Why, I wonder, is there enthusiasm to grow wine grapes in extraordinarily inhospitable conditions?

Perhaps the most extreme example is Chile's Atacama Desert, where not only is there no water, but the soil is thick with salt. Nearer home, the Greek island of Santorini also comes into the vine-unfriendly category.

Yet this hot, dry volcanic relic in the Aegean Sea, where vines are twined into basket shapes to protect their fruit from wind and sun, is an increasingly go-to place for stylish white wines.Ham & High: Inhospitable growing conditions on the island mean vines are twined into basket shapes to protect their fruit from wind and sun.Inhospitable growing conditions on the island mean vines are twined into basket shapes to protect their fruit from wind and sun. (Image: Wines of Santorini)

With low yields, high production costs - and fashion - prices are high. These certainly aren't wines that you'll think of buying to go with weekday fish and chips.

The crucial question is: are they worth the cost? To judge by my own smiling face, and those of some wine-savvy friends, the answer is yes, albeit for special occasions. They're predominantly from the assyrtiko grape, sometimes reinforced with a little athiri and aidani - especially in the nykteri style, where compulsory barrel-ageing adds extra texture.

Scientists often scoff at the suggestion that you can taste the soil in wines, but in examples like these I beg to disagree. There's a stony element alongside the fresh citric character, plus a saline/iodine edge from sea mist that envelops the grapes. Add in the vines' antiquity - many predate the phylloxera scourge - and all these factors create unique wines.Ham & High: Harvest on SantoriniHarvest on Santorini (Image: Santo Wines)

Beside these very dry, super-complex whites, with their long, refreshing, mouth-watering flavours, is something else: the original vinsanto (the argument is that the name indicates a product of Santorini and has nothing to do with holiness or Tuscan sweet wine).

This is a deeply concentrated red-brown liquid, sweet yet retaining that mineral/citrus edge. It's the result of long, long maturing of wines made from sun-dried grapes, and remains rich in sugar even after fermentation brings alcohol levels to around 13 per cent.

Its history is rich, too - harking back to the time when Venice ruled the island and such sweet wines survived long voyages around the Mediterranean.

For the Santorini experience, seek out specialist suppliers. One is maltbyandgreek.com, whose choice includes deliciously memorable Santo Nykteri (£29.50) and classic, intense, pure assyrtiko Sigalas Santorini (£35).

Or head to a local Amathus shop or amathusdrinks.com for Karamolegos Piritis (£45), as seriously impressive as its price implies.Ham & High: Tenuta Fertuna Dropello is a Tuscan whiteTenuta Fertuna Dropello is a Tuscan white (Image: Courtesy of the producer)

Before some suggestions of more conventional wines, here's another unusual and delightfully mineral-crisp white treat, from the Tuscan coast. Tenuta Fertuna Dropello (£17.30-£18, georgehill.co.uk, satchellswines.com) is organically grown red sangiovese vinified white, producing a delicate, brightly flavoured wine perfect for lovers of chablis.Ham & High: Kalfu Sumpai sauvignon blancKalfu Sumpai sauvignon blanc (Image: Courtesy of the Producer)

And one from those very challenged Atacama vines: Kalfu Sumpai sauvignon blanc (£18.50, frontierfinewines.co.uk), aromatic, tropical and nettly, a match for fine Kiwi examples.

Continuing with sauvignon blanc, Vergelegen Millrace (£11 mix-6, Majestic) is more restrained yet with good fruit, a South African interpretation of what France's Loire valley does so well; and Errazuriz Aconcagua Costa (£13, Waitrose) combines both new and old world elements with great elegance.

Ham & High: Louise Latour Ardeche ChardonnayLouise Latour Ardeche Chardonnay (Image: Courtesy of the Producer)On to the other top white grape, chardonnay, and a very palatable good-value example from beyond Burgundy is Louis Latour Ardèche (£14.50, ocado.com and independents), which has a streak of chablis-like stoniness alongside more rounded southern French fruit. For exceptional unoaked burgundian value, buy Domaine de l’Arfentière mâcon blanc (£11, thewinesociety.com), concentrated and fresh.

For a grape that can produce such a rainbow of wine styles, chenin blanc is unfairly neglected. Put that right with Aubert Vouvray sec (£15.75, yapp.co.uk), from the Loire - classic stone fruit, apple and citric flavours, mouth-filling yet crisp.Ham & High: Honey Drop chenin blanc from South AfricaHoney Drop chenin blanc from South Africa (Image: Courtesy of the Producer)

Chenin is big in South Africa too, and Honey Drop (£12 mix-six, Majestic), from ancient bush vines, is an intriguing meld of refreshing and creamy elements from ripe fruit and well-judged oak.

This has been an all-white column so far, so a little balance now. First from a big but beautiful, reliable producer: Cune Rioja Reserva (£13- £14.50, Majestic, Waitrose, Ocado, Sainsbury's) has all Rioja lovers seek, stylish and not too oaky.Ham & High: Cune Rioja Reserva Cune Rioja Reserva (Image: Courtesy of the Producer)

Two serious Barossa bottles: St Hallett Faith shiraz (£15-£16, wine-republic.co.uk, tesco.com) is rich with juicy fruit and savoury elements; in Yalumba bush vine grenache (£17, auswinesonline.co.uk, winedirect.co.uk) venerable vines give added layers of complexity and fruit-led pleasure, svelte on the long finish.