The wine in Greece is the stuff of legend. The history of the euphoria-inducing liquid happiness stretches far back into extraordinary antiquity. According to Greek mythology, wine was invented by the Greek God Dionysus. He was known to have wandered across Asia teaching the art of winemaking. Bringing merriment, music, dance, and fertility. As such, wine is considered to be a gift from the Gods. So, it comes as no surprise that Greece, and particularly Crete, cultivate some of the best wines in the world. Today, local wines have reached a unique status in the international market. And a visit to the island wouldn’t be complete without tasting a few, or all of them.
What makes Cretan wine so good?
The Cretan wine industry is thriving. The Heraklion region is the main grape-growing district and includes 4 of the 5 PDO wine regions in Crete. (Protected Designation of Origin) regions, this makes them specific to the unique climate. It’s these indigenous grapes that make Cretan wines distinct, and unmistakably delectable. Vilana, Vidiano, and Dafni are famed white varieties, and the red varieties include Liatiko, Kotsifali, and Skalani. The celebrated PDO wine regions are Peza, Archanes, Dafnes, and Sitia, all located close to the prefecture of Heraklion. Making it the ultimate base to centre yourself for an epic wine discovery.
The different wine regions have a unique character and an ideal climate, and winemakers are continually striving to improve and perfect the taste of their legendary wines. Vineyards take advantage of warm, dry summers and cool breezes from the Aegean winds that caress Crete’s northern shores. As Crete is also a mountainous region, temperatures drop with altitude. This creates the ideal conditions for cultivating, and most vineyards are set between 200m and 900m above sea level.
Crete has an extensive list of wineries, producing wine on a mass scale to retailers all over the globe, as well as curating specialised and award-winning blends that can only be found right here. The closest to Heraklion is the celebrated PDO region of Archanes. Which is truly one of the best places in the world for a wine connoisseur, or any enthusiast to enjoy some of the best Cretan wines and learn about their fascinating and prestigious history. Wineries here include the esteemed Boutari; close to the archaeological site of Knossos. They specialise in varieties of wine unique to Crete such as Skalani, Fantaxometocho, Moschato Spinas, and Liatiko. There’s also Douloufakis winery in the village of Dafnes and established PDO region, and notably, Lyrarakis, known for exclusively bringing the Dafni grape back into wine production. As well as the Monastery of Agia Triada, which produces wine on-site at the monastery and combines wine experiences with excellent tours of the monastery.
Exclusive Cretan Wines
Grown at 580 metres on the east side of Crete. An unusual grape that almost acts as the red of white wines. Salty and full-bodied with high alcohol content. Assyrtiko is a smooth, zesty white with a citrusy feel. It’s among the top 9% of wines in the world.
The dry and fresh taste of Assyrtiko goes fantastically well with oysters. Just a little lemon juice and you have a match made in heaven.
In Crete, you’ll find one of the rarest grapes in the world. Dafni, a white grape that is indigenous to Crete and can only be found here. Brought back from the brink of extinction by the Lyrarakis Winery. Dafni, or Daphne means Laurel in greek. It is named so after a beautiful nymph who was turned into a laurel tree to escape the advances of Greek God Apollo. Laurel wine has the enchanting and intense aroma of bay leaves. This full-flavoured grape has hints of laurel, herbs and wet leaves.
Pair with fish and white meats. It’s rich, well-rounded flavour also an excellent accompaniment to light cheeses and vegetarian dishes.
This unique PGI wine harmoniously blends cosmopolitan chardonnay, fruity vilana, and malvasia aromatica.
Matches well with white meats such as pork and chicken, and rich fish (salmon, tuna etc).
A rare grape with a refreshing, citrusy white which is often paired with the creamy Vidiano to create a striking blend.
The fresh Plyto brings out the flavours in white fish or chicken and fresh salads.
Thrapsathiri is a medium-bodied pale white with fruity injections and moderately intense aroma of peach and melon. The grape makes for a well-rounded white with high alcohol content that is not overpowering.
A fantastic accompaniment for poultry, fish, spicy cheeses. The acidic, citrusy flavours go beautifully with grilled white fish and Greek salads.
Vidiano is the indigenous star of Crete’s whites, and one of the most popular local wines. Its unique aroma, together with a rich and creamy body and bursting with the flavours of stone fruits, melon honey with a herbal lift. A key element that has transformed Vidiano into the most popular Cretan variety.
Enjoy with anything from poultry and fish, to spicy vegetable dishes, salads and cheeses. Vidiano is a white meat lover and is particularly exceptional with a crisp pork belly. The creaminess of the wine pairing superbly with the rich meat. As well as rich seafood like crab and mackerel.
The most widely grown grape in Crete. The unique Vilana tops out awards ceremonies every year. A medium body with high alcohol content. Vilana shows notes of orange zest, pear, peaches, jasmine, and herbs with soft acidity.
Fish, vegetarian dishes, pastries and light cheeses are a perfect accompaniment.
Kotsifali has a soft and mellow nature that is intensely aromatic. It’s colour and rich fragrances come from red berries and fruits like cherry, plum and strawberry. Sweet spices and Mediterranean herbs give this fruity, full-bodied wine a well-rounded feel. The vintage Kotsifali Lyrarakis Reds have won many prestigious international awards.
It’s ideal for Mediterranean cuisine, baked meat and spicy cheeses that compliment the strong flavours.
A star along the reds is Liatiko. A variety cultivated all over Crete, but the best are found in Heraklion. It is a sweet medium-bodied red, easily oxidized variety that ages beautifully. Hints of strawberry and cherry and sweet spices give the wine intense fruity flavours and moderate acidity.
Rich and tasteful, it pairs great with cured meats, fish, and rich cheeses. The sweet versions such as Sitia, are very popular and excellent for those who want a lighter fortified wine to enjoy with desserts.
A deep coloured red that is often combined with Kotsifali as they heavily complement each other. Due to strong tannins, ageing is necessary with a Mantilari. Resulting in a vibrant and full red wine with smooth flavours of plum.
Kotsifali Mantilari blends pair excellently with rich red meats such as slow-baked lamb and steak.
Romeiko is very traditional on the island and a speciality of the Chania region. A medium body full of blueberry, wild cherry and clove flavours and aromas that makes a unique sherry-like wine.
They go wonderfully with fish, ham, and fermented cheeses.
Skalani is a PGI red wine that is matured for 12 months in oak barrels. This blend of Kotsifali and Syrah is another top contender in the awards for its intense bouquet of red forest fruit and sweet tones of cinnamon, clover, and cocoa.
Fantastic paired with Beef, Lamb, Spicy food, and mature and hard cheeses.
Malvasia is a sweet wine with a rich aroma, flavours of apricot and peach and hints of honey and toasted vanilla. Fresh and elegant on the taste buds, it is best served cold and goes great with desserts.
Moschato Spinas is an extremely rare indigenous variety with soft yellow colour and green hints. Flavours of zingy citrus fruits, smooth flower honey and dried apricot. A fabulous dessert pairing wine.
I had been invited to a unique wine tasting experience in Heraklion. I had never before realized that learning how to pair wine with food is a definitive skill, and I couldn’t wait to discover more.
Experiencing the liquor of the Gods
The day was sublime. I had spent the morning in Heraklion wandering through the quaint Central Market on 1866 Street that stretches from Meidani to Kornarou Square. The little streets packed full of small shops and people bustling together had a charming old-world vibe, and I had whiled away a good hour tasting local bread and following the delicious scents of town to line my stomach ready for the onslaught of delicious wine. I know it’s considered normal by wine connoisseurs to swill and spit, but no way was I going to be wasting a single drop of the magical liquid.
As the afternoon drew on I returned to my hotel to get ready. The setting couldn’t have been better. The sun was sinking and the temperature dropped to a cool level on the hazy Cretan evening. I took my place on the roof of Lato Boutique Hotel. The views stretching divinely over the city towards the Venetian Harbour. This evening I would be tasting local varieties unique to Crete. These wines can only be found here, where the conditions are ideal, and the recipes have been honed to perfection by passionate winemakers over hundreds of years. Many of the surrounding wine regions have PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status, meaning the wine varieties they cultivate are specific to a particular geographical area and have characteristics that are linked directly to their environment. In Crete, the warm, dry climate coupled with the altitude of the mountains, makes it a supreme location for growing grapevines, and the Cretan viticulture is thriving.
Our sommelier was super passionate and knew everything there was to know about Cretan wine. Helping us select them by colour, aroma, and taste, and explaining their history and importance in the wine industry in Crete and across the whole of the world. How the climate was a driving force in the process in Crete, and how some of the grapes here are so unique and bring powerful flavours to the final bottle.
After an interesting delve into the history of Cretan viticulture and the many features of the region that makes it so ideal for winemakers, it was time to get down to business, and our expert sommelier fearlessly poured my first glass of glistening gold. First up was the white Vidiano. A full-bodied white with a fruity taste and a unique aroma of sweet fruits and herbs. I was already feeling the effects as I reached the bottom of my glass, and happily began nibbling on the accompaniments of divine cheeses, cold cuts, vegetables, nuts, dried fruits and chocolates. The Vidiano paired particularly well with a light, crumbly goats cheese. The flavours exploded in my mouth as the creamy, fresh wine made the perfect foundation for the tart cheese.
We tasted each wine in turn, including 5 white, 5 red, 5 rose, and 2 dessert wines. Pairing each as suggested by the guide. I had never before realised that learning how to pair wine with food is a definitive skill, and makes the world of difference. New flavours and textures highlight the tones in each wine and enhance the flavours in the food and each new sip went down a treat. My favourite was by far the Dafni white wine, which had such a unique and delicious flavour I could have finished the bottle.
Dafni is one of the rarest grapes in the world. Indigenous to Crete, the grape was almost extinct before it was brought back to life and celebrated by Lyrarakis Winery. Dafni, or Daphne means Laurel in greek. Laurel wine has the intense aroma of bay leaves and is seriously enchanting. Deliciousness in every drop.
My tastebuds were singing throughout the whole experience. It was a pleasure to learn about the winemaking process and start to understand where the flavours come from, and the proper way to taste the wine through flavour and texture. I found myself thinking of the next birthday or occasion back home to celebrate, so I could have an excuse to bring home a selection of wines and goodies. A little piece of Greece at home with friends and family. When it comes to snacks, I’m no shy eater. I had to stop myself finishing off the plates of nuts, cheeses and traditional Cretan accompaniments. I settled for writing them all down instead so I could remember what paired best with each wine so I could wow my family with dinner parties. Each dish matched flawlessly with bottles of celebrated vintage. In the end, I chose four of the bottles to take home with me after the tasting, but I somehow managed to finish them all before the end of my trip and had to dash back to the hotel shop to stock up on wine gifts before my flight home.