By Rose Murray Brown MW
Published in The Scotsman newspaper
A land of sun, sand & Minoan ruins is what most of us think of when it comes to Crete. Olive oil, feta cheese, yoghurt and raki spirit are its best known food and drink offerings, but few of us would think of Crete when it comes to wine.
Once famous in the Middle Ages for its Malmsey sweet wines – Crete also has a long vinous history stretching even further back as far as 5000 BC when ancient Persians and Arians planted vines. A mini tsunami in 1450 BC, when nearby Santorini island erupted, destroyed the vineyards, but the Minoans revived them and Romans continued their cultivation. More recently phylloxera devastated vineyards in the 1970’s, but Cretans today are waking up to their vinous potential with an eye on quality – and some have reincarnated the famous Malvasia wine.
What makes all this so interesting for the wine lover today is that Greece’s largest island, like the Peloponnese and Macedonia on its mainland, has a treasure trove of its own ancient indigenous grapes which are now being rescued from extinction.
You will not have come across these grapes before. Cretan grapes like Plyto, Dafni (pictured right), Vidiano, Kotsifali and its most planted white grape Vilana can now be found as single varietal wines or in blends with international grapes like Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Syrah – and thanks to the initiative of Berry Bros & Rudd some of them are now available in the UK.
Bart Lyrarakis is one of the new generation of winery owners who is pioneering the renaissance (vineyard pictured right). He has revived rare Cretan grapes like Plyto, growing them at higher altitude over 400 metres on mountain slopes of Alagni, south of Heraklion, where they perform particularly well. His winery, established in 1966, is at the forefront of Crete’s revival, but old C14 stone presses in his vineyards, dating from when the time that Venetians owned the island from C13 to C17 when Malvasia was renowned across Europe, are testament that Lyrarakis’ ancestors planted on these high slopes.
Lyrarakis’ greatest triumph is with his Malvasia di Candia (Crete used to be known as Candia). Using the same traditional process, he sun dries grapes for 9 days, ferments slowly and matures in new oak barrels for 12 months. Interestingly, his Malvasia sweet wine includes indigenous grapes Plyto and Dafni which is how it was originally made. The result is incredible – and unlike anything I have tasted elsewhere. No surprise it scooped Best Greek regional wine trophy at Decanter’s World Wine Awards last year.
Another Cretan wine pioneer is Zacharias Diamantakis, whose family used to grow table grapes. In 2007 he decided to focus on the white Vidiano grape, a rising star. He plants it in north east Crete in his 26 acres of high altitude vineyards, looking out over the Aegean, at 500 metres near Kato Assites at the foot of Mount Psiloritis, where vines are sheltered from the hot winds which blow in from Africa.
CRETAN TASTE TEST
DRY WHITE : VIDIANO 2012 Diamantakis
(£10.95 for 75cl bt www.bbr.com Berry Bros & Rudd)
Bergamot, citrus with a hint of banana, very rich weighty mouthfilling, slightly oily texture – an interesting match with Dakos Cretan salad with feta cheese, tomatoes and olive oil.
RED : OKTO RED 2010 Lyrarakis
(£10.30 for 75cl bt www.bbr.com Berry Bros & Rudd)
Grapes: Kotsifali, Mandilari & Syrah
An example of how Cretan grapes blend well with France’s Rhone grape Syrah: it starts well with spicy gamey notes and plummy fruits, but the finish is quite sturdy with a rustic edge.
SWEET : MALVASIA OF CRETE NV Lyrarakis
(£17.75 for 50 cl bt www.bbr.com Berry Bros & Rudd)
Grapes: Malvasia, Plyto, Vidiano, Vilana & Dafni
This was the wine that first attracted me to Crete. Rich grapey, apricot notes, honeyed, lush and fresh – so elegant. Good price in comparison to other sweet wines from the rest of the world. A triumph for modern Crete.