by Wojciech Bońkowski MW

The Desert Island Wine

Thirassiá covers nine square kilometres and is the Siamese twin of Santorini. The two islands were separated by a catastrophic volcanic eruption in the 17th century BC. Thirassiá looks exactly like Santorini: a crescent-shaped chunk of caldera dropping precipitously to the Aegean Sea. Bare black rock covered by a thin layer of brown soil; prickly pears, figs, oregano, and vines, as well as a few dozen donkeys. I also saw snakes, falcons, and hares.

What you don’t see on Thirassiá is people. In high season, when Santorini is the busiest destination in all of Greece, with planes landing every five minutes and no change expected from €250 for a hotel room, Thirassiá has only two hundred residents. In the “capital”— the village of Manolás — there are three mini-markets, one garage and four cafés catering for those tourists who climb the 250 steep stairs from the small harbour at Korfos. There, under the cliff, there are four tavernas that open at noon and close at six, as they only feed day-trippers from Santorini. There are only 40 hospitality beds on Thirassiá: nine twin rooms (who’ve seen better days) run by Jimmy, a retired captain; three Airbnb suites accessed by code; and a few doubles in Riva, the tiny car ferry port opposite Oia on Santorini.

To be honest, there’s little to do on Thirassiá: no sights, no real beaches, and a couple of hiking paths. In the Kímisis monastery on the southern tip of the islet, two widows and a priest read the Bible at seven in the morning. Another monastery dedicated to the Prophet Elijah is abandoned, as is the church of Christ the King. In the Panagiá church in the village of Agriliá, an exhibition of marble sculptures by students of the Academy of Fine Arts in Athens is open from 8 pm to 10 pm. And that’s it.

In August last year, by a twist of fate, I spent a week on this island. The new Mikra Thira winery has  operated here for a year. Its founders, renowned winemakers Evángelos Gerovassilíou and Vassilis Tsaktsarlis, and Boutari’s former oenologist Ioanna Vamvakouri, talk with enthusiasm about the unprecedented opportunity to colonise a completely unknown terroir. The local wines can be labelled with the Santorini PDO, but according to Ioanna, Assýrtiko from Thirassiá has its own distinct personality: less aromatic but deeper and more concentrated. The Mikra Thira white label wine is made from Santorini grapes; it is lively, citrusy, mineral, spicy. Blue-label Terrasea uses grapes from Thirassiá exclusively; vintage 2020 is still thick with oak, waxy and sweet. The Nykteri is a blend of both islands; oaked, too, but fuller and deeper than Terrasea.

With the grape harvest imminent, I suspected I would be the last visitor for some time (and likely one of the very few anyway). Ioanna handed me the open bottles with a smile. Fifteen minutes after leaving, I silently thanked her as I browsed the dusty bottles of six-year-old table rosé in the local grocery store. During my lonely week on Thirassiá, I had something decent to drink. I sipped them slowly from a tumbler (Jimmy’s rooms have no Zalto glasses, sadly) sitting on the terrace overlooking the caldera, with the crazy meltemi wind toppling bottles and dragging umbrellas down the cliff. The salty moisture it carried from the sea is exactly the taste you find in all Santorini wines.

Professional tasters often find themselves scorned by so-called ordinary drinkers: how can you possibly evaluate a wine without even swallowing it? In reality, it’s like football scouts: watching a kid dribble and shoot for a minute or so is really enough; you don’t need the full 90 minutes. A well-trained taster will produce a similar assessment after the first and hundredth sip. Of course, it is quite a different experience to actually drink half a bottle: feel the texture on the palate multiple times, the alcoholic warmth, the evolution of aromas. A quick tasting is perceiving the wine in its basic gestalt; “session” drinking is experiencing its extended narrative; a photograph versus a movie. Other relationships are also possible: returning to the same bottle the next day, tasting the same wine again from a different bottle, after a month; different temperatures, stemware, food pairings, phases of the biodynamic calendar. Eventually, all these approaches to a wine will add up to its deeper cognition: you can then say about this particular Champagne or Bordeaux that you “know it very well.”

On Thirassia, however, something quite different happened to me. For a week, I just existed there with the three bottles of Mikra Thira. I had no distractions bar the occasional walk and no other interfering liquid flavours, apart from morning coffee. Iteration after iteration of the same; or was it? Every day, the sun rose at six o’clock, and when it moved over my windy terrace, I poured the wines successively into the very same tumbler.

The first afternoon was extremely hot, but Jimmy’s good old fridge did a stellar job: I sipped the mineral chill with real delight. On the second day, I ate figs foraged from a roadside tree, brimming with treacly sweetness but perhaps a little salty, too. A large sailing ship anchored in Korfos, and I watched from above as a few dozen Americans ate prawns in a taverna. I found the Terrasea too sweet again, but the Nykteri now sat comfortably in its peachy armchair and was pitch-perfect. On Thursday, I walked to the monastery then swam in the cool, shaded sea, returning to my terrace very thirsty indeed; the White Label was extremely appetizing in its lemony, salty simplicity. Friday was the day of melancholy; the meltemi eased for a while, as if the wind was telling me, I know how you feel. That day, I took a last sip of each of the wines, saying goodbye, as if to old friends.

I wouldn’t say my opinion about those wines changed. If I wrote a technical tasting note, it would pretty much echo my words and assessments of five days before. Yet something important happened. Unlike the thousands of wines I taste through the year, I really internalised those three Thirassiá wines. As we do with our favourite music, listened to hundreds of time until we no longer need to hear it from the loudspeakers: it lives inside us, resounds in our heads. We accompanied each other on this strange journey (through time, not space) until they became as familiar as worn-out shoes that the foot can’t even feel: an extension of the body. We grew into each other to become one — the wines and I.

Leave a Reply