Yet when Hatzidakis pulls up to his ramshackle winery - on Santorini’s west coast – in a battered truck, with unkempt hair and a stained shirt, he issues a preemptive warning. "We don’t often invite people to come here," he says.It soon becomes evident why. Aboveground, Hatzidakis Winery is a cluster of shacks with mismatched walls. Below, rank smells permeate a cave filled with a jumble of winemaking equipment.
Somehow, the 38-year-old Hatzidakis and his wife, Konstantina, manage to make 50,000 bottles a year of export-caliber wine in the semi-darkness. That includes nearly 5,000 bottles – the largest production by any winery – of the mysterious Mavrotragano, a red grape of unknown origin.
"There’s no DNA information on Mavrotragano at all," says Mihalis Boutaris, an American-trained viticulturist and winemaker who works with the Kiryianni and the Boutari wineries on research and development. "Scientifically, all we can really say is that here is a red wine from Santorini. Beyond that, we don’t know." Found sparingly on Santorini and nowhere else in the world, Mavrotragano had never been sold as a dry wine before Hatzidakis attempted it in 1999 with wine from the 1997 vintage.
Making a wine from such an untested commodity would be difficult enough in a modern winery. In this setting, Hatzidakis might as well be boiling a potion in a witches’ cauldron. Konstantina shrugs. "Two crazy people," she says. "But we started without money. What could we do?"
Yet since the 1997 vintage, when Hatzidakis’ experiment began, Mavrotragano has managed to attract interest from around the world. After tasting the wine’s singular flavor, with notes of Nebbiolo and Pinot Noir but an essence all its own, the Italian Slow Food organization officially recognized the grape as worthy of protection. Enologists and journalists have made pilgrimages to the dank cave. "It’s definitely the buzzword in Greece," says Boutaris.
And on the island, which has heretofore been known only for white wines, it has helped to start a trend. "Now everyone has started to plant Mavrotragano," says Paris Sigalas, who was one of the first. A renowned enologist with far better distribution for his wines than Hatzidakis has, his sanction helped validate the Mavrotragano movement.
On the northeast corner of Santorini, where the island retains an austere beauty, Sigalas sits on his patio, surrounded by a vineyard of experimental Mavrotragano. His vines are planted not close to the ground in a nest or basket formation as is usual on the island, but upright, attached to posts. "I don’t think the traditional way is the best way to grow red grapes," he says.
Sigalas experimented with sweet Mavrotragano as early as 1982. Since 1998, he has been producing small quantities of dry wine from the grape. The vines in his own vineyard only started to produce grapes last year, so he’s had to source his fruit in tiny lots from among nearly 1,000 vineyards owned by individual farmers around the island. That mitigates any possibility of sense of place showing through, and leaves him at the mercy of growers who may be more interested in volume than quality. Nevertheless, he can sense the possibilities inherent in the variety. "Even though we collect grapes from here and there, we can see that we can make a very interesting wine," he says Between them, Hatzidakis and Sigalas have turned this small resort island with centuries of white wine tradition into a fascinating laboratory for an heirloom grape. To do it, they’ve had to challenge not just tradition, but the laws of nature and economics.