My Big Fat Greek Wine: The Compelling Wines of Crete

The Greeks are known as the architects of democracy, but the architects of wine? Wine history stretches back 3,500 years on the island of Crete, originally started under the Minoan Empire, and the island has native grape varieties seen no where else. Today Crete, now part of Greece, is seeing a resurgence in wine.

You might assume that centuries of winemaking would mean that the wine industry hit its stride ages ago. Ah…no. It’s only been since 2003 that the wine region on this formerly tumultuous island has achieved a modicum of interest. To understand why you need to know two very specific events which road blocked the wine industry:

1) Phylloxera hit Crete in the mid-1970s and devastated most of the old vineyards. But the little louse produced big changes when aging vineyards on aging rootstock were replanted.
2) In 1998 the legislature, in an effort to “promote” and hold on to the indigenous grape varieties, passed a law allowing for the extensive planting of almost exclusively Vilana, one of Crete’s native white grapes, but also its least promising. So the expansion of vineyards with a multitude of unique grape varieties was hamstrung, and Vilana became over-planted. The law was finally overturned (you go democracy!) and the freedom to plant any grapes, anywhere has allowed a resurrection of Crete wines.
The Crete landscape

Vidiano has emerged as Crete’s flagship white wine. “Vidiano is full of apples, yellow fruits, rich balanced aromas, velvet body, with a twist of oily texture, and refreshing acidity,” says Nicolas Miliarakis of Minos- Miliarakis Winery. But there are other whites native to Crete including Dafni, and Plyto, along with Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and the like. As for the reds, well, red wines are not the strong suit here, however there are some solid examples of what red wine can achieve. In Heraklion (Crete’s capital), Kotsifali is an indigenous grape but needs a blending partner to round out the rough edges. Syrah is the best partner I tasted when I visited Crete, though there were a few blends using Merlot and Cabernet. “Kotsifali has elements of spicy prunes, leather, cinnamon, and small red fruits,” Miliarakis tells me. “It has a long after taste, matching very well with tomato and onion sauces, goat and lamb; ingredients that characterize Cretan cuisine,” he says. There are two main wine growing regions on Crete:
The wines, and food,  of Tamiolakis
The lovely ladies at Domain Paterianakis

Located just outside of the port city of Heraklion, Domain Paterianakis is heading up wine tourism. In addition to their winery they have a B&B on site; four rooms that come with a breakfast basket and free wine tasting. Their facility looks down to low rolling hills and out to the Cretan Sea. The dirt road up to the property seems inhospitable at first, a bumpy uphill journey over dirt roads, but once at the top, almost as if on cue, a stocky bearded sheep herder passes by my car, the staccato clinking of tin bells around the necks of his goats punctuating the motionless warm air. The winery and B&B were built using stones from the property and Paterianakis were the first to farm organically, and the healthy bees on the property keeping the vineyard thriving, which is why they use the bee logo on their bottles. Their rosé made with Kotsifali and Syrah is one of the best on the island.
In Crete, everyone helps out in the wineries!

The calcium rich soils of Tamiolakis Winery help to make wines like their flagship Ekti Ekdosi (meaning ‘Sixth Edition’), an extracted blend of Kotsifali, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. “This wine is a blend of our Cretan past and French history,” owner Maria Tamiolakis tells me. I tasted two different vintages when I visited with them, both different and impressive showing that Cretan blended red wines have structure, finesse with layered fruit. Minos-Miliarakis Winery also makes a terrific Kotsifali, but adds Mandilari for color and tannic structure, and Mourvèdre, spending 8 months in oak. Douloufakis Winery planted their grapes in 1996 on American rootstock and owner Nicos Douloufakis makes Liatiko, another native variety usually reserved for sweet wines as it has a propensity to oxidize quickly. But his dry red version was perfect with the Greek lamb I had and the wine shows notes of black cherry, pepper, lavender and resin.
Zacharias Diamantakis

