By Rose Murray Brown MW Published in The Scotsman 16 September 2017
Anyone who has holidayed on the island of Crete will have discovered its wonderful feta cheese, fruits and olive oil – and a small collection of modern Cretan wines which are now becoming some of Greece’s best.
Greece’s largest island has a long vinous history, as far back as 5000 BC when ancient Persians and Arians planted vines. Vineyards were abandoned when a tsunami in 1450 BC devastated Cretan vines, when nearby Santorini island erupted, but later the Minoans revived vineyards and Romans continued with cultivation. By mediaeval times, the island was famous throughout Europe for its sweet Malvasia-based Malmsey wine.
The phylloxera louse arrived late on Crete in the C20, devastating vineyards as recently as 1970s, so some winemakers abandoned vines or replanted with international grapes like Sauvignon Blanc or Merlot to cater for the tourist trade. But now the Cretans are realising their island’s own vinous potential is in quality wines made from their old native grapes.
The pace of change here is slow in its four wine PDOs (appellations). A handful of wineries are making the most of the limestone soils and Mediterranean climate. It might sound like an idyllic place to make wine; but summer days can be intensely hot and like other Greek islands shelter is at a premium with wild winds blowing across the Aegean.
What makes Crete exciting is its treasure trove of its own indigenous grapes, many of which have been recently rescued from extinction by Crete’s new winemakers. About 70% of Crete’s wines are white and are their best, thanks to interesting native grapes like Dafni, Vidiano, Plyto and Thrapsathiri. The best known of these is white Dafni, which owes its name to the bay tree as it shares similar botanical aromas.
The revival of these ancient grapes is largely due to one man, Bart Lyrarakis of Domaine Lyrarakis, who is passionate about Cretan’s wine history. He is one of a new generation changing the face of Cretan wines. He established his own winery in 1966 south of Heraklion city in the Peza wine appellation and started bottling his own wine in 1992. He is a recent addition to Crete’s wine history – but Lyrarakis has an eye on the past.
Lyrarakis has revived the old C14 stone presses in his vineyards as he believes they make the best wines. These presses date from the time the Venetians owned the island, which they called Candia, from 1205-1669. At that time Malvasia grape was well known across Europe, so this is one of the grapes Lyrarakis focuses on.
He has rescued and rehabilitated the laurel-scented Dafni and herbal citric flavoured Plyto grapes, which grows well on his high altitude vineyards over 500 metres on the mountain slopes of Alagni.
Lyrarakis are not the only winery to sell their wines abroad. The wines of Zacharias Diamantakis, who focuses on the aromatic white Vidiano grape, are also worth seeking out. He plants in very high altitude vineyards over 500 metres near Kato Assites at the foot of Mount Psiloritis up in the north east of the island where his family own 26 acres of vineyards overlooking the beautiful Aegean. The vineyards are high, but not too exposed with enough shelter from the hot winds blowing in from Africa.
In my opinion, some of the most interesting wines on Crete are the sweet wines. Dessert wines have been made here since ancient times. So in keeping with tradition, Lyrarakis also makes a wonderful sweet wine using ancient sun-drying techniques from a blend of Malvasia, Plyto, Vidiano, Vilana and Dafni grapes, matured in oak for 12 months. With a moderate alcohol of just 11.5% it is a charming honeyed apricot delight of a dessert wine.
Sadly this Cretan sweet triumph has proved so popular, having won the Best Greek regional wine trophy at Decanter’s World Wine Awards, that their UK importers Berry Bros & Rudd have currently sold out, but watch for more of this wonderful wine arriving soon.
DAFNI PSARADES VINEYARD 2015 Domaine Lyrarakis
(13%; £10 Marks & Spencer)
Herb & floral aromas with distinct pine undertones, very zesty citric fruit with a tropical fruit note palate from a single vineyard high in the Heraklion hills.
OCEAN THRAPSATHIRI 2015 Idaia winery
(12.5%; £14 www.wineandthevine.co.uk; £16 www.spiritedwines.co.uk)
Thrapsathiri grape was once used to make sweet wine, but now makes perfumed crisp white with a rich soft palate, from vineyards in Vererato in northern Heraklion.
DAFNI 2016 Domaine Lyrarakis
(12.5%; £12.50 Berry Bros & Rudd www.bbr.com)
Herby and piney with an interesting ginger spice note and rich textured fruits.
ASSYRTIKO VOILA 2016 Domaine Lyrarakis
(13.5%; £7.19/£11.99 Majestic Wine; Berry Bros & Rudd)
Assyrtiko is better known on nearby Santorini island, but Crete grows a few vines of its own. A very attractive fresh style with grapefruity flavours and minerally undertones from eastern Crete.
OKTO RED 2013 Domaine Lyrarakis
(13%; £11.95 Berry Bros & Rudd www.bbr.com)
Grapes: Kotsifali & Mandilaria with 30% Syrah
The depth of colour and firm tannins of Crete’s best red grape, Mandilaria, is softened with spicier lower acid Kotsifali. Crete’s appellations stipulate that these two native grapes are blended together to create the best cuvee – and here Syrah adds gamey plummy notes.
Join Rose’s Hellenic Wine Tasting (Greece, Crete & Cyprus) in Edinburgh on Wednesday 4 October £42 www.rosemurraybrown.com