The first advanced civilization of Europe, the Minoans, were already making wine on Crete four thousand years ago. In the second century, Crete was known in Rome and beyond for a sweet wine called protropos. In the Middle Ages, under the Venetians, the sweet Malvasia di Candia (as Crete was then known) was traded far and wide.
Wine production went into decline under the Ottomans, and, until recently, Crete was mostly known for bulk wine. Still today, the island accounts for around a fifth of Greece’s total area under vine. Phylloxera came late, from 1974, and many of the old vines that were lost were replaced with olives or international varieties such as Chardonnay and Syrah. Happily, in recent years a new generation of winemakers have been busy reviving ancient indigenous varieties, and their wines are starting to make a mark on the palate if not yet on the wallet.
Crete is the largest island of Greece, forming the southern boundary of the Aegean Sea. It is about 260 km long and from 15 to 60km wide. The capital Heraklion, on the central northern coast, is more southerly than Tunis, but soaring mountains along the length of the island make for cooler, wetter conditions than might be expected, especially in the western Chania [pronounced ‘Hania’] region. In fact, Crete is a powerhouse of agriculture as well as tourism, and one of the richest regions of Greece.
Most of the vineyards are on the northern side of the mountains, where they are sheltered from the hot Libyan winds and exposed to cooling Aegean and mountain breezes. Unusually for Europe, they tend to face north, like the Cretans themselves, who are strongly attached to Mother Greece. The green and rolling foothills behind Heraklion (pictured) account for over 85% of total production, and include the PDOs of Dafnes, Peza, and Archanes—although, with Crete, it is wise not to get too embroiled with appellations. There is also some quality production in Chania and around Sitia in the east. Soils are predominantly limestone-rich calcareous clay, quite unlike in nearby and volcanic Santorini.
The varieties that are attracting the most interest and enthusiasm are Vidiano and Liatiko, which might be thought of, respectively, as the Cretan Viognier (or Roussanne) and the Cretan Pinot Noir. Vidiano is beginning to eclipse the serviceable Vilana, which had once been encouraged. Liatiko is light and pale and liable to bronzing, but also fresh and floral and haunting. In my limited experience, both Vidiano and Liatiko seem to benefit from a bit of bottle age. The two other notable red varieties, Mandilari and Kotsifali, are often blended, with Kotsifali playing Merlot to Mandilari’s Cabernet Sauvignon—although the wines themselves are more redolent of Northern Rhône crus than of Bordeaux. Indigenous varieties are often blended with international varieties, which is a shame insofar as it obscures their Cretan identity. Another notable variety, native to Chania, is Moscato Spinas, a thin-skinned clone of Muscat Blanc that makes for fresh and elegant wines.
Leading producers include Diamantakis, Doulofakis, Idaia, and Lyrarakis in the centre, Manousakis in the Chania region, and the iconic and idiosyncratic Yiannis Economou near Sitia. Lyrarakis is credited with rescuing three ancient indigenous varieties: Dafni, Plyto, and Melissaki. Dafni, like Portugal’s Loureiro, means ‘laurel’: it is bright and fresh with notes of bayleaf, sage, pine, ginger, quinine, and citrus fruits. Plyto on the other hand seemed to be more about length, structure, and minerality, with high acidity and a saline finish. Lyrarakis’ Voila Assyrtiko, from Sitia, is the best Assyrtiko from outside Santorini and Tinos that I have tasted, and a real bargain to boot.
I look forward to following these wines.
Neel Burton is author of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting.