New Region. Old Grapes. The Gorgeous Wines of Greece.
Crete is a hot spot for wine geeks, and the darling of sommeliers, who want to discover new and weird wines. You read that right: new wines.
Although Crete has been producing wines for over 3,500 years, it is considered a new wine region. Does that make any sense? Well, actually, it kinda does. Let me tell you about my home.
Crete is the southernmost island of Greece and the second most southern island of Europe (Hi Cyprus!). You may be scratching your head saying, “I think I’ve heard of Crete before…”. You have if you didn’t fall asleep in Western Civ class, or if you’ve flipped through a travel magazine and ogled at our beaches.
Crete was home to the Minoans – the first civilization – and a hotbed of the wine industry before the French were even the French. Wine was a cornerstone of daily life in Ancient Crete and the tradition of winemaking and drinking has continued to today.
So why haven’t you heard about Cretan wine before? Well, the island’s crucially strategic location in the Eastern Mediterranean came with centuries of occupation, followed by revolution. Then lots of wars. And finally topped off with Martial Law. Oh, then in the 70’s, Phylloxera finally hit the Cretan vineyards – the final “eff you” to any progress in modernizing the wine industry (3,500 years of history in one paragraph. Not bad).
In the last decade and a half, the wines of Crete have improved exponentially. The quality is world class and the varietals, though ancient, are fresh and new. The incredible turnaround is partially due to funds from the European Union that helped the wineries invest in new and modern equipment. It’s also the result of second generation winemakers who studied abroad in France, Italy, Germany, and the United States, and brought back modern techniques and know-how.
Crete also has a major advantage over other “new” wine regions: eleven indigenous varietals that are planted only on Crete. The grapes of Crete range from the aromatic Muscat of Spina and Malavasia, to the easy to love profiles of Vilana and Vidiano, to the intriguing Thrapsathiri, Dafni, and Plyto brought back from near extinction. And that’s just the whites.
Kotsifali and Mandilari are the lovebirds of the island, one is rarely without the other except for when sexy Syrah plays mistress. Liatiko is the wise owl whose depth when aged will stop you in your tracks. Romeiko is the lone red grape on the western side of the island in the prefecture of Chania. Its revival is still in awkward teenage years where its parents are still trying to figure out what to do with it.
Let’s try some bottles, shall we?
Now that Manousakis Winery has conquered red wines, they’ve expanded to include a few indigenous whites. Their Muscat of Spina is a dry, very aromatic delight. You’ll instantly be transported to the picturesque Cretan valleys surrounded by flowers and citrus trees.
Vidiano is not-so-slowly becoming the standout of the island. Its versatility makes it the sweetheart of winemakers and oenophiles alike. Karavitakis Winery‘s “Klima” is so lovely and balanced, you’ll fall in love with Vidiano too.
The grapes Dafni and Plyto would not exist without the Lyrarakis family. They singlehandedly brought them back from extinction when they found just a few vines planted near their winery in Heraklio, the capitol of Crete. Dafni is unmistakably marked by the smell of laurel leaf. Plyto’s unique aromas will have you going back to the glass to swirl and sniff all night before you decide on Lychee and opulent pear.
Rhous Winery’s “Skipper” is the classic red blend of Kotsifali and Mantilari. Marked by herbs and spices of the Cretan countryside and dark, jammy raspberries and cherries, this is your go-to wine with lamb and goat. You can lay this down for a few years but, really, who can wait that long.
Speaking of, I am as guilty as the next person by effectively ageing wines one or two hours before consuming. Thankfully, Economou Liatiko from Sitia, the easternmost wine region on the island, does it for you! Current release is 2006! If you’re lucky enough to get your hands on it you will understand why there is a cult-like following. Rustic and perfect.
I’ll end by starting at the beginning. Historically, ancient Cretan wines were done in sweeter styles. Dourakis Winery‘s “Euphoria” of the grape Romeiko is made in the “liasto” method. Grapes are dried in the Cretan sun until they raisin, concentrating the sugars. Syrupy layers of caramel, butterscotch, figs, and plums. No better way to end a meal…and an article.
About your #SommNextDoor
Anna Maria Kambourakis is a Massachusetts-born Certified Sommelier and Wine Educator living her dream on the island of Crete. She and her husband do personalized private winery tours if you’re ever on the island. Follow her on Instagram to learn more about Greek wine.