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Gavalas Winery - If you ever find yourself in Santorini

Monday, September 26, 2011
Gavalas winery, in Megalochori, Santorini, was literally a 2 minute walk away from the Resort we stayed at for our honeymoon, the Vedema Resort (which was originally a 400 year old winery itself)! The wine tasting experience was completely different from the Napa experience. First of all, Gavalas was open until 7:00 pm, which I thought was incredible since most Napa
wineries close at 4:30 or 5:00 pm (I later realized that many of the wineries on Santorini close as late as 10:00 pm - I love Euro hours)! This made for the perfect pre-dinner activity; who can resist happy hour at a winery? We were able to walk in without a reservation, and receive a wonderful complimentary private guided tour of the winery followed by tasting of whichever wines we wanted (each taste cost roughly a dollar).

Gavalas is a small family owned winery, but still produces wonderful wines from the indigenous varietals found in Santorini. Up until the
1920ʼs the family produced wines from grapes grown in their privately-owned vineyards and vinted in their winery (canava) in Megalochori.
This production was mainly distributed to customers throughout
the island of Santorini as well as being exported to the city of Alexandria, in Egypt.

However, the Vinsanto wine was obtained by the churches and monasteries for Sacramental use. In 1973 the Gavalas family established its own wine store in Athens which handled exclusively the sales and distribution, throughout Greece, of the main wines of Santorini: Nyhteri, Brusco, Mezzo, Mandilaria and Vinsanto. They also now distribute to the United States.

Margarita, who was single-handedly running the tasting room when we arrived, took us on a tour and explained to us what makes the wines of Santorini unique. My first question was: Why are the vineyards pruned the way they are -(they looked like bramblebushes they were so low to the ground and lacked any form of trellace-ing). It turns out, the summer winds on Santorini can be very powerful, so the vitners weave the grape vine branches into a nest-like circle and the grapes mature in
the center of this "cyllindrical form" which is protected from the wind. The Santorini soil is layered and composed of limestone covered by a mixture of chalk, slate, ash, lava and pumice. The limited rainfall combined with the strong winds in the summer result in a low yield of grapes, thus providing an outstanding quality for the Santorini wines. During the summer months, the vines are "watered" at night by the mist rolling in from the sea, creating a kind of gentle artificial rain. This leads to nice crisp acidic white wines that pair beautifully with fresh seafood.
The three wines I’ll focus on are the Santorini, the Nikteri, and the Vinsanto. The Santorini is a light, dry white wine that is crisp and compares to a pinot grigio in body,fruit and acidity. It is a blend of Assyrtiko and Aidani wine (10%) and since the grapes on Santorini were never affected by phylloxera, the grapes are grown on original stock. The wines are harvested by hand, and only 25% of the juice is extracted, then aged for 6 months in stainless steel barrels. The result is a most distinctive dry, white wine possessing VQPRD status, 13.5% alcohol. This wine gives off notes of pear, lemon and pineapple and has nice body and aftertaste. It’s ideal for seafood, or light meat and light cheese.

The Nikteri is a white wine made from Assyrtiko grapes. It differs from the Santorini because after fermentation it is aged for six months in an oak barrel before being bottled giving it a richness and more body (comparable to a Chardonnay). The Nikerti gets its name from the word “nikta” which means night, because the grapes are harvested at night to slow fermentation and allow deeper flavors to develop. It has heartier notes of red apple and pears and a hint of jasmine on the nose, and is full bodied with a long finish and 10% alcohol. It pairs well grilled meat, spicy food, white meats and oily fish.

The Vinsanto is the most famous nectar of Santorini, produced from the native grape varieties of Assyrtiko, Athiri and Aidani. The wine has VQPRD status and only when produced in Santorini can it be designated
the name “Vinsanto”. When made anywhere else, it is labeled “Vin Santo” (space between the word). The grapes are harvested the first week of September and are then carefully picked and are sun-dried on terraces for approximately 10-15 days which “raisin-ates” them, giving them a high sugar content. The vinification is then carried out using traditional techniques that the Gavalas family has been using for 4 generations, which includes stomping on the grapes and allowing the free run juice to be captured while the grape skins are caught in a woven basket (it’s that rustic!). After the grape juice is collected, it sits in Russian Oak barrels for a minimum 2 years (although the longer it ages the better). The Gavalos do not fortify it with alcohol or "top off" with additional wine or a dosage. Vinsanto
can age for 80 years and turns brown but tastes richer and better as time passes. The Vinsanto has cake-like flavors like baked fig and dried fruit and we also tasted caramel chocolate, tobacco and honey. Vinsanto is best enjoyed as a dessert wine and is also used to fill the chalices of churches and monasteries.

The Gavallas family produces only 1 barrel (3,000 bottles) of Vinsanto per year, but it is worth it to get your hands on one of these authentic dessert wines. To find out information for a distributor near you, you can email: info@gavalaswines.gr

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