Understanding the Wines of Crete, Greece

The island of Crete is located off the coast of Greece that has played a very important role in wine history.

Today, many different local grape varietals are grown on the island, and the wines of Crete are home to four distinct regions.

Many of the wine grapes being produced on the island are genetically identical to those from thousands of years ago, and today Crete is home to an energetic wine scene driven by passionate Cretan winemakers.

Exploring the Wines of Crete

Bronze Age History

historically ancient amphora

The island of Crete was home to the first advanced civilization in all of Europe, and humans have inhabited the island since as early as 5000 BC. The Minoan civilization started making major technological advancements on the island of Crete around the year 2000 BC.

The remains of the Minoan civilization are extremely important to the history of mankind, and the esteemed historian Will Durant has referred to the Minoans as “the first link in the European chain.”

Minoan architecture reached levels never previously accomplished by humans before, and their buildings reached up to four stories in height. Many palaces were constructed on the island, which was adorned with some of the earliest versions of modern plumbing.

The Minoan civilization made a number of massive achievements during the Bronze Ages, including figuring out how to successfully ferment grapes to produce quality wine. While signs of winemaking on the island date back far further, the bronze age is when modern winemaking was born.

Many paintings have been found inside the ancient palaces of Crete that picture wine being both consumed and produced. While little is known about certain aspects of Minoan culture and religion, it is apparent that wine played an important role in day-to-day life for the Minoans.

The remains of many different wine presses around the island suggest that winemaking was prominent at the time, and many large clay jugs used for storing wine called Amphorae have also been recovered.

Traces of Minoan influence have been found as far as ancient Egypt, and it is clear that the area was successful in trading with many different civilizations.

Amphorae containing markings from Crete suggest that the area was exporting wine all across the Mediterranean and much of Europe.

Middle Age History

monastery crete greece

The island of Crete continued to be an important part of the wine world as time progressed, staying relevant and producing wine during Roman rule.

Due to its association with Christianity, wine was also a hot commodity during the Byzantine period, and Cretean wine kept growing.

It was during Venetian times that the wines produced on the island of Crete were at an all-time high in terms of fame and reach of influence. Malvasia is a sweet wine produced on the island and shipped all across the world to the most important cultural centers of the time.

Traces of wine from the island have been found from London to Paris, and the Malvasia grape was used to make sweet wines that became sought after around the world at the time.

The wine was sweet enough to satisfy foreign palates while being strong enough to withstand transport.

Venetian wine merchants successfully sold huge quantities of Malvasia-based wines, so much so that Venetian wine shops were named “Malvasie” for many years. Sweet wine became synonymous with the island for many decades.

The island fell to the Ottoman empire sometime in the 15th century, which marked the end of what was considered to be the golden age of Cretan winemaking.

The wines produced on the island during the time were among the most famous wines in the entire world.

Cretan Wine Grapes

vineyards and olive groves

While Malvasia wine is still alive and well today, much of it is grown in Portugal and Italy. Today’s Cretan wine grapes are not the same as the ancient varietals that were grown on the island for thousands of years, and they are mostly Greek indigenous grape varietals.

Mandilaria

The Mandilaria grape is grown exclusively in Greece and thrives in maritime environments like those found in Rhodes and Crete. The wines produced by this grape are extremely bold and intense, with aggressive tannins and a very dark hue.

The grape is most often used for mixing in blends, as its pop of tannin and depth of color is a welcome addition to other Cretan red wines.

Reds from the island tend to be light in both body and color, making Mandilaria an excellent candidate for balancing Cretan red wine blends.

Lyrarakis Plakoura Vineyard Oak Aged Mandilari PGI Crete is a great example of a single varietal bottle of Mandilaria wine from the island of Crete.

This balanced red wine has been well received by many different critics and received a 90-point score from Wine Spectator.

Liatiko

The Greek wine grape was named Liatiko because it is a shortened version of the Greek word “July.”

This red wine grape carries a great amount of historical significance and is known not only for its early ripening time but also for its light color and supreme drinkability.

Lyrarakis Aggelis Liatiko PGI Crete is a fantastic bottle of Cretan Liatiko, and it has been well received by both critics and everyday wine enthusiasts worldwide.

