Wines of Crete
15th October 2015
I recently went to Crete on a trip with the wine-drinking bestie. After visiting the island once in my pre-university days (circa 1998), I knew this visit would probably be a little different to the late night booze-fest of my late teenage years.
I’ve come a long way since those days and, it would appear, so has Cretan wine. We both seem to have mellowed, matured, and we understand ourselves a whole lot better.
So let me just give you a quick run-down of what's happened in Crete over the years. Wine has been a part of Cretan culture since Minoan times (approx. 3500 years ago). Wine was the drink of the gods: Dionysus was the Greek God of Wine and Debauchery, Homer talked about it, the Minoans traded it globally, the Romans expanded it. When the Ottoman Empire became strong across Greece, Crete was one of the only islands not to fall. Instead, Crete remained under the rule of the wine drinking Venetians. Unlike those areas ruled by the Ottoman Empire, viticulture in Crete was allowed to flourish.
See link for further information on the history of wine in Crete: http://goo.gl/mCgZQ5
Crete could be a self-sufficient island. They don’t need to depend on imports. Rich in vegetation, good soil, great weather and varied ancient skills understood by many of the islanders, many Cretan villages don’t look too dissimilar from the way they did hundreds of years ago. Each village used to (and, in the main, still does) make its own olive oil, grew its own pomegranates, had its own band of goats and made its own wine. They made sure their families were supported then they would sell the rest to supplement their living. Wine was made, traditionally, either by village or by family, each one a little different and it was looked upon with a sense of pride on the dinner table every night.
There are eleven different indigenous grape varieties on Crete – none of which I had heard of before. Many are ancient varieties from vineyards which have never stopped being cultivated.
~ Vilana: delicate and lemony
~ Vidiano: creamy and apricot
~ Dafni: brought back from near extinction, its name means ‘laurel’ which is the defining aroma
~ Thrapsathiri: intense and heavy
~ Malvazia: highly scented, used in sweet and dry whites
~ Muscat of Spina: a clone of Muscat, used for dry whites
~ Plyto: brought back from near extinction – light, lemony and with a refreshing acidity
~ Kotsifali: smooth with a round taste of plums
~ Liatiko: has a unique sweetness and character
~ Mandilari: the King of Native Reds, it is wild and powerful
~ Romeiko: a distinctive red that will probably remind you of why you didn't like Greek wine in the first place!
With the tourist boom in the 1970’s, up sprang restaurants and tavernas to cater for the incoming trade. These larger facilities meant that wine was needed on a more industrial scale to meet the needs of the new tourist centres. Europeans brought their own tastes with them and found the traditional wines lacking. Trades started importing wine to cater but, at the same time, the Cretan wine industry started to unify. There are now 33 vineyards on Crete which are all part of the ‘Wines of Crete’ alliance/group. There are also unions such as Peza Union – formed in the grape growing region of Peza, they take grapes from all around the area and make larger scales wines – like a sort of co-operative agreement. This wine is cheap and not for me but it certainly does a roaring trade. The other vineyards however are much more refined in the way that they make their wine and are proving to have some very fine results indeed.
We visited the Miliarakis Winery and there we tasted their six different types of wine: two white, two rose, two red. They served the tastings with platters full of juicy peaches, soft feta cheese, hard cheese of unknown extraction but wonderful flavour and the local bread (dakos) which is twice baked and hard enough to break your teeth on! All the wines were wonderful, easy drinking and refined. For me, the Vidiano was the overall winner: smooth, great body, fruity yet light. I drank a couple of glasses in the sunshine eating my feta and dakos and feeling like I had not a care in the world. The sun was blazing, the wind was blowing softly in the vines around us and I was in heaven! The experience was very memorable indeed: none of it was disappointing, none of it was how I remembered it, none of it was the same as it was before. But, then again, 17 years later, I’m not the same as I used to be either. Give Cretan wines a chance. You might be very pleasantly surprised.