The island of Crete, the ancient centre of Europe's oldest civilization, the Minoans, today forms the Southern border of Greece, and being the nation's largest island, shelters the islands of the Aegean Sea to it's North from the waters of the rest of the Mediterranean.
Rough and mountainous terrain covers Crete, and while the island is around 270km (160mi) long from East to West, at it's widest point, it is only 60km (37mi) across.
The island is an exciting place for modern wine production due to a number of geographical reasons. One of which is it's elongated shape which creates a curious climate that allows for Mediterranean features to shape much of the Northern side of the island, keeping these populated areas warm and dry. While further inland, colder temperatures prevail in Winter, and snowfall is common in the central mountains that cross almost the entire length of the island, split in places by deep valleys and gorges.
To the South of these mountains the climate is North African, with the continent being located just 300km/186mi away across the Sea of Libya, and as such, features significantly more sunny days per year and high temperatures year round, and is home to the renowned Messara Plain, which has been agricultural heartland for thousands of years.
Currently wine production on Crete accounts for approx 15-20% of the total wine made in Greece each vintage, and vineyard plantings on the island now exceed 50,000ha/123,550acres.
Much of Crete went untouched by Phylloxera until around the 1970's, when replanting was then necessary, meaning that some vineyards have high quantities of international varieties, which were popular at the time and as such may only be sold under the PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) Crete appellation, not under any PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) appellation as these predominantly focus on indigenous grape varieties.
While thousands of vineyard plots are spread all across Crete , there are five major regions to focus on that have all been recognised with PDO status, 4 of them are located one next to the other in the hilly lands South of the island's capital Heraklion, while the remaining wine region, Sitia is located at the Eastern end of the island.
Appellations here are defined by rivers, mountains or particular villages, so it is important to note where one PDO ends, and another begins.
The wine region of Archanes is historically the centre-point of Cretan wine, located in-between the more developed Peza to the East and the larger Dafnes to the West.
Archaeological digs in the region, particularly at Vathipetro, have unearthed well preserved evidence of sophisticated winemaking by the Minoan civilisation, including an intact indoor wine press dating back to around 1500BCE.
Viticultural landscape here is defined by the massive Mount Yuhtas (811m/2660ft), which towers over the tiny villages below and creates dozens of hillfolds where the local grapes and olives can thrive on clay and lime-based soils.
Wines produced from Kotsifali & Mandilaria grape varieties in the hills here are known to be delightfully aromatic, with Kotsifali being a pale red hue and high in alcohol, while Mandilaria is as deep in colour and high in tannin here as it is at in other growing regions of Greece, though slower to ripen thanks to the elevation of the mountain side vineyards.
Appellation: The whole area surrounding the village of Archanes has been granted the appellation PDO Archanes (est.1971) which is specifically for the production of dry red wines made from Kotsifali & Mandilaria. The region covered by this appellation starts at Vathipetro in the South and encompasses much of the area in between the river of Rema Giofiros, the central mountain of Yuhtas, including the valley and hills of Archanes, until it meets the border of the Peza wine region at the villages of Kounavi & Katalagari.
Archanes as an appellation ceases in the North at Skalani, less than 10 minutes drive South from the famous Minoan Palace of Knossos at the the edge of Heraklion city.
Dafnes is the largest of the Heraklion district wine regions and is spread across the Eastern foothills of the dominating Mount Psiloritis, also called Ida (2456m/8058ft), the 9th tallest mountain of Greece. Interestingly, the cave 'Idaion Andron' on the slopes of this mountain is believed locally to be one of the possible sites where the Greek god Zeus was born, as the mountain was sacred to his mother, the Titaness Rhea.
Grapes here are primarily grown upon much lighter, and less fertile soils than in the neighbouring regions, as there is a high concentration of well draining gravel and sandy-based soils that have eroded from the higher slopes.
One red grape variety rules the roost in Dafnes and that is the native grape of Liatiko, which is unusually early in achieving ripeness, often ready to harvest in the Summer month of July, (hence why it's name is believed to be derived from the Greek term for July: Ιούλιος/Ioúlios).
Liatiko can be made into excellent dry wines, with pale red hues plenty of aroma and sugar with moderate acidity levels that also suit high quality sweet wine productions, once favoured by the Venetians, and still popular in the area today.
Appellation: Dafnes has been granted an appellation for red wine production as PDO Dafnes (est.1971) and this encompasses a large area of Western Heraklion with the village of Dafnes in the centre where the Dafnes Wine Festival is celebrated in the village square in the first 10 days of July each year.
This appellation is specifically for red wines produced from Liatiko, though they may be made in either dry or sweet styles, with many wineries producing both.
Last of the more-particular Heraklion sub-regions, Peza is by far the most developed and intricate. Vineyards here are grown at 300m/985ft above sea level, and are mostly concentrated in the valley surrounding the small village of Peza, as well as the hillsides that stretch out in all directions, with new plantings now taking place at up to 650-700m/2130-2300ft.
Peza is the largest producer of wine on the island of Crete with around 70% of all vineyard plantings located within this region.
Three grape varieties are the focus here in Peza, with Kotsifali & Mandalaria taking pride of place for the reds, as they do in neighbouring Archanes. In both locations, these two are often best blended with the common technique here being 75% Kotsifali with 25% Mandalaria, creating a balanced and superior wine the calms that roughness of Mandalaria and adds body to the soft, fruit-forward nature of Kotsifali.
The white variety Vilana is also grown with immense success in the region, with the best examples coming from higher altitude sites with unique exposures, allowing for a slow ripening period, yielding a more elegant, aromatic wine with a light body, and acid structure.
Recently, several small producers have been blending Vilana with international varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc, leading to a range of wine styles at the PGI-level.
Soils here in Peza are calcareous, free-draining and allow for vines to develop deep root networks and especially on more exposed sites, Vilana is able to fully express its aromatic intensity and bright acidity.
Appellation: There is only one appellation for Peza and it's surrounding valley, however it was formed in two parts. The red wine appellation was granted PDO Peza in 1971, the same year as all of the other Cretan wine regions; Dafnes, Archanes & Sitia. Red wines may only be produced from Kotsifali & Mandalaria.
The white wine appellation for Peza was added in 1982 and is dedicated completely to Vidana, becoming the first PDO white wine region on Crete.
The appellation borders Archanes to the West and then continues further South through the hills and valleys of Peza, where it's edge includes the aptly named village of Panorama, as well as it's neighbour Patsideros, while the form of it's Eastern border stays West of the famous pottery village of Thrapsano, instead including Astritsi and going as far North as Sampas & Myrtia.
When looking for wines from Crete you may also come across some named for Candia or Handakas, both of which are historical names for referring to the greater Heraklion District.
As the name may suggest, the Candia wine region covers all of the Heraklion sub-regions, (Archanes, Dafnes and Peza) as well as a far larger part of the surrounding countryