Cretan Wine

FEATURE by Willard Manus

Crete and wine are synonymous. The island, one of the cradles of civilization, has been making wine for thousands of years. The Minoans (who built a dynasty at Knossos in the third millenioum B.C.) made diluted wine their staple drink-- "even among the poor and among children," as one historian said. The enterprising Minoans also shipped wine to the Aegean islands, Asia Minor and the Middle East. Later, when Crete was colonized by the Venetians between 1204-1669, the island became even more famous for its sweet Malvasia wine, which was much coveted by European royalty and commoners alike. But when the Turks invaded and conquered the island at the end of the 17th century, Crete's prosperous wine trade was wrecked. The Ottomans' rule was harsh and puritannical (Islam frowns on alcoholic beverages) and it wasn't until Crete regained its independence in 1913 that the island's viticulture was revived.

Most agriculture and winemaking were put under the aegis of regional cooperatives. The emphasis from the 1920s on has been the development of dry wine, made from ancient or traditional varietal plantings, resulting in wines that can be considered truly Cretan. At first grapes were limited to the red-wine varietals of Romeiko from Hania, Kotsifali from Iraklion, Liatiko from Sitia, plus such white varietals as Vilana, Athiri and Ladikino., But in recent years grapes authorized to call themselves Cretan have been expanded to include a wide range of other imported varieties (such as Syrah, Mandilaria, Grenache Rouge, Sylvaner and others).

Crete is unlike any other Greek island. Located between Sicily and Libya, the island is not only far from the Greek mainland (an overnight ferryboat trip away) but a small continent in and of itself. 127 miles long and wide, Crete abounds with wild, towering mountains, broad, teeming plains and large, hyperkinetic cities and ports. Its inhabitants are resourceful and tough; in WW II, for example, a Cretan guerilla army fighting with little more than hunting rifles and daggers almost defeated the German parachute invasion of the island. It's no wonder that Crete should be the birthplace of Zeus, god of war.

The island's climate and location insure ample grape production. Mediterranean temperatures--dry summers, wet winters (except for 1999 & 2000, which had sparse rainfall)--and protective mountains (which block the scouringly-hot Libyan winds) combine to help make Crete a world-class producer of quality and bulk wines for Greek, European and American markets. In Greece it is second to the Peloponnese in vineyard acreage (approximately 52,000 hectares) but third in production (approximately 26 million gallons) owing to half the harvest going to table grapes and currants.

The industry has been organized into three areas each of which is centered by a big city. The region around Hania, in the west, has no applelation designation but was recently granted a topikos oinos (regional designation) label. At the Hania Cooperative, which draws on approximately 2000 hectares of romeiko grapes, the company produces red, white & rose table wine under the Cavalieri label, and a topikos oinos labeled white & red. Retsina is also made here (under the Enosi label), but the company's best seller is Ostria, a sweet wine (like the ancient Malvasia) which is aged in Greek oak barrels and sold in bulk. The Coop also ships red & white Amalfia in liter-sized jugs to Greek supermarkets, but presently does no business outside Greece.

Iraklion is the nucleus of central Crete, a vast region which can boast of three Co-ops and five private wine companies (including a branch operation of the mainland-based Boutari Co.). The adventurous Lyrarakis company, which is run by two brothers, Sotiris and Lampros, commenced business in 1966 on high-altitude vineyards dotted with medieval ruins. Kotsafali and Vilana grapes predominate, but in 1986 the company set out to rescue two grape varieties that were heading for extinction: Daphni and Plyto, After much experimentation, Lyrarakis released two dry whites under the above names which have won favor in the Greek market. Lyrarakis is also experimenting with Mandelaria, Grenache Rouge, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sylvaner and Syrah grapes.

The family vineyard covers an area of 70,000 square meters, but it has also contracted for another 40,000 square meters belonging to local grape-growers. Lyrarakis puts out red, rose and white wines under its own name; the latter two have been awarded appelation designations (the equivalent of the EU's VQPRD). In 1998 the company also released a first-ever Kotsifali-Syrah blend.

Sitia is the main city in eastern Crete, where two vintners dominate: Co-Op Sitia and Ekonomou. The former company is run by oenologist George Kounellakis and managing director Manolis Chlouverakis. The Co-op's 10,000 hectares of vineyards produce mostly liatiko and vilana grapes, but Assyrtiko, Muscat and Plyto have been planted in recent years. Winery technology and infra-structure have also been upgraded to obtain I.S.O. certification.

Sitia Co-Op produces a wide range of wine: a white & red under the Sitia label; a red, rose & white under Kritikos Topikos; a dry red & white under Myrto; and two sweet wines under Ktima and Sitia, respectively. The company also makes a Myrto retsina and Varnaki Tsikoudia, a fiery liqueur (40% vol.) made from liatiko grapes.

The company is represented in the USA by Athene Importers & Distributors (516-481-7260).

The Economou Co. is a small family-owned winery located in an old farmhouse outside the mountain village of Ziros; it is Greece's--and Europe's--southernmost vineyard.

As Tom Martin, an expert on Greek wines, said, "The Cretan wine industry has taken giant strides in the last two decades. By combining local practices handed down by their forefathers with modern technology and research, they have charted a collective course that allows its wines to survive as ambassadors of Greek culture and civilization."