Climate change is often accused of driving European winegrowing northward – see the increasing success of England’s sparkling wines, with notable still wines chasing hot on their heels. Presumably this means southern European vineyards must be struggling, but on the Greek island of Crete, the southernmost point in Europe, quality wine is booming.
There are several reasons for this renaissance, though at root they share a common theme: making great wine isn’t simply a matter of latitude. Crete is the largest of Greece’s islands, and the fifth largest in the Mediterranean, at 260km long. It’s also remarkably mountainous, with more than 50 percent of the island lying at over 500 meters of elevation; snowfall in winter is usual, and last year the New York Times called out the island as home to possibly “The best spring skiing anywhere.” Vineyards on the island can therefore enjoy cooling sea breezes, the temperature-mitigating effects of elevation, or a combination of the two, depending on their exact location and aspect.
The soils of Crete are diverse, especially on the eastern and western ends of the islands. Individual areas like Archanes and Dafnes may be able to point to more uniformity, both enjoying a preponderance of limestone soils. But what the island’s soils have in common is good water retention capabilities. This offers several advantages. For one thing, it keeps the soils cooler during the growing season. Given Crete’s location, it’s no surprise that it enjoys a Mediterranean climate, with cool, wet winters and warm—even hot and dry—summers. The vines’ roots rely on the island’s soils to cool them and provide water through the growing season. Irrigation isn’t necessary.
A final factor in Crete’s growing success is its embrace of indigenous varieties. This is a relatively recent development. A century ago, refugees from Tukey brought the prolific, easy to grow Sultanina variety to the island, and it quickly came to dominate the island’s vineyards. But it’s a culinary grape, not suited to winemaking; most Americans will know it better from the name it bears in supermarkets across the country, Thompson’s Seedless. Growers looking for more vinously suitable grapes nevertheless turned to similarly prolific varieties like Vilana, a white variety apparently native to the island, but a high-yielding one. Crete’s primary role in the wine industry at the time, and indeed until recently, was as a bulk supplier, so a quantity over quality mindset dominated.
Crete’s wine industry began to modernize in the 1990s, and as happened in many emerging regions at that time, growers turned to international varieties. The island deserves some credit for not simply chasing the market and planting Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, which would struggle in most areas of the island. Instead, they turned to Rhône varieties more suited to the island’s climate. Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, and Roussanne all found homes in Crete’s vineyards.
Certain producers have proven themselves with the Rhône varieties enough to make them a core part of their portfolio. Native Cretan Theodore Manousakis returned from a sojourn in Brooklyn to start a winery in Chania, on the western end of the island. On the advice of Châteauneuf-du-Pape producer Chateau Pegau he planted the Rhône varieties, and built the winery into one of the larger producers in that part of the island; today Manousakis produces 120-150,000 bottles annually. Theodore’s youngest daughter Alexandra has taken charge, and while she’s still enthusiastic about the French grape varieties, she is, like many producers on the island, embracing indigenous varieties.
A goodly number of these have survived, though some in tiny quantities. The aforementioned Vilana is heavily planted, largely owing to its prolific nature. Its wines tend to be rather run-of-the-mill and simple. Exceptional vineyards, with some altitude and careful attention to restrain their vigour, can make some interesting examples, but it doesn’t seem like a variety that likely to engender a lot of enthusiasm in winedrinkers who crave flavor and energy in their wines.
Fortunately, Vilana’s cousin Vidiano is ready to step into the breach, and if any single variety is going to become the island’s flagbearer, this is the most obvious candidate. There are some own-rooted, old vine vineyards scattered around the island, but new plantings are typically grafted and trellised. Douloufakis and Lyrarakis were early advocates of the variety after it was rediscovered in the 1980s. Today there a couple hundred hectares planted; older examples are on ungrafted bushvines, while newer plantings are typically trellised.
Vidiano typically shows stone fruit aromas, sometimes veering into orange notes, often touched with a light hint of spice or white pepper. Its firm texture and presence on the palate is its best virtue, especially in contrast to the often-dilute Vilana.
The Muscat of Spina grape is believed to hail from a town of the same name on the western end of the island, but is more commonly found in central Crete these days. It’s believed to be a clone of Muscat Blanc a Petits Grains, and lives up to the floral expectations that come with the Muscat name. Some of the old vine examples are outstanding.
At least three other local white varieties show promise, or at least offer interest. Thrapsathiri is almost the opposite of Muscat in terms of aromatic generosity, but a few producers have demonstrated it can produce wines of weight and texture without sacrificing freshness. Plytó, on the other hand, is aromatic, but offers a palette more reminiscent of Sauvignon Blanc, grassy and herbal, than the more floral expressions common to many white grapes of the Eastern Mediterranean. To my knowledge only one producer makes a varietal example of the third grape, Dafní – Lyrarakis, who is credited with saving it from extinction. Dafní means “laurel” in Greek. The bay laurel plant is the source of bay leaf, and indeed bay leaf is the defining note of the wine, alongside juniper-like notes and a generally botanic character. Even if few producers ever make varietal examples – and I hope more do so – some enterprising Cretan should tap into the grape’s juice as a base for a non-alcoholic gin.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that Assyrtiko makes appearances across the island as well, as it does throughout Greece; in Crete it yields high-acid wines, as you’d expect, but rarely packs the chalky minerally that made in famous in the volcanic ash soils of Santorini, just seventy miles north.
The indigenous red grapes of Crete are more of a work in progress. The winemakers of central Crete are keen on Liatiko, a grape traditionally used for sweet wines. It’s dark-skinned, but yields pale wines that are prone to oxidation, and many take on a brick-ish orange even when young. It can be quite tannic, and producers like to compare it to Nebbiolo, which is prone to a similar color vs. tannin relationship. Aside from controlling oxidation managing extraction seems to be the main challenge, pulling out the red fruit, wild herb, and baking spice notes the grape is capable of while restraining the tannins so they don’t become too drying, rustic, and intense. When done properly it makes a refreshing red well-suited to summer and being served with a slight chill.
Kotsifali and Mandilaria are interesting grapes, but most producers consider them too extreme to make balanced varietal wines. Kotsifali is low in tannins, color, and acidity, but prone to high alcohol. Mandilaria is the opposite, low in alcohol but tannic, deeply colored, and acidic. It’s like they were made for each other, and blends of the two are typical, usually favoring the former, with Kotsifali making up two-thirds or three-quarters of the blend. Less traditionally, some producers are exploring blending Kotsifali and Liatiko, and a “new” tradition seems to be building around Kotsifali - Syrah blends. No one of these different blending approaches seems have taken the lead over the others at this point, and each has had at least some success.
The renaissance of Cretan indigenous varieties is paying off, though it may be some time until the island’s producers work out exactly where each one does best. In general, many of the most interesting wines seem to come from higher altitude vineyards, but there are lots of other factors to be considered. Producers are also gradually finding their way toward the optimal winemaking approach for each grape. One might think that appropriate techniques would be well established for grapes with so much heritage behind them, but several decades of more industrial approaches sidelined these varieties for a time. That they are roaring back speaks volumes to the faith Cretan winemakers have in them and makes the island’s native grapes well worth exploring as they continue to move forward.
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Editor’s Note: Having been fortunate to accompany Jim Clarke on a trip to Crete earlier this summer, I’ll follow up his column with a slew of specific wine recommendations with tasting notes in a few weeks. The best wines are distinctive and delicious and definitely not mere curiosities due to relative rarity—but rather gems well worth mining by those who aren’t afraid to do a bit of digging.