Have you seen that episode of Parks and Recreation where April enters a sommelier competition? That’s how I typically feel when I’m around wine enthusiasts and professionals — like I’m swirling grape juice around in a fancy glass that I’m possibly holding upside down and declaring I smell notes of sandwich and the color purple.
So the Ancient Akrotiri and Santorini Wineries tour wasn’t exactly the most natural fit for me — I’m no wine aficionado. But I do have an affection for all things quirky and corked, having enjoyed tastings at wineries in the rural outskirts of Cambodia, in the shadow of a volcano in Hawaii, and in a town predominantly known for brothels in Nevada. The fact that the harsh, inhospitable growing environment on Santorini isn’t one of the world’s famous wine regions is exactly what piqued my interest.
And so when our guide, a salt-and-pepper-haired Greek sommelier named Stamatis picked us up in the morning, I already knew we were in for an interesting day.
Heather and had I debated about whether or not to do the Akrotori add-on to the winery tour. Looking back, I can’t believe we hesitated — it was one of the highlights of Santorini for me.
Akrotiri was once a lost city that lay buried for centuries after a volcanic explosion. The almost 4,000 year old ruins are now one of the Aegean’s most important prehistoric settlements. Yet, to be honest, I think had we strolled through on our own, we would have been there for about fifteen minutes, scanned a few plaques, taken a few obligatory photos, and left with a shrug. However, thanks to our private guide Malissos, who Stamatis handed us off to at the gate, we spent over an hour enraptured by the story of this amazing ancient civilization, rumored by some to be the lost city of Atlantis.
Malissos was hands down the most engaging guide I’ve ever had at a historical site, patiently answering our endless questions and picking up on the aspects of the history we were most interested in and focusing on those.
The most haunting thing about Akrotiri? There are no bodies, no human remains, not even the bones of a single domesticated animal. This along with other clues tells archaeologists that unlike the famous tragedy at Pompeii, the people of Akrotori had warning that an eruption was coming, probably in the form of foreshocks. As wealthy seafarers, they had the means to flee, taking all their worldly treasures with them. Why they never returned, and where they went, is still a mystery.
The people of Akrotiri had a short but good life, estimated to be only about thirty-five years long, on average. The ruins of the city reveal a peaceful people and a democracy — remains of a parliament, no signs of a palace, and — Malissos pointed out with proper gravity — ubiquitous plumbing, not just reserved for an aristocracy. Toilets all around!
Unlike in much of the ancient world, the art in Akrotiri showed no signs of war, fear, or human sacrifice. Instead, archeologists have uncovered frescoes and other images of flowers, birds, dolphins, and the bounty of the sea. And wine. These ancient Minoans made wine.
When it was time to say our goodbyes we made our way to meet Stamatis at our prearranged time and location. When he wasn’t there, we tried to sit back and be patient, but our confusion and the unrelenting heat made it hard to relax. By the time we saw the van rounding the corner, we had spent an hour waiting in total between the delay in our morning pickup and now this one. We accepted Stamatis’s apologies and explanations of traffic due to the many cruise ships in port and put on smiles to meet our fellow wine tasters, who were just joining the tour — a honeymooning couple from San Francisco, two stylish sisters from Chicago (one of whom was a professional wine buyer!), and a man from the Czech Republic.
We were ready for a drink. Our first stop was Boutari Winery, the second largest in Santorini. We started our tour by wandering out to the vineyards themselves, which in Santorini look unlike the vines I’ve seen anywhere else in the world — like scrubby bushes hugging the ground. Stamatis told us a fantastic story from his time researching Santorini wines. He asked an elderly vintner, “Why do the vines grow like this in Santorini?” She responded with a shrug.
Because we found them like that.
In reality, the vines distinctive growing pattern in baskets close to the ground, rather than high on trellises, allows them access to desperately-needed moisture from the island’s notoriously volcanic dry soil. And that’s not the only way in which Santorini wines are peculiar. These vineyards have a notoriously low yield, with eight to ten kilos of grapes producing a mere 500ml of wine!
After touring the wine cellar, we sat down for the fun part — trying the wine. This is when I realized that this tour was more of a sommelier class than a tasting, as Stamatis explained the process and steps of wine judging, polled us on our opinions, and gave us suggestions on pairing the wines with the platters of local cheeses, breads, and meats in front of us.
The best part? There wasn’t a hint of pretention despite the fact that there was not one but two wine professionals at our table. After asking our thoughts on the wine, we’d often reply in the form of a question. I think I taste hints of nutmeg? I think I prefer the Nykteri? Stamatis wouldn’t give us the approval we were seeking on our opinions, only replying with a laugh that, “there is no argument to taste!”
photo courtesy of Heather Holt
photo courtesy of Heather Holt
Five wines later, the late pickup fiasco was all but forgotten. But not by our ultra-polite guide. As we rose to leave Boutari, he asked us to wait a moment and returned with four bottles of fine Vinsanto, an apology to each of us for the delays at the beginning of the tour. Now that is some good damage control.
(Airlines, are you listening? I would gladly accept a bottle of fine wine in exchange for every hour you’ve ever kept me waiting in an airport or on a runway. Let’s get this implemented planet wide, am I right?!)
Spirits high, our next stop was Gavalas Vineyard, which has been in the same Santorini family for more than 300 years. This was the most traditional of all the wineries we visited, with the barrels to back it up — the oldest dated back to 1863! They also maintained a traditional foot-stomping grape press, which we all took a tipsy turn goofing around in.
Again we sampled the winery’s finest offerings of traditional Santorini varietals — Assyrtiko, Nykteri and Vinsanto.
And now, I know what you’re thinking — Heather and I totally coordinated on purpose. But we didn’t, I swear. I mean, Heather didn’t anyway. She can’t help that I secretly wait to see what she’s wearing every morning so we can be twinsies!
Next up was a bonus stop — Stamatis asked is we wanted to make a quick detour to Santorini’s sole microbrewery, and we readily accepted. While I’m not a beer drinker myself, I had seen the Yellow Donkey logo around town and was curious to see the brewery behind the brand.
We did a quick mini-tasting here and despite my protests I ended up with a beer in my hand at one point and greatly amused the group with my attempts to make a polite face when I tasted it.
How things have changed!
Our final stop for the day, Gaia Wines, was in fierce competition with Boutari for my favorite, if for no other reason than its stunning seaside location. Literally everything tastes better with the breeze of the Aegean whipping by.
photos courtesy of Heather Holt
And for the twelfth and final time that day, we clicked our glasses and called out a hearty cry of “Yiamas!” — cheers, in Greek.
Yet we were toasting to how amazing this tour was for long after the buzz wore off. From the fascinating Akrotiri to the fabulous wineries to our incredibly knowledgeable guides to the unbelievable customer service when something went wrong, I tip my hat — or my glass, rather — to this tour. In fact, I’d say it competes with the Brussels Chocolate Tour for my favorite Viator experience of all time (and yes, feel free to not point out that both of those tours involve consuming calories).
Yiamas indeed! Would you trade beach time for a Santorini wine tour?
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