This wine will stay the same
It is 500 years since Venice lost Santorini yet echoes of La Serenissima such as vendéma(Italian vendemnia) and other hellenized wine terms continue to pepper daily life. By 1900 Vinsanto exports to Tsarist Russia were at an all time high. For an island with no trees such was the demand of casks that 9 coopers were alone in Megalochori. In the shipyards casks were made in the hundreds. Oia captained boats traded luscious Vinsanto with Black Sea ports such as Odesssa and Taganrok. They would return with grain and wood for more casks destined for their one way transport. Push a door in any abandoned ruin dating the 1956 earthquake you will find old dusted casks covered in webs. Testaments of professions now gone, such as travetzaristis, whose role was of unquestionable integrity in measuring with a sekio quantity and then transporting. The Vinsanto market collapsed within 3 years after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. According to the 1945 tax returns there were 2,700 hectares of vines. By 1950 demand had switched for in bulk dry Santorini. It was popular in Syros the richer through shipping administrative capital of the Cyclades and ever growing Pireaus where many Santoriniotes settled. That is how things were before today’s chilling chambers dotted amongst rental rooms. Current vineyards stand at 1,200 hectares though there are difficult to access plots now lying abandoned. Actual production is less than acreage suggests.
A Santorini family living off tourism asked me to visit their renovated canava now part of a boutique hotel. In local dialect it means storage space usually an independent underground cellar or attached to a large by local standards size house. As we entered from a backstreet of Oia in the shade were several demijohns of Vinsanto. It was custom that this dessert wine was part of a dowry. The vintage was 1895. It was practise to transfer it to a demijohn after 55 years as they found it did not improve further in wood. There is something about islands and their relation to time switching into lower gear, amongst others, perhaps the greatest wines of all Madeira. The old joke that there is more wine on Santorini than water held good until the 1970’s. Today’s tourism and building density matches sprawling Athens coefficient. It is a sad state of affairs with no end in sight. As a gesture of appreciation for my wine crusade and for the Santorini profile in my The Greek Wine Guide(1996) they drew a half bottle. The custodian of this cachet was a cranky character. He was beaming with pride while I was chuffed by this initiative looking around their now minimalist stylish canava. These walls have much to say dripping with sweat equity of all night nykteri shifts. There was an eerie silence as I walked out in the blazing sun with my gifted thick as blackstrap molasses bottle in my hands.
As this rare chance was not going to be repeated I drew a short list who to share with. Their stories transcend as they are treasured memories of the relationship of liquid history and it’s significance to life. I took the precious gift to a friend in Geneva who is no longer with us. A gifted eccentric whose nick name was Tournessol, a character from the Tintin books. As we had some straight from the vat old vine Chasselas he dissappeared through a door. One never knew what he was up to. We usually talked about new wine books as he was a reviewer for Paris based OIV(Office International du Vin) book awards. As the door flung open there was no tome carrying professor instead he pushed in a wheel chair his mother. Her stare was blank there was no outward sign that she was with us. Then Pierre took a teaspoon of the Vinsanto and said to her. ‘ Come on mother it is not everyday that you will taste a wine older than you. ” It was a touching scene, there was a man in his sixties with their caring roles reversed. For a fleeting moment time stood still in this Swiss farmhouse. The rest was taken to the London Wine Trade Fair. Along came a leading wine writer. She tasted and found it tasted of coconut, it is mentioned in her biography. Then an unexpected visitor turned up, a chemist named Taylor, his laboratory was happy to add to his database a Greek wine as he had none. Not long after a splendid fax arrived: 2,9 %ABV, 410grs/litre of residual sugar and 14,2grs/litre acidity in tartaric. A thank you note indicated that old wines had such indices, he also mentioned ‘ we all would have moved on and this wine will stay the same’.