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.

Tradition and change on Santorini

[Warning – this is quite a long post and may take a bit of your time.  But it’s about an important issue, relevant to social and economic change in many emerging wine regions.]

I had a long and very comprehensive talk with Markos Kafouros, the President of Santo Wines, on Santorini.  Santo are the cooperative on the island, and unlike cooperative wine producers in many parts of the world the wines they make are the equal in general quality of other, private producers; like all the others they make a crisp but full-bodied white wine mainly from the variety assyrtiko – and it has carved out a very distinctive place in the affections of many wine lovers over the last decade or so.  In spite of this, what was interesting me was less the wine and more the social change taking place in Santorini and how it might be affecting the wine industry there.

Mr Kafouros is a grower; he is elected President of the cooperative by a complex process which involves all of the 1,200 members.  He has been in this post for twelve years.  He was also for eight years a local mayor, a fact which is relevant to what follows. 

We sat on the terrace at the cooperative, overlooking the caldera of Santorini.  Around 1,600 BCE Santorini – which was a medium-sized roundish island towards the south of the Aegean – was blown apart by a volcano, leaving a horseshoe-shaped remnant remaining around the crater where the volcano had erupted.  The island itself was covered in a layer of volcanic ash followed by lava.  It is possible that no-one survived, and the devastation inflicted was much wider, reaching at least down to Crete and possibly to Africa.

On the terrace of the caldera with Markos Kafouros. The island in the immediate foreground is the result of further eruptions of the volcano over the centuries. Picture courtesy of Stela Kasiola.

Since the 1990s the wine industry has rapidly developed on the back of a great local variety – assyrtiko.  In this period Santorini has also become a prime tourist destination – renowned for the views into the caldera and for its white and blue painted churches.  Santo Wines opened the first cellar door on the island in 1992 and others have followed since then – although wine isn’t the main focus of most visitors.  Nevertheless, for example, another producer, Estate Argyros, has around 30,000 visitors a year. 

As Mr Kafouros recounts, the cooperative exists very much to preserve the unique agricultural traditions of the island.  As well as wine, it has a small production of fava beans (a form of lentil) and tomatoes (turned into tomato paste) – both specialities of the place and protected by PDO legislation, just like the wine.  These are all nurtured out of one of the toughest agricultural environments available; an arid combination of the hardest imaginable rock plus ash under your feet, the sun engulfing you from above and strong winds whipping off the sea from all sides.  The cooperative believes in innovation and careful planning – but all towards the end of preserving what has been the traditional business activity of its 1,200 members.  ‘Innovation’, I’m told, ‘cannot stand on its own; it needs history’.  It also needs a specific environment – the ecosystem that has been created by millennia of volcanic activity.

Into this unique little world has stepped the tourist.  Maybe two million of them a year (while the resident population is under 30,000).  Like a volcanic eruption this has blown apart the human ecosystem of the island.  Hotels are everywhere, as are restaurants, bars, and souvenir shops.  Driving through the narrow streets of Fira, the main town, has become an exercise in total focus to avoid other cars, mules, pedestrians, and quad bikes.  In response to this rapid change the cooperative does not just see itself as protecting the island’s traditional products but also its community.  Nevertheless, it seems to me that such a response avoids dealing with the key issue of the rapidly developing infrastructure and its infringement on the land available for agriculture in the area. 

Markos Kafouros accepts that.  He points out though that there are three levels beyond the wine industry: national and local government, and the local community.  They have attempted to review the impact and potential development of tourism on the island – but national and local governments change, and their agendas and priorities change.  Some legislation has been passed at national level to allow general zoning to protect agricultural land, but it is very broad and perhaps unsuited to dealing with the specific situations which may arise here.  Meanwhile the cooperative is trying to provide incentives to members to stay in agriculture – mainly by paying its members a high price for the grapes they deliver – around 5€ per kilo – making this probably the second most expensive region for grapes in Europe after Champagne.  Furthermore, he says, the growers remain emotionally attached to their land – and they are proud that their grapes, which had no market outside the island a decade ago, are making wines sold in the best restaurants in New York and Melbourne or being praised by the top British and German critics.

I’m still not convinced.  Crucially, why would growers continuing back-breaking work in the heat and wind of the island if they could sell their small plot of vineyard land for a few hundred thousand euros?  Traditionally small-scale agriculturalists in Southern Europe would not sell.  Partly because their land was their security but even more because of a cultural view that they were not owners of the land, but stewards of it.  They had inherited it from their forebears and had to keep it to pass on to their descendants.  Now, however, their children are reluctant to take on strenuous work in the vineyard when they can get easier employment in hotels or gift shops – and many would prefer to get a better job in Athens or beyond if they can.  Even more, tourism has kept the island going through the decade of Greek austerity – indeed, it has become more prosperous while the rest of the country has struggled. 

The wine industry has also grown over this period.  This is not just the rise in grape price but the fact that outsiders have been coming in to start their own wineries; now it is almost as if there is a ‘waiting list’ of companies who want to move in, just waiting for some land to come onto the market so they can buy it.  This has a positive side – it can help to guarantee a good grape price for growers and it brings in more capital.  On the other hand, the incomers may have less understanding of how to make wines from such a bizarre terrain and may be less committed to working mutually with the existing producers. Big companies, especially, in such a limited vineyard area may push the boundaries of where vines should be grown, pursuing quantity over quality.  This wouldn’t be the first emergent wine region where this has happened.  As Markos expresses it succinctly, the Santo philosophy is ‘not to be in all the markets in the world but to be in the best markets.’

So how can you help to protect the wine industry?  One way would be to strengthen the PDO regulations on production.  My host wants to have a rule that all wines must be bottled on the island (traditionally bottling in the region of origin is assumed to protect quality).  He would also like to develop a cru system (selected top-quality vineyard land) to enable the best wines to be identified.  And to improve the island’s reputation for quality he would like to reduce the maximum yield allowed – maybe by up to 25%. 

Another possibility that has been suggested is seeking UNESCO world heritage designation for the island’s unique vineyards – a recognition of an interaction between humans and their environment.  When I was last in Santorini, about six years ago this was being mooted – but I was told at the time that many local growers didn’t want it, as it would limit their rights to sell their dry, dusty, rock-bestrewn land for a small fortune to local developers.  But the proposal was worked-up by the local authority and a file has been lodged with the national government, who have to decide whether or not to promote it.  They are now about 3-4 years into what could take ten years or more.  But there is a Greek saying according to Mr Kafouros that ‘the start is half of the whole’.  If it’s granted this designation will create a series of legal constraints on development in the designated area, and protection of what humanity has carved out of the rock over the last three and a half millennia.  He accepts that there are a few who oppose the idea but suggests that the problem is not with individual growers, but some opinion leaders who manipulate them – mainly people outside the wine industry.  So the process is in motion – it remains to be seen if it will be successful.  Critically, he feels that they will only move forward by discussion and education (the Greek is paideia, which I’m told has dimensions of culture and understanding in it as well).  This will be one of the chief roles of the cooperative.

All in all, a fascinating conversation with a very thoughtful man.  The cooperative is lucky to have such a balanced and engaged person providing a vision for their future.  As well as producing grapes which he sells to the cooperative, he also has some tomatoes and fava beans as well – and is a bee keeper, hoping that maybe in the future there will be a PDO for island honey.  His father is 87, and still works each day in the family vineyards from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. Thanks to Stela Kasiola who translated our discussion and added a few insights of her own as well.