The sweet oenological treasures of Santorini

«May your luck and fate run sweetly and the barrels we drink always be full.» I chose this verse from the Cretan comedy «Stathis,» written circa 1604 by Georgios Hortatis, because Stathis was a Cypriot merchant who had settled in Crete and this column’s investigation of ways of making Malvasia travels via Cyprus back to Crete. Sun-drying The following information comes from Georgios Venetsanos, a chemist and oenologist since 1938, vineyard owner and winemaker of Santorini. In his book, now in print, he describes the traditional method of making Vinsanto, the sun-dried wine of his island. The grapes to be used in making the wine are harvested when they are fully ripe and even, if possible, overripe. When space is available, the grapes are spread out in the sun, not on terraces, but preferably on the volcanic soil which has the property of absorbing overnight moisture and drying easily. That is how they stop the grapes from growing mold which harms the quality of wine from sun-dried grapes. Depending on the amount of sunshine and the degree of sweetness of the wine you want to make, you would leave the grapes out for eight, 10 or 15 days, so that less or more water evaporates from their juice and the sugar becomes concentrated. When the grapes have dried as much as each producer wants, «they gather them at midday, in the sunshine – never in the morning – so that the wine acquires a stronger fragrance.» The Byzantine text Geoponica describes how sun-dried grapes were collected in Vithynia in those days: «They spread them out in the sun till they dried. Then they took them while they were still warm to the press, where they left them for the rest of the day and night, and trampled them in the morning.» They gathered them while still warm, so they didn’t collect them in the morning when they still were damp from the night, otherwise, being heaped up in the press, they they would develop mildew, which damages the aroma of the wine. And they left them on the press all night so their temperature would fall. They trampled them in the morning while it was still cool, because must ferments better when the temperature is not very high. What an experience. And we can find the method intact in village winemaking 20 centuries on, because the Therans – who were renamed Santorinians during the time of Venetian rule – never stopped making their very sweet wine – Theraian wine – which was renamed at the same time as Vinsanto. How can I not surmise that the Monemvasians used the same method for Monemvasia-Malvasia wine? As their location is close to Monemvasia on the way to Crete. «For one kilo of Vinsanto, the sun-dried grapes were collected when the must was about 25 degrees Baume, i.e. when their concentrated juice contained about 500 grams of sugar per liter, and they were trampled three times in the press. Some canaves (places carved out of the volcanic soil for the making and storage of wine) which made a high-alcohol Vinsanto every year had a special wooden mallet to pound the grapes in the press, because the sun-dried grapes had almost turned to raisins, and couldn’t be broken by trampling. «In the barrel, fermentation began after four to six days. Depending on the conditions of fermentation and the amount of sugar in the must, it continued till it reached a certain grade then stopped. If the temperature and other factors favored the development of yeast, then the yeast would dissolve more sugar and form more alcohol. When they stopped acting, the wines had different degrees of sweetness. This explains why village-made sweet wines produced by the vine-growers themselves, and not under scientific conditions, did not have a standard sugar-alcohol ratio.» 22 groups Let’s look at the exact numbers. The tireless Venetsanos has counted and calculated the sugar and alcohol in many sweet wines from Santorini and sorted them into 22 groups. This is the data I refer to as an oenological treasure, because it sheds light on the the production of wines from sun-dried grapes during that long period from antiquity till the 19th century when there was no way to measure the composition of must and wine. I have prepared a table based on average figures for some of the wines in Venetsanos’s groups. Predictably, the higher the grade of the must (Column 1), the more sugar it contains (Column 2). But some other figures are surprising. We know that with dry wine made from the juice of fresh grapes, the higher the grade, the more alcohol it contains, yet the reverse applies to sweet wine. There, the higher the grade of must (Column 1), the lower the level of alcohol (Column 3), in other words, the more sugar remains unfermented (Column 6), and therefore the sweeter the wine. This occurs because a lot of sugar combined with alcohol makes it difficult for the yeast to multiply and ferment the sugar. When the grapes have dried up so much in the sun that the must has a grade as high as 30 on the Baume scale (Column 1), the alcohol will not be higher than one to two degrees (Column 3). When the grade is 34 Baume and higher, the must will remain unfermented. And this explains why, in antiquity and the Middle Ages, poets and other writers used adjectives connoting extreme sweetness of taste – «honey-sweet,» «nectar-dripping,» «completely sweet» – to describe wines with names of geographical origin – Chios, Thasios, Lesvios, Theraias. Monemvasios, Commandaria and Vinsanto. These were the wines that could be stored and which lasted; these were the wines that traveled the seas without fermenting again or turning into vinegar. Their stability was due to the fact that they were such dense solutions of sugar that yeast and bacteria could not act to change their taste. As the table shows, these extremely sweet wines were low in alcohol, two to three degrees at the most, like contemporary Commandaria and Vinsanto.