A sailing trip around the Greek Islands
- Wednesday 1 April 2009
Look at the map of the Aegean Sea on the opposite page. To the east, Turkey; to the west, mainland Greece and the Peloponnese; to the north, the coastline of Maronia; and to the south, Crete, the largest of this unique island microcosm.
We are in the heart of the eastern Mediterranean, where successive influences threw something into the funnel to give birth to Europe’s richest culture. The sheer number of islands in the Aegean is bewildering. Just theCyclades comprise 220, of which 21 are pre-eminent. One thing in common, bonding all these mountain tops and the odd volcano protruding out of cobalt blue sea, is the whipping north wind, the Meltemi.
It also acts as nature’s thermostat, cooling vineyards which stubbornly cling to several islands, notably on Paros and Santorini.
Gone with the wind
It was the Phoenicians who taught Greeks shipping and the art of trade throughout the Mediterranean. Today, sailboat is the best way to experience these islands. Seasoned sailors may cynically refer to the Ionian Sea and its gentle weather patterns as a ‘mere lake’, but riding on the tail of the Meltemi wind, the Aegean offers great sailing opportunities. Paros, home to more than just whitewashed Cycladic architecture, is one of the top spots, popular with wind surfers and kite-surfers.
Leaving thepicturesque port of Naoussa, head for the beautiful, 16th century Agios Ioannis Kaparos monastery, set among 600m-high terraces of meticulously farmed bush vines and enjoying great views of the neighbouring island of Naxos. Of the numerous grape varieties here, three stand out: the white Monemvasia and Assyrtiko, and the red (and tannic) Mandelaria.
Monemvasia is fruity and smoky; Assyrtiko has a mineral edge and high acidity. In the 19th century, French merchants sourced Mandelaria as a blending booster for the light-coloured red wines when phylloxera struck havoc in the French vineyard. Nowadays, with modern farming practices and microoxygenation, a more modern and softer profile has been given to one of the oldest recorded names of the 400-odd native grapes in Greece’s fragmented vineyard.
On the outskirts of Naoussa lies the Moraitis winery, managed by Manolis Moraitis and his son Theodore. Theodore, a trained oenologist in his 30s, has moved this leading organically farmed estate (founded in 1910) into the 21st century.
Stand-out wines include the floral and crisp Monemvasia- Assyrtiko blend; the Paros Reserve, a caskaged, gutsy, tannic Mandelaria; and the rare Liastos Moraiti, a dessert wine made by picking overripe Monemvasia grapes in early October and then sun-drying them.
The island’s inland hillsides hold other surprises. The drive to Lefkes may be twisty, but the village and its commanding views are some of the prettiest in the entire archipelago. What is striking here is a rare (in the Aegean) verdant natural amphitheatre, courtesy of water springs.
Some bright spark has even converted a local hotel to offer free accommodation to foreign visiting writers inspired by the island’s history and colour. Another attraction worth visiting is the forest above Parikia, where hundreds of butterflies replicate leaf patterns on their wings, imitating nature as a form of self-defence. And no island visit would be complete without a swim. The beaches near Kolimbithres are the finest.
South to Santorini
With the Meltemi filling your sail due south, head for Santorini. If you are lucky,
you may see dolphins playfully cutting across your bow. Sailing into the crescentshaped
caldera, you are facing an openair geological museum. In 1614BC, thevolcano erupted, with the ensuing tsunami destroying the Minoan palace, 70 miles south, on Crete. (Reassuringly, experts predict the next major eruption is set for 20,000 years time.)
Thira, as the island is also known, is prized for its baby tomatoes, small white aubergines and fava beans. Dry-farmed in the volcanic, sandy soils, they are bursting with strong, earthy flavours. Caper leaves in brine is another local speciality you may find garnishing fava puree or atop a goat’s-cheese salad.
Santorini has been famous for its wine since the 14th century: Venetian galleys
shipped the local version of the sweet Vin Santo (Vino da Santorini) from the port of
Santa Irini, hence the island’s name today. With an average ungrafted vine age of 85 years (some reach 150), the indigenous Assyrtiko grapes and the sandy, volcanic topsoil are responsible for these unique wines.
To resist winds that can reach 40km/h, an ingenious pruning method was devised, where the vines, over time, take on a ground-hugging, wicker basket shape. Although some ‘Vin Santo’ is still made by sun-drying grapes on terraces, today’s Santorini wines are predominantly bone-dry, terroir-laden whites. At Canava Argyros, Mathew Argyros and his sister Lila farm some of the finest vineyards sites on Santorini.
It’s rare to have a pure Aidani, but this aromatic, smoky floral white is not to be missed. The winery, which has been running since 1903, has the island’s oldest, most important reserves of cask-aged ‘Vin Santo’. The 1989 is the ‘current’ vintage – a dark amber elixir concentrated with honey and raisins, and the island’s telltale searing acidity.
The modern Boutari winery, built in 1989, was the first in Greece to promote wine tourism. The tour includes an impressive audio-visual show and the chance to try local dishes matched with Boutari wines. Try Kallisti, an almondy, floral, cask-fermented Assyrtiko that has the stamina to age, when it takes on Riesling like petrol notes.
Haridimos Hatzidakis started his tiny organic winery in 1997. For a softer side of Santorini’s bone-dry examples, his Aidani-Assyrtiko is a great aperitif. The later-harvested Assyrtiko, Nikteri, (15% alcohol) is the island’s most terroirdriven wine. He also makes a Vin Santo and Mavrotragano-Mandilaria red blend. Gaia is the island’s most modern winery. Founded in 1994, it’s housed in a lovely stone building leading on to a black, volcanic beach.
Contrast the honeysuckle and mineral Assyrtiko Thalassitis, one of the island’s most exported wines, with the Europeanstyle, French oak-fermented version. Ex-maths teacher and self-taught winemaker Paris Sigalas makes distinctly different, polished wines. His French barrel-fermented Assyrtiko, aged sur lie for eight months, is seamless and the finest of its kind.
He is also at the forefront of experimentation with local reds Mandilaria and Mavrotragano
Beyond wine, what else is there to see? The museum in Fira is a must for a history on the Minoan culture, then seeit for yourself at Akrotiri, where the 3,500-year-old town has been excavated from the volcanic ash. Sailing around the caldera is a breathtaking experience – you can even take a swim in the sulphur springs on Nea Kameni, a volcanic lava islet some say is the fabled Lost City of Atlantis.
Then, turn your sail to the wind and head off into the sunset, on to your next Greek island odyssey.