On a windswept hill Zacharias Diamantakis and his namesake winery have impressive views of a patchwork quilt of vineyards and olive trees as far as the eye can see. Zacharias let me sample multiple years of Vidiano and this his wines are clean, with bright acidity, body and depth, perfect with seafood which is ubiquitous in Crete. “I love this variety, it is our future,” he says of Vidiano. In addition he produces a second label called Prinos and makes Chardonnay and Syrah for the international market (available in the U.S.) and Diamantakis has pulled in several Decanter wine awards. Additionally he makes raki, something far better than the traditional anise dominant ouzo. Similar to grappa, raki is distilled from the must of grapes, and is usually clear. But Zacharias barrel aged his and it took on a golden color, softer and smoother than straight raki. If you visit Crete you’ll find raki for sale, and most winemakers have some, somewhere. It’s a delightful spirit, potent, but something you’ll find nowhere else.
The port city of Chania
Moving west along the island, there are less than 10 wineries outside the lovely port city of Chania and this region differs from Heraklion typically with less wind but more heat allowing Crete to showcase more international varieties like Chardonnay, Grenache, even Tempranillo. Manousakis Winery offers Rhone styled wines like Syrah, Roussanne and Grenache which fall under the Nostos label - available in the States. You can get a tour and tasting here for around €4, or a light lunch of Cretan food, tasting and two glasses of wine which will run €15 per person. And this is where Crete is a great value: local fresh foods, native grapes and unique experiences at prices you can’t find in better known wine regions. Of note Manousakis Winery have a few old olive trees on the property, one of which was planted in 1290 AD, a massively twisted and gnarled trunk, still producing fruit and a thing of beauty in its own right.
The team at Manousakis Winery

At Dourakis Winery there is a charming tasting room made of hewn stone blocks, a mini agriculture and winemaking museum, and two art gallery spaces, and their wines are all under €10. There is a clear acidity on the white wines, potent little numbers that cry out for food but which are effective in their simplicity and which reflect the local region. Just down the road the beautiful tasting room of Karavitakis Winery represents exactly what Crete is working so hard for: namely wines that are compelling, using international varieties, but not shying away from the native grapes which make Crete so unique. Clearly visitors to Crete will not be familiar with many of these native grapes, therefore well-known wines like Merlot offer an easy introduction to traditional Cretan reds, and Karavitakis bridges this gap very well. Karavitakis Winery are producing perhaps the most diverse portfolio. Their Syrah for example is a dusty tannic wine, oaked aged with elements of blackberry and leather, similar to their fine Cabernet Sauvignon with its blueberry, blackberry and cocoa notes. Other producers to look for in Crete include Domain Zacharioudakis (who make very nice Kotsifali blends), Alexakis Winery (their Vidiano is a terrific value), and Lyrarakis whose Okto label blend of Vilana, Muscat and Sauvignon Blanc is another wonderful value wine available in the U.S.
This olive tree in Crete is over 3,000 years old

The beauty of the bourgeoning Cretan wine industry is that it’s tourist friendly and you’ll find wines here you cannot find anywhere else. A visit to this island will provide an opportunity to sample what very well might become world-class wines in the making.
To learn more about Greek wines:
Look for Raki while in Crete

 READ my other post about the Palace of Knossos: Knossos Palace
WATCH this VIDEO I shot in CRETE
My Big Fat Crete Video


  1. Great blog! Crete has always been known as a beautiful place, but I agree with you that as a wine destination it's underrated. Your informative post and great pictures should boost its image among wine connosieurs. That raki sounds interesting. I bet it goes well with the famous Greek appertizers, doesn't it?

    Paul Roberts @ PaulRobertsWines.co.uk

  2. Thanks for your comment, Paul. Yes, Crete has a lot to offer and the wines are improving nicely. I do hope that more people discover it. I always propose that to truly understand a region's wine, you need to understand the region.