Crete wine comes full circle for its tourists

With an influx of holidaymakers in the 1980s, the Greek island championed table wine for the masses. But now Crete is getting back to its historic roots – and Damien Gabet says it's ready for a new wave of curious, wine-loving visitors

Words by Damien Gabet

crete landscape in peza wine region
The Peza wine region, where estates like Boutari are helping put Crete wine back on the map

‘Crete started making wine 15 years ago.’ So says Vassilis Spiridakis, the savvy sommelier at St Nicolas Bay Hotel. His private wine tastings, which can be booked in advance, are hosted in the hotel’s bijou art gallery. Together, we try some of his favourite bottles from one of Crete’s trailblazing winemakers, Domaine Lyrarakis. Its 2020 Psarades Dafni hums with the rosemary, thyme and lavender found around its vines.

Having since done a little digging, I can confirm that Cretan wine was, for a while, quite a disappointment. But, of course, it’s nothing new: it’s been made here continuously for over 4,000 years (the ancient Minoan wine press I visit earlier in the day is testament to that). So what happened to make Spiridakis proclaim as such?

Back in the 1980s, the island was invaded by Anglo Saxon tourists. The winemakers of Crete turned their attention away from the export market, instead making carafe-ready table swill for the local hoteliers keen on getting their package-holiday patrons sloshed. Mercifully, the new millennium brought with it a moderniser. Nicolas Miliarakis, of the Minos Winery, set about convincing the hotels that their guests might like quality wine in a bottle. He also wanted to help repair Crete’s damaged reputation abroad.

minoan wine press crete
Crete's ancient Minoan wine presses show the island's rich winemaking heritage

Duly, the venerable Wines of Crete was formed to unite the viniferous families of the island who’d not yet succumbed to the lure of lucrative olive oil. Its manifesto insisted on a quality product made with (predominantly) native grapes that represented the terroir. Leading the charge would be Vidiano, a super-versatile white that carries within its elegant body the hopes of an island. The ‘Cretan viognier’, as Miliarakis describes it, loves oak as much as steel and creates wines that will happily sleep in the cellar.

Vidiano, the “Cretan viognier”, is a super-versatile white that carries within its elegant body the hopes of an island

I meet with Miliarakis halfway through a two-stop wine tour (organised by St Nicolas Bay Hotel), beginning at Boutari, a Grecian brand with vineyards in the Peloponnese and elsewhere. Its seven Cretan hectares sit near the village of Scalani on the northern slopes of a low hill in the Peza region. Just south of the capital Heraklion, it enjoys humid evenings, cool sea breezes and a calcium clay that drains like a champ.

When I arrive, Nicos Kontantakis, Boutari’s green-eyed agronomist, takes me for a stroll through the vines and explains that his grapes are only now beginning to produce good wine, following years of experimentation. In 2014, having tested a long list of varietals, he replanted ‘everything that worked’.

boutari crete wine
Boutari's vineyards span seven hectares beyond the winery and tasting rooms

Kontantakis admits that he speaks to his vines, just as his father did before him. ‘People think I’m crazy,’ he says. ‘They’re like my children.’ He looks after them, they look after him. The love-in has borne handsome fruit: Boutari’s flagship 2018 Scalarea – a tête-à-tête of Kotsifali and Syrah – is a smash of the blackest fruits, vanilla and that hallmark Syrah spice (it works a treat with the cured meats and smoked graviera I’m snarfing on the side). The white Scalarea has nearly as much theatre: hero Vidiano teams with aromatic Asithi for a balanced bottle, jammed with white-flesh fruit and a long buttery finish.

An old 18th-century stone cottage on Boutari’s grounds has recently been renovated to accommodate three fetching apartments for hire. No time for that, though: I was looking for another of Crete’s trailblazers. A much smaller family concern who’ve positioned themselves right at the bleeding-edge of Crete’s march to modernity.

boutari wine cottage
The 18th-century stone cottage on Boutari's grounds has been renovated for accommodation, adding to the island's evolving wine tourism offering

The 100-year-old Stilianou winery in the nearby village of Kounavi produces organic wine from 100 per cent Cretan varietals. The trending wine lexicon – ‘natural’, ‘unfiltered’ and ‘orange’ – is well represented on its six labels and all 20,000 bottles from the last harvest are spoken for.

First, we take a walk to that Minoan wine press, casually unmarked in a field of young olives trees and spent vines. A single bell peals from an orthodox chapel in the distance as old-world sparrows dart overhead – Crete at its most evocative. Affable owner Giannis Stilianou sits with me on an old stone bench and points towards an ancient camel track, once used to transport the wine made in these Goldilocks hills to capital Heraklion.

The white wine is a paean to tradition and terroir; a bracing mix of bitter lemon, honey and happy Granny Smith apples

He goes on to wax lyrical about ancient varietals – Taktas, for example, rediscovered growing in the wild – that he predicts will make a comeback (‘To see the future of wine, all I have to do is look back.’). I ask him whether he is interested in producing amphora wines. ‘I’ll leave that to the next generation,’ he laughs. His son and daughter – currently studying oenology and economics respectively – are keen to work with ceramic.

'The tasting takes place under a parasol mulberry tree on a terrace that looks directly onto the snow-flecked Lasithi mountains'
(Photo: Damien Gabet)

The tasting is memorable. I’m sitting under a parasol mulberry tree on a terrace that looks directly onto the snow-flecked Lasithi mountains (where Zeus was born). An orange wine (100 per cent Vidiano) comes out first. I’ve never tasted one that doesn’t remind me of vinegar, but there’s enough grapefruit nuance here to keep me slurping. The high note is Stilianou’s 2014 Theon Gi, made using Madilari and Kotsifali again. It sits for a month with its skins and then two years in French oak to tame Madilari’s snappy tannins. Leather, vanilla, cinnamon, tobacco and spice: this is a wistful and wonderful wine. I enjoy the Theon Dora white, too. Three grapes – Vidiano, Vilana and Thrapsathiri – all pressed in the same vat from the same harvest. This paean to tradition and terroir produces a bracing mix of bitter lemon, honey and happy Granny Smith apples.

blue bay restaurant crete
St Nicolas Bay Resort boasts views over the Aegean sea

And so full circle to my tasting at St Nicolas Bay Resort, with an appropriately named 3.14 (pi) from Domaine Paterianakis. Another all-organic concern (vegan too), run by the family’s three forward-thinking women. Their hand-waxed bottles look the part and the 100 per cent Vidiano (with natural yeast) is a honey, lime and lemon treat.

With a glass of that in hand, looking out on the mirror-finish Aegean at dusk, it feels as if Crete’s wines are matching the calibre of their surroundings again.

Rooms at St Nicholas Bay Hotel start from £220 per night; private wine tastings at the hotel cost €75 per person for one hour. A two-stop wine tour with chauffeur is €420 for two people. €40 for every additional person. Maximum six people.