A toast to Dionysus

Though not famed in mainstream circles, a trip to Santorini showed us the Greeks produce more than just Ouzo.

Though not famed in mainstream circles, a trip to Santorini showed us the Greeks produce more than just Ouzo.

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Three weeks anywhere barely allows a visitor to scratch the surface of any new destination, but when Greece came up as a next destination, there was no doubt we would undoubtedly have to start with the country’s main draws – heritage Athens, famed islands, and of course, its delicious Mediterranean food and drink.

Athens for beginners

A week in Athens was sufficient for us to find our bearings and get acclimatized to the sheer antiquity of the culture. The Acropolis, however crowded, was definitely worth a sunny afternoon strolling around. In my past traveling experiences, visiting ruins without any prior knowledge or knowing what to look for wasn’t very gratifying – crumbling architecture without backstories are just that. I convinced my travel partner to join me in a crash course at the Acropolis Museum, diligently reading up on the history of the region and description of the excavated finds.  Armed with new knowledge, we made our way to the renowned world heritage site. I must admit, walking up to the Parthenon, I wasn’t impressed any more than I was when seeing it elevated on the outcrop pedestal from various locations around the city. What I wasn’t expecting, however, was the enormity of the structures up close. It was, cheesy as it may sound, a real honour to experience a significant milestone in mankind’s history.

A true taste of Greece

After spending time in the Greek capital, we flew out to the islands, with the first stop at Lesbos (also known as Lesvos or by its capital city name of Mytilene), an East Aegean island considered to be the origins of the (strong) aperitif Ouzo. As with monuments, a drink with no back story is just a good way to kick start a fun evening out, so we looked into the origins of the anise-flavored drink. The pre-decendent of Ouzo traces its origins back to one of 20 Eastern Orthodox monasteries in the Macedonia holy state of Mount Athos. At the working distillery-cum-museum of Barbayannis Ouzo Museum, we learned about the traditional distillation methods using copper stills and aniseeds grown on the island’s fields. A sip or two to try out their produce and a few bottles of the national beverage purchased as souvenirs later, we spent the rest of the day relaxing in Thermi, a step back into time with narrow cobblestoned roads and massive ancient trees, with attractions including the geothermal hot springs.

Olympian tales

My partner, the bigger drinker between us, wasn’t too keen to visit wine estates when we arrived at the island of Santorini a few days later, claiming “Greek wine isn’t that good”. Undeterred, I presented to him 2 good reasons why we should give Greek wine a chance, betting on the fact that the more one knows, the more one understands, which then leads to natural interest. My first point was the famous god of wine, Dionysus – if wine wasn’t a big deal in Greece, surely there wouldn’t be a deity designated to the drink of the gods. Known as Bacchus to the Romans, he was also the god of ecstasy and ritual madness, both traits which are easy to associate with good wine drinking. Different legends tell varying tales of his mysterious “re-birth”, all of which recall interruptions of some sort in his fetal development but all agree that he was sewn onto the thigh of his father – none other than the Olympian god Zeus himself – before being ‘born’ for the second time. We needed a drink just to soothe our minds kicking into overdrive, trying to imagine this strange flow of events.

Another ‘did you know’ fact I found out while flipping through the reference books nonchalantly scattered around our hotel’s business centre was that Greece has been producing wine for over 6 millennia, with ancient grape skin and pip remnants found in Eastern Macedonia less than a decade ago. Whether it was my partner tiring of my ‘did you know’ exclamations or the fact that he was done catching up with emails, I finally succeeded in convincing him join me on wine tasting tour. We shortlisted a few potential local tour operators from the internet, and then consulted with the hotel concierge. He suggested we go with Santorini Wine Tours, known for their personal service and favorable customer feedback.

Enjoying the Grecian grape

We opted for the private day tour around the island that combines an island sightseeing tour as well as visits to wineries. Santorini is as picturesque as it looks on the postcards – low whitewashed buildings perched on the caldera slopes, a sea of white peppered with vibrant roofs against the backdrop of the blue sea. We stopped off at 2 different wineries, with sommelier Vaios personally showing us around and sharing with us his vast knowledge of all things grape. Vaios is also the owner of the tour company, but we got the feeling that his enthusiasm is not only because he has a vested interest in keeping his clients happy, he is a genuine character, sincerely passionate and knowledgeable about his trade, and more than happy to share pointers and anecdotes about Santorini as a whole.

The wine was surprisingly good, but when travelling, it’s always the warmth of the people that really makes (or breaks) a holiday. The first and only organized tour we took in Santorini was memorable to say the least. We spent the rest of our vacation sailing and lounging seaside, enjoying Mediterranean cuisine washed down with Greek wine. Ever since, we’ve never looked at Greek wine the same way again, raising out glasses with a “stin iyia mas”, a toast to our health and to the tour guide that opened our eyes.

The Greek Wine Federation (http://greekwinefederation.gr) lists 27 Appellation of Origin wines, with the majority 7 found in the ‘Aegean Islands’, including:

  • V.Q.P.R.D. Limnos
  • V.Q.P.R.D. Muscat of Limnos
  • V.Q.P.R.D. Samos
  • V.Q.P.R.D. Santorini
  • V.Q.P.R.D. Paros
  • V.Q.P.R.D. Rodos
  • V.Q.P.R.D. Muscat of Rodos
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