, George and his son Vagelis run the winery and focus on limited-production wines that highlight Santorini’s unique terroir. This includes 11 different labels and about 90,000 bottles per year.
They’ve also revived two rare grape varieties — Katsano and Voudomato — and are the only winery that produces these wines. We got to sample local wines made from both of these in the wine tasting experience.
As one of the oldest wineries of Santorini, what’s unique about visiting is getting to explore the original stone winery building and wine cellars. The family has done a great job preserving it.
Iliana took us around to see the old vats and barrels that were used to make and age Vinsanto wine. And we peeked into the original cellars and grape stomping rooms. Of course, they also have a modern section with equipment that’s a bit more sophisticated.
Seated in their beautiful secluded courtyard, Iliana brought out a plate of local tomato paste, cheese, olives, and crunchy bread to go with our tasting. Everything was incredibly fresh.
We started with the Katsano, a floral white wine that tasted like peaches and pineapple…yum! We also sampled the refreshing Aidani, with aromas of jasmine and flavors of green apple and pear.
Gavalas makes a rosé out of the revived Voudomato grape. This was one of my favorites of the tasting, with lots of red cherry flavors and hints of butterscotch.
Finally, we had the big and bold Mavrotragano — super concentrated with lots of black fruits and some spciy pepper.
After grabbing a bottle of the rosé to take with us, we headed to our next stop.
Our first taste of Estate Argyros’ wine was at our dinner at Metaxi Mas, one of Santorini’s best restaurants. We had a bottle of their Cuvee Monsignori.
This complex Assyrtiko is made from 200-year-old vines with very small yields. It was such a treat! And I was excited to get to try more of their wines.
As the largest private owner of vineyards in Santorini, Argyros Estate has 120 hectares. It was officially founded in 1902, but the family was involved in winemaking for decades before that.
Yiannis Argyros took over in 1974 and he was the one to put Estate Argyros on the map. He focused on making some of the best quality Vinsanto wines and proving that dry-style Assyrtiko can be age-worthy.
Today, Matthaios is the fourth generation of the Argyros family running the winery. Since taking over in 2004, he has built a beautiful, modern winery. The tasting room is stunning. It looks like something out of a magazine!
Our food pairing here included a tasty plate of meats, cheeses, dried fruit, olive oil, breadsticks, and more of Santorini’s delicious tomato paste.
For the wines, we started with the Atlantis White. This is their base level Assyrtiko blended with Athiri and Aidani. They say it’s made from younger vines. By young, they mean up to 60 years old. But I guess that’s a spring chicken when you’re comparing it to 200-year-old vines! It’s a great intro to Argyros’ whites and meant to be enjoyed young.
The Estate Argyros 100% Assyrtiko was next. The grapes come from vines that are at least 100 years old. This makes it ageable, up to 10 years. With time, the high acidity will mellow and you’ll get more of the fruit flavors and even some petrol notes.
Our third wine was the Atlantis Rosé. Iliana said this was her go-to swimming pool wine. And I can see why. Mostly Assyrtiko and blended with Mandilaria, it was fun and fruity, with cherry and strawberry. Who wouldn’t want a glass of that while lazily drifting on your unicorn pool float?
The winner of our tasting was the 1996 Vinsanto. I mean think back to where you were in ’96. These grapes were picked when I was still wearing chokers, jelly sandals, and scrunchies (although apparently, they’re back in style).
The wine is made from a blend of late-harvested and dried Assyrtiko, Aidani, and Athiri grapes. These are all white grapes, but the wine gets its honey color by aging for 20 years — 3 in concrete and 16 in wooden vats.
It smelled like dried figs and caramel and tasted like chocolate and coffee. Heavenly with a piece of chocolate cake.
Have you ever been to a winery on the beach? Pulling up to our last stop, we stepped out to stunning views of one of Santorini’s east coast beaches and the sound of waves crashing on the shore.
Gaia’s winery building was used for making tomato paste and sun-dried tomatoes in the 1900s. But it’s been transformed into a modern winery, where they also produce sweet vinegar from the Assyrtiko grape. And it just so happens to be located on a gorgeous beach.
Owners Yiannis Paraskevopoulos and Leon Karatsalos traveled and studied winemaking around the world. In 1994, they brought their knowledge back and founded wineries in Greece’s two most important wine-growing regions.
Nemea is a red-wine region on the Peloponnese peninsula, where they use the Agiorgitiko grape (say that 10 times fast!). On Santorini, their wines are all made from Assyrtiko in a variety of different styles. You can taste both regions’ wines at their Santorini winery.
For our tasting, we got to try Assyrtiko in four ways. I loved experiencing how the grape changes when made in different styles.
And of course, they were accompanied by more food — crunchy breadsticks and savory Dakos (sort of a Greek bruschetta from Crete).
The first wine was Thalassitis, an unoaked version made from low-yield vines. This was probably my favorite wine of the day. I regret not grabbing a bottle to bring home, but Gaia does export to the U.S. so I’m hoping I can track it down here.
Next was the Assyrtiko by Gaia Wild Ferment, which is made with…you guessed it, wild yeast strains. After letting it do its thing in the tanks and American oak barrels, they taste and choose the ones that will produce the best wine. The oak was a little strong for my taste but it will mellow with age.
Nychteri is a blend of Assyrtiko with Aidani and Athiri. These other grapes, along with the use of French oak, make the wine fruitier than the first two wines. Iliana suggested closing our eyes while tasting. The fullness of the body could make you mistake it for a red wine if you didn’t know better.
We finished off with the Vinsanto. This one was aged for 10 years so it was a bit lighter than Estate Argyros’ 20-year version, with caramelized fruit, nuts, and coffee.
With a final cheers to an amazing day and a wonderful tour with Iliana, we savored our last sips while watching the waves roll into shore.
If you’d like to take this Santorini wine tour, you can book it by visiting the Santorini Wine Trails website.
More Santorini Wineries and Wine Tasting
While not part of our tour, Iliana highly recommended the wines and food at Domaine Sigalas. We visited on a separate day and whole-heartedly agreed. You can check out my post on Santorini wine and food experiences for more details.
The winery is located about 10 minutes outside the center of Oia. You can book a guided wine tasting with paired dishes. Or choose your own pairings by ordering from their à la carte menu.
Santo Winery and Venetsanos Winery
While I didn’t personally visit these wineries, they are known for having incredible views of the caldera. If you want to check them out, I’d suggest having lunch or dinner there.
But be warned that they are popular, so you’ll want to book well in advance. This is easy to do online for both Santo Winery and Venetsanos Winery.
Santorini Wine Museum
Want to learn about the history of the island, Santorini wine, and what wine making was like in ancient times? This underground museum was built in a 300-meter-long cave by the Koutsogiannopoulos winemaking family.
Through an audio tour you’ll see the stages of the wine production process and learn about the range of machinery wine producers need. You’ll also get to see some rare winemaking equipment and tools that were used by past generations of the family.
After your tour of the museum, you can experience the family’s wines with one of their wine-tasting packages. Check out their website here for more details.
Where to Stay in Santorini, Greece
As beautiful as Santorini’s main cities of Oia and Fira are, they also get super crowded. If you don’t want to deal with elbowing your way down the street every time you want to get to your hotel, I recommend staying in the southern part of the island.
You can easily get around by renting a car or using the fancy bus system (seriously, they’re like luxury liners). You’ll also be closer to the famous black and red beaches and the Akrotiri archaeological site.
Kokkinos Villas is a wonderful option with incredible views of the caldera. The rooms are spacious, and some even have private hot tubs. Each day you can put in your custom breakfast order for the next morning, and it will be ready when you arrive.
You can book Kokkinos Villas here or find more great hotel options on Booking.com. Just enter the location and your dates below.
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Have you been to any of these Santorini wineries or tried their wines?
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