The Minoans left records of their love of the grape, including this wine press I visited, maintained almost the way it was found, in a village not far from the palace at Knossos. But the teetotaling Ottomans’ occupation of the island wiped out serious winemaking until recent years. Even then, much of Crete’s production was indifferent bulk wine.
In only the last dozen years, much has changed. There are now almost three dozen quality wineries on the island, including this one owned by Boutari, which I visited one evening near Heraklion. Most wineries have estate-grown grapes as well as purchasing grapes independent growers. Both red and white wines are popular.
Winemakers such as Manolis Stafilakis of Toplou Monastery winery use modern technology in the vineyards and wineries to ensure world-class-quality wines. But he told me most wineries are adamant about using a preponderance of local, indigenous grape varieties, either to make distinct varietal wines or blends with other local and international varieties.
The names of the indigenous grapes sounded funny at first, but gradually I got use to them. Let’s recite: mantilari, kotsifali, and liatiko for the reds, and vilana, vidiano, plyto, thrapsathiri, and malvazia di candia for the whites.
Wherever there was wine, I also found great local food to match with it. Cretan food is not all from the sea or from the garden. In fact, Cretans are known for their love of meat dishes — here lamb and potatoes, which paired very well with a glass of barrel-aged mantilari.
A staple of Cretan culture — in addition to its wine and antiquities — is olive oil. I visited one winery where all three come together. Stelios Zacharioudakis was digging terraces for his new mountain vineyards in the south of the island when he partially unearthed a Minoan olive oil press, which he left in situ. "Don’t tell the authorities," he cautioned. Sorry, Stelios.
Zacharioudakis is one of the more ambitious of the new winery owners. His mountainside winery and vineyards would rival in ambition any found in Napa Valley. In fact, much of Crete’s wine industry has a New World flavor to it due to its sudden, almost overnight blossoming in a winemaking renaissance.
But can we buy these wines in the United States, I asked? Yes and no. Zacharias Diamantakis makes wine for his family winery, and they have good distribution in America. Altogether about eight Cretan wineries are imported here.
Which means I tasted wines from than 20 wineries whose owners would love to sell us their wines. Among them are Evie Douraki, who poured me wines from Dourakis, her family’s winery. While Dourakis wines are not yet available in the U.S., Douraki reminds travelers that the winery’s doors are open to visitors, and that corks are ready to be pulled. Note that Crete women may drop the last consonant from family names.
After a rough day of drinking and eating, I returned to the Galaxy Hotel in Heraklion. There, the staff had thoughtfully left me a bedtime snack of dried fruits, locally made marshmallows, and a small flagon of raki — a grappa-like brandy made from local wine (somewhat different from the anise-flavored raki popular elsewhere in the Mediterranean). Sweet dreams, indeed.