Susan Kostrzewa from Wine Enthusiast described an array of different fruit-based tasting notes while awarding it 91 points.

Kotsifali

The wines produced from the thin-skinned Kotsifali grape are light and delicate, while also containing a fair amount of alcohol.

This is the opposite of the Mandilaria grape, whose thick skin produces a very dark wine that is fairly light on alcohol.

For these reasons, the two indigenous Greek wine grape varietals are often combined to make a Kotsifali – Mandilaria blend.

The two grapes work in harmony to produce a well-balanced red wine that has become the most popular on the island of Crete today.

Karavitakis Winery ‘The Little Prince’ Unoaked Red is a great example of how the two wine grapes can work in harmony to create a balanced red blend. It makes for a fantastic summer red wine, and Wine Enthusiast recommends serving this wine slightly chilled.

Lyrarakis Kotsifali PGI Crete is a single varietal representation of the Kotsifali grape that has grown to become one of the most popular and recognizable bottles of wine from the island. At under $20 per bottle, this is one of the best values in all of Greek wine.

Vidiano

The ancient Vidiano wine grape was facing extension less than 30 years ago before passionate winemakers on the island of Crete made a focused effort to preserve it.

Today, there are more and more Vidiano vineyards popping up every year thanks to their efforts.

Vidiano is used to produce a white wine that varies from medium to full in body. There is quite a bit of acidity, as well as many different fruit flavors and aromas.

Wine enthusiasts have reported tasting notes ranging from citrus like orange and lime to sweeter fruit like peach and melon.

Douloufakis ‘Dafnios’ Vidiano PGI Crete received an 88-point score from Wine Enthusiast and is a prime example of a fruity and tropical Vidiano wine.

At under $20 a bottle, this is a wine that all enthusiasts should try at least once in their lives.

Vilana

The Vilana wine is produced in large volumes on the island of Crete and is sometimes thought of as a wine that is more associated with quantity than quality.

Modern winemakers are working to change that reputation, and the mixing of other grapes allows for more complex white wines.

Boutari Kretikos White PGI Crete is a bright and easy-drinking summer wine that has enough acidity to keep it in balance. It is very light in body, and refreshing flavors of lemon and grapefruit make it a fantastic candidate for summertime entertainment.

Assyrtiko

The Assyrtiko wine grape is one of the most famous white wine grapes in all of Greece.

It is one of the most diverse white wine grapes in the world, and Assyrtiko can be used to make everything from crisp and dry whites to rich and full dessert wines.

Domaine Economou Oikonomoy Assyrtiko PGI Crete is one of the more expensive bottles of wine produced on the island of Crete.

At around $65 per bottle, it is well worth the investment for seasoned wine enthusiasts who crave depth and complexity in white wine.

Cretan Wine Regions

barrels for wine greece crete

Today, most of the wine produced in Crete is done so in one of these four major wine regions:

Arhanes

The Arthanes region specializes in the production of the Kotsifali grape, and makes red wine blends of Kotsifali with darker and more tannic red wine grapes.

While a 25 percent ratio of Mandilaria is traditionally used, more famous grapes like Syrah are being used more often.

The wines produced in this region are often enjoyed by locals and are largely overshadowed off the island by its larger wine-producing appellations.

Dafnes

The Liatiko reigns supreme in the Cretan appellation of Dafnes, as it is the only wine grape permitted in the region.

This region is well known for producing red wine that can range from dry and serious to sweet and fruit-forward.

Peza

Peza is the busiest wine-producing region on the island of Crete, and it is responsible for about 70 percent of all wine made on the island.

The area produces both a rare red blend and a famous white wine that is made using 100 percent Vilana grapes.

Sitia

The region of Sitia produces both red and white wines, and it is the largest appellation on the island by size.

This is one of the oldest and most historic wine-growing regions in all of Greece, and wine has been produced in the area since the Bronze age.

Wines of Crete – Conclusion

The island of Crete has been an important player in the world of wine for thousands of years, and today winemakers are keeping the tradition alive by focusing on high-quality representations of both local and ancient grape varietals.

Leave a comment below to let other wine enthusiasts know your favorite bottles of wine from the Greek island of Crete!

Further Reading