It’s All Greek To Me: The Wines of Crete
Greek wine is resurging these days due to more awareness about Greek food, from yogurt, to olive oil. The Greek Island of Crete is also seeing a resurrection of its wine industry, in spite of a wine history stretching back over 3,500 years. Crete’s native grape varieties are being embraced and that means to understand Crete, you need to visit, because the wines of this Mediterranean island are not often found outside of its shores and are terrific quality for your money. Crete is home to indigenous white wine grapes like Vilana, and Muscat Spinas, but Vidiano is their flagship white. At its best it possesses a clean, crisp, sharp acidity with simple citrus and mineral notes. As for the reds you’ll see names like Mandilari, and Thrapsathiri, but Kotsifali is the grape which shines brightest with notes of spicy prunes, leather, cinnamon, and small red fruits. Often times with Kotsifali it is best made as a blend with Syrah, though other varieties work well.
Located just outside of the port city of Heraklion, the calcium rich soils of Tamiolakis Winery are helping to make wines like their flagship Ekti Ekdosi (meaning ‘Sixth Edition’), a blend of Kotsifali, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. “This is a blend of our Cretan past and French History,” says Maria Tamiolakis. I tasted the 2008 and 2009 iterations, both different and impressive, showing that Cretan blended wines have structure, finesse and are comprehensive with layered fruit. Minos-Miliarakis Winery also makes a terrific Kotsifali, but adds Mandilari for color and tannic structure, and Mourvèdre, though uniformly of all the wines I tasted, Syrah showed a better promise as a partner with Kotsifali.
Douloufakis Winery planted their grapes in 1996 on American rootstock (Phylloxera hit here in the 1980s) and owner Nicos Douloufakis makes Liatiko, another native variety usually reserved for sweet wines, but his dry red version was perfect with the Greek lamb I had and the wine shows notes of black cherry, pepper, lavender and resin. On a windswept hill Zacharias Diamantakis and his namesake winery have impressive views of a patchwork quilt of vineyards and olive trees as far as the eye can see. Zacharias let me sample his 2010 and 2011 Vidiano and while both very good, the 2011 showcases this grape perfectly with clean, bright acidity, and body and depth, perfect with seafood which is ubiquitous here. “I love this wine, it is our future,” he says of Vidiano. You can find some of his wines in the U.S.
Moving west, there are less than 10 wineries outside the lovely port city of Chania, and this region, while different from Heraklion, (typically less wind and more heat) allows Crete to showcase more international varieties like Chardonnay, even Tempranillo. A case in point is Manousakis Winery which completely reverses the tasting experience by offering Rhône-style wines; Syrah, Roussanne, and Grenache. Though their wines are non-traditional Crete grapes, they make excellent Rhône’s and they ship to the U.S. You can get a tour and tasting here for 3.5 Euro, or a light lunch of Cretan food, tasting and two glasses of wine which will run 15 Euro (less than $20) per person. And this is where Crete is a great value: local fresh foods, native grapes and unique experiences.
At Dourakis Winery there is a charming tasting room made of hewn stone blocks, a mini agriculture and winemaking museum, and two art gallery spaces which rotate their artwork frequently, and their wines are all under 10 Euro ($12.50). There is a clear acidity on these white wines, potent little numbers that cry out for food. Art shows run May to October and aside from the value of the Dourakis wines (the whites are his better efforts) the professional art is a huge draw. Just down the road the beautiful tasting room of Karavitakis Winery represents exactly what Crete is working so hard for: namely wines that are compelling, using international varieties, but not shying away from the native grapes which make Crete so unique. Clearly visitors to Crete will not be familiar with many of the native grapes, therefore well known wines like Merlot offer an easy introduction to traditional Cretan reds, and Karavitakis bridges this gap very well.
The Island of Crete possesses a warm Mediterranean climate, food and drink only available here. There are plenty of average bag-in-box wines here, and that’s true no matter where you go in wine regions across the globe, but the wineries mentioned here have risen above the mediocrity and are worth your attention. The beauty of the bourgeoning Cretan wine industry is that it is tourist friendly and you’ll find things here you simply cannot find anywhere else.
Article and photos courtesy of Michael Cervin