Chasing the Santorini Wine Trail

Barrels of wine at the Volcan Wine Museum

We started the day off without much of an agenda save for picking up a new ATV to explore the island with at our leisure.  That plan, however, almost fell to pieces when we called for a rental in the morning only to find that every one of the four rental companies in Oia was already sold out.  Oia being a smaller town, it didn’t have nearly the supply that Fira had.  Apparently, we were told, Americans love ATV’s and there was an abnormally high amount of Americans visiting the island at that time of year.  Hmm.  I guess we were no different.  Determined, we walked around to the agencies to try our luck, in case someone returned theirs early.  And we actually got lucky!  Someone was just returning their ATV so we snagged it, and off we went.

Our first stop was to the black beaches at Perissa, which featured a long stretch of gray sand beach offering watersports and a slew of beachside tavernas with umbrellas.  We found a nice pair of lounge chairs and ordered a round of Santorini Donkey beers to enjoy in between dips in the water.  The water was nice, but getting to the water, and walking along the beach were difficult given how hot the black sand got from the sun.  Once you got to the water though, ahhhh…

Black sand beaches of Perissa
Enjoying a pair of Santorini Donkeys on the beach

Now that we had a better idea of where Santorini Brewing Company was located, we zipped on over and found it without a problem in the village of Meso Gonia.  A relatively small brewery, we were the only visitors when we arrived and basically got a private tasting.  The only brewery on the island, SBC specialized in unfiltered, unpasteurized beers which tasted extra fresh, but also could only stand to be outside refrigeration for 30 minutes.  We tried three beers, all named as an homage to the donkeys indigenous to the island: Yellow Donkey (a citrusy IPA), Red Donkey (kind of like a Belgian wheat), and Crazy Donkey (a true IPA).  After touring their facilities and picking up a pint glass for our collection, we decided to buy a bottle of their White Donkey (white wheat beer) and Slow Donkey (slow-brewed IPA).  Unfortunately, due to the unpasteurized nature of the beer, it didn’t stand a chance of lasting as we stayed out in the sun for a few more hours and even tried traveling to Crete with it!  Oops.

Santorini Brewing Company, home of multiple “Donkey” beers.  Apparently they do distribute in North America, including a few restaurants in NYC, so we’ll have to keep an eye out for them.
Self-guided tour inside their brewing facilities.  We scored a Slow Donkey and White Donkey beer to take with us but they went bad before we could enjoy them.

By this point, I was feeling more confident on the ATV so Doug let me practice a little in the parking lot before I drove us down the street to the Volcan Wine Museum (also known as the Koutsoyannopoulis Wine Museum).  Built next to the island’s oldest winery, the wine museum was a 21 year labor of love built and run by the Koutsoyannopoulis family to honor their heritage. The winery was actually built in an underground cave, so we descended 8 meters below ground and were transported into a world of mechanical figures reenacting the winemaking process, kind of like a Disneyworld for winos.  The story of winemaking on Santorini began when the two Koutsoyannopoulis brothers got lost en route to another island and shipwrecked in the 1800’s.  Having ended up on Santorini instead, they got their feet wet in the trade industry and quickly got into the emerging wine business.  They introduced and developed a number of practices that today’s wineries on the island still employ, and these were brought to life with animated characters depicting harvesting, storage, transportation, stomping, and pressing.  The tour was really informative as the museum provided headsets for a self-guided audio tour in a number of languages.  After the tour was finished, we had a chance to taste some of the wines at the tasting room, where the self-guided tour continued, instructing us about the history and composition of the wine and what each goes best with.  We tasted four wines in total: Assyrtiko (white), Ampelones (red), Kamaritis dessert wine, and vin santo dessert wine.  We actually tasted more than that, as they hooked us up with a few tastings of raki, a local aperitif similar to grappa.  They were all delicious but given the challenges of hauling all of this back home, and first across a few more islands, we decided to walk out with only the Kamaritis as it was what the winery and island were best known for.

Various grape varietals used in Greek wines
Each stop during the tour was a recreation of a step in the winemaking process.  Here, bushels of grapes are poured into wooden troughs as they are harvested.
Doug decided to jump in and help the wine makers by pushing troughs of grapes.  REAL helpful, this guy.
Kamaritis dessert wine, a sweet wine typical of the region, perfect for pairing with chocolate.  We took a bottle home with us.

By this time, it was nearly 6pm and therefore time to find a spot to observe our daily ritual of watching the sunset.  Having watched from Oia once already, we didn’t see the need to fight the crowds a second day in a row.  So we drove over to the famed Santo Winery, an absolute stunner perched atop the cliffs, near Athinios port.  They had the perfect setup to enjoy the view, as they had an enormous terrace overlooking the sea and offered various quantities of wine tastings (4, 6, 12, and 18) that they would leave at the table to consume at your leisure.  In an attempt to be responsible, we only ordered the tasting of 6, along with the Santo taste mini platter that featured local products: Greek cheese, olives, tomato dip, fava, and crunchy bread.  The winery also had a huge shop, so we stopped inside to buy our requisite wine glass, as well as a jar of koufeto, a traditional Greek dessert for newlyweds comprised of almonds in honey (a symbol for marital bliss).

One of the reasons we didn’t order more to drink at Santo was 1) we had to drive back and 2) once the sun sets, it gets dark FAST.  The thought alone of driving an ATV on unlit cliffside roads was enough for us to hit the road nearly immediately after the sun went down.  It actually was quite the thrilling ride, with the salty wind hitting your face, cruising around each bend…and sometimes getting an extra windy jolt from the tour buses making their mass exodus from Oia.

Another epic sunset, this time from the west coast of Santorini
The terrace at Santo Winery

We had dinner tonight at Ambrosia, the second of two highly recommended restaurants in Oia.  Once again, Astra Suites hooked us up right with a key reservation and a table by the edge, directly overlooking the caldera and houses below.  Easily the most romantic restaurant in Santorini, eating at Ambrosia meant dining under the stars, at tables covered in stark white tablecloths and tapered candles, and divinely rich cuisine. To start with, we shared the shrimp in mastic (pine resin, but it actually tasted like marsala wine) sauce, served inside an avocado.  For our entrees, I had the seafood linguine with mussels, scallops, and shrimp, while Doug had lamb cutlets in a red grape sauce with nutmeg potato puree.  Yet again, we were too full for dessert, but had to keep trying amazing dishes at amazing restaurants.  So we ordered the traditional Greek dessert – I honestly don’t remember what was in it, but I remember enjoying it…I think it was flaky pastry with some kind of mousse or cream.

Shrimp in avocado in mastic sauce
Homemade seafood linguine
Lamb chops
View of Oia at night from our dinner table

Sadly, our stay in Santorini was coming to an end, but we had one more must-do on our last night in Oia.  My coworker Melissa told me about Santorini Mou, a fun bar she and her husband visited during their honeymoon that we had to check out.  She didn’t steer us wrong with her recommendation of Lucky’s Gyros, so we felt we owed it to her to check this place out too.  It was an outdoor bar, with live entertainment by the owner, welcoming guests from all over the world by assigning flags of their countries to place on each table.  But the unique part of the bar is that they have pictures of their guests strung all over the restaurant, and albums upon albums of guest books, filled with signed pictures of every guest that makes the request.  Which makes sense because the sign outside read “Thank you for your smile.”  We had to give them the month and year of Melissa and Steve’s visit, they came back out with a few albums (I, in all honesty, forgot which month so they had to bring out multiple albums), and we flipped through page after page until we finally found them.  That earned us a pic and a page in their September 2016 album.  So to all those who are reading this and planning a trip to Santorini…look us up!  🙂

Left a note for our friend Melissa and her husband Steve…come look us up at Santorini Mou in the September 2016 issue of their book and make your own place in history!
NOT the pic we took for the album

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