Crete, Greece’s largest island, is among the country’s most beautiful and interesting places to visit. Well known for its amazing beaches and unforgettable cuisine, the island also has a long history of wine making, dating back more than 4,000 years.
The ancient Minoan civilization was one of the first to be deeply connected with wine. Viticulture and wine making are depicted on paintings in the Minoan palace of Knossos, while ancient wine presses have been found all over the island, with the world’s oldest in Vathypetro, just a few kilometers outside Heraklion, the capital. The Minoans were the world’s best-known merchants of the time, and amphorae carrying Cretan wine have been found in digs all over the Mediterranean basin.
Nowadays wine making on Crete is once again thriving, and the island has been granted four protected designations of origin. Vineyards are mostly planted on the northern part of the island, where they can enjoy the cool Aegean breeze from the north, and mountains lie between them and the hot winds blowing in from North Africa. The young generation of Cretan wine makers are more than eager to experiment, giving indigenous varieties more and more attention and producing stellar international blends.
Vidiano is the undisputed star among white wines here and also one of the most interesting Greek indigenous varieties, making wines with light aromatic character and a complexity and finesse on the palate that make the better-known assyrtiko shiver. Nikos Miliarakis, president of the association of Crete wine producers and owner of Minos Winery, one of the oldest in Crete, describes it as “full-bodied and buttery.” If you want to try vidiano single-varietal wines, look for Lyrarakis, Douloufakis, Karavitakis or Diamantakis; their international awards would cover a whole wall. Seafood pasta or charcoal-grilled fish would make a perfect pairing with this white.
Miliarakis also recommends the variety vilana, which he describes as “fruity, with great acidity.” He is also one of the very few to experiment with oak and makes a Vilana Fume that is more complex and full bodied, with major aging potential. Fresh vilana complements fried fish or salads with citrus, while Vilana Fume is delightful with charcoal-grilled fish, chicken dishes and even lamb chops.
Spinas muscat might be one of the most aromatic wines you could come across, with potent floral and yellow fruit aromas that will take the unsuspecting by surprise. Keep an eye out for the spinas muscat made by Strataridakis winery, Europe’s southernmost winery. The Strataridakis brothers were the first to vinify this grape into a single-varietal wine. Its aromatic profile and fruity flavors made it very popular, and nowadays more and more wine producers are investing in the once forgotten variety. It pairs best with fresh summer salads.
Kotsifali and madilari are Crete’s main red varieties. Miliarakis says they produce “a spicy, velvety red.” They are most commonly used in blends, although you might find the occasional varietal wine made from them. Idea Winery from Heraklion makes a benchmark kotsifali-mandilari blend, full of spice and red fruit aromas and flavors that go perfectly with grilled meats.
Sweet dessert wines made from liatiko or romeiko grapes dried in the sun to bring out their sweetness are quite common on the island. Miliarakis describes liatiko wines as having honey and caramel flavors. Some of the romeiko bottles, including Dourakis Winery’s Romeiko 1997, are considered to be among the best Greek wines and have received attention in international wine competitions.
Nikos Karavitakis, owner of Karavitakis Winery in Chania told us: “The main challenge now is to lift Crete’s historic reputation as a wine-making region to a modern level by producing wines which meet the standards of modern, international-style wines produced from the indigenous grape varieties of this island.”
As the bottles of Cretan wine we’ve recently tasted make clear, the island’s vintners are not just resting on their ancient laurels.