Will there be wine from Santorini in 20 years’ time?

I’ve made this post after my return from Greece.   The title sounds as though it is some portentous, vinous, doomsday-focused, film – but it was prompted by a presentation we had in Santorini from Yiannis Paraskevopoulos.  Yiannis is the winemaker at Gaia Wines – who produce wine in various parts of Greece but are, to my mind, one of the best producers of Santorini assyrtiko.  Yiannis is also, however, a professor at the University of West Attica with a PhD in oenology and has coauthored papers on topics such as the phenol content of wines and fuzzy logic in grape variety identification.  It was he who said he thinks that ‘the statistics suggest that wine will die out on the island in 20 years’ time’ and if he, with his background, believes that, it is worth paying attention to.

So what do the statistics say?  First, that there has been a 47% drop in the production of assyrtiko over the last 14 years (3.4% p.a.).  If you take just the last eight years that decrease becomes 7.6% p.a. Why this drop in supply?  Some of it can be attributed to climate change.  Santorini is a rocky island, with little water-retaining clay, and average rainfall has decreased by over a third in the last 15 years, now at about 250 ml per year – drier than almost any other quality vineyard region in the world.

Beyond that, however, there has been a gradual abandonment of the vineyards.  Older growers retire, and they aren’t being replaced.  Working the vines is hard, and you can’t easily mechanise.  Tourism (or migration) is much easier.  And even if vineyards are not taken out of production, with fewer people to work them the vines are less well managed and therefore yield less.

This concern for the future was mirrored with a very wide-ranging but detailed interview with Matthaios Argyros, of the eponymous domaine, one of the biggest private producers on the island – and family which has been growing grapes since the early 19th century and making wine since 1903 – so he has a long-term view on what is happening on the island.  He makes the point that what eight workers could achieve on mainland Greece requires 13 or 14 workers here at twice the salary. He agrees that fewer young people want to learn the skills required and work manually in the vineyard– viticultural skill is dying out. Even the new wineries which are being set up may not have the skills or experience to work vineyards effectively.  Only his estate and one other, the well-known Sigalas (also making great wines) have actually planted new vineyards in recent decades. Matthaios is also exercised by the way that that the price of grapes has risen – as I noted in my last post.

This has benefited the growers, and may persuade some to stay in business, but a rise from 1€ per kilo in 2011 to 2€ in 2015 to 5€ in 2019 means that the price of the wine has to rise dramatically.  This is something I’ve noticed; four years ago the best wines were a bargain (and deserved to be pricier).  Now they compete with premier cru Chablis, even top white wine from the Côte d’Or.  It’s not that the wines don’t bear comparison in quality terms – but they are not comparable in terms of reputation and the awareness of most consumers.  Additionally, Matthaios points out the 5€ price is across the board.  It isn’t a premium for quality; meticulous, quality-focused growers get the same as the careless and uninterested.  So what incentive is there to bother?  What is more, the increasing value of grapes doesn’t seem to have stemmed the decline in production.  In 2016 the price per kilo went up to 2.75€, and in 2017 it touched 4€ before reaching 5€ this year.  Yet these three years have shown the steepest recent decline in grape production, from 2750 tonnes to just above 1000 tonnes.  Yet even if you ignore this recent acceleration in the decline of yields, projecting what has been happening since 2005 suggests that sometime around 2037 no more wine will be made on the island.

Paradoxically, if these wines were lost to humanity it would be the end of vineyard systems which date back to the time of the great explosion around 1600 BCE, and with vines that – because of the propagation systems used and the lack of phylloxera in the island are often 300 or 400 years old.  It would also be the end of a wine that is the result of a unique volcanic terroir that humans have been responding to for centuries – not just the idiosyncratic but effective pruning, but the terraces, the walls and the canavas – ancient family cellars.  That would be a sad loss to the human cultural heritage that UNESCO tries to protect and just as devastating as the destruction of a classical temple or a Mycenaean royal tomb.

A typical, dusty volcanic Santorini vineyard.

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