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Wines of Crete: Modern Wines from an Ancient Land

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“There is a place in the middle of the wine-dark sea called Crete, a lovely, fruitful land… “

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Dolphin Fresco from ancient Crete

So wrote Homer in The Odyssey when tasked with describing the   Mediterranean island that is home to a civilization that dates back longer than any other in Europe. And while it is unknown as to whether Homer, who was from the Island of Chios in the eastern Aegean, ever set foot on Crete, his description at least is accurate when linking the island with the words “fruitful” and “wine.” For Crete is indeed a fruitful place, with vast tracts of agricultural lands devoted to grain, fruits, vegetables, and of course grapes for making Dionysis’ favorite beverage: wine.

And does Crete make wine! Lots of it. In fact, Crete makes a full 20% of all the wines produced in Greece, most shipped internally, some made by cooperatives (there are three on the island), though most are independently produced. Yet for all that volume, Cretan wines have remained strangely absent from the globally recognized Greek wine lexicon, as exports from Greece, which have had remarkable success over the past decade, particularly to the U.S., have been mostly from other winemaking regions like the island of Santorini, the Peloponnese, and northern regions like Greek Macedonia, among others.

Not to say that Crete’s wines were not good, they were, and with an investment over the last 30 years to modernize their infrastructure, spurred in no small part by a new generation of winemakers taking over the reins at their family’s wineries and injecting new ideas, money, and lessons learned through viticultural studies abroad, now certainly are.

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Winemaking equipment, circa 1500 BC

Why the change in philosophy? Enter our favorite bug…

“Crete’s vineyards, the major building block of a winemaking history which we can trace back at least 5000  years, were pretty much decimated when we were hit by phylloxera in the 1980’s,” says Nicos Miliarakis, winery owner and president of Wines of Crete, the organization charged with promoting the island’s wines, “we basically had to rebuild them from scratch.”

Phylloxera’s invasion was a tragedy in the land where tragedy was invented, to be sure, but it also gave the winemakers in Crete a unique opportunity to reverse some of the unfortunate decisions made in the past, most importantly, the decision at some point that Crete’s native varietals should be pulled up and replaced with more recognizable “international” varietals. “After Phylloxera, we knew we had a great opportunity to return Cretan winemaking to its ‘roots’,” says Miliarakis, “while at the same time embracing the opportunity to move it forward,” he adds.

Those indigenous varietals, now widely replanted (on Phylloxera resistant rootstock, of course), produce excellent, vibrant whites from grapes like Vidiano. Vilana, and Plyto, and intriguing reds from grapes like Kotsifali, Liatiko, and Mandilari, that run from light to full bodied, making the present-day wines from Crete some of the most exciting wines in the country, if not the Mediterranean basin.

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Liatiko Trellis at Boutari Winery

Of course, Crete still has plenty of international varietals planted, and while some are bottled varietally (most notable may be the Nostos wines from Manousakis, a winery on the island’s west end near the port city of Chania devoted entirely to Rhone varietals), they mostly show up incrementally in many of the wines made on the island, used, as in many winemaking regions of the world, to add a little more color here, a little more body there. Again, a testament to Crete’s ability to view its winemaking, see where it could be made better, and ultimately apply the techniques needed to bring its wines up to the point where they can show proudly on the world stage.  Something they are now doing, and doing well. Even though there are still few wines from Crete available in the U.S., the category is finding distribution, and the wines are being well received.

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One of the many fertile valleys in Central Crete

Physically, Crete is divided into four major winemaking PDO’s (Protected Denomination of Origin), the Greek equivalent of France’s AOC system or Spain’s DO’s. Three of them: Dafnes, Archanes, and Peza, are located in the center of the island, south of Heraklion, Crete’s main city. The fourth, Sitia, is on the East end of the island in the region of Lisithi.

Most wineries are located in the three central regions, and one, Strataridakis, which makes delicious whites from a clone of Muscat locally called Spinas, has the distinction of being Europe’s Southernmost winery. Another, Karavitakis, makes a sweet dessert wine that’s aged in wood for three years before bottling. Truly unique and wonderful. Others like Boutari (yes, that Boutari), Alexakis, Minos Miliarakis (owned by Nikos Miliorakis), and Lyrarakis, among others, have made their investment in producing more traditional offerings from their vineyards.

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Hilltop vineyards at Domaine Zacharioudakis

A handful of wineries are located in the island’s Western end near Chania. To date, the region is not classified with a PDO, though that will surely come soon due to it’s ever-growing number of wineries, including the aforementioned Manousakis, and others like Anoskeli (one of Crete’s newest wineries, and with a delightful rosé), Douroudakis, and Dourakis, all of which make wonderful wines from both indigenous and international varietals.

Sitia has only one winery, Toplou , part of The Holy Monastery of Panagia Akrotiriani and Agiou Ioanni Theologou TOPLOU of Sitia. Being many hours by car from Heraklion, Toplou is rarely visited, although the wines, including a wonderful sweet wine made from sun-dried grapes in the style of vin santo, but red, are quite good.

In all, Cretan wines, through painstaking dedication to make them the best they can be, along with a commitment to modernization, are finally gaining traction and are well worth searching for in stores or restaurants.

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Fresco of the Minotaur, Knossos

Or, for a real treat, go visit the island, one of the world’s most welcoming places, and tour the wineries. While there, one can also tour the ruins of ancient cities like Knossos (home of the famous Labyrinth where Theseus, with the help of King Minos’ daughter Ariadne, slayed the Minotaur), and eat the wonderful foods that were the basis for the “Mediterranean Diet.”  There are many options.

None will disappoint.

 

For more information on Crete’s winemaking industry, visit www.winesofcrete.gr, a very detailed website. well thought-out, and easy to navigate.

~David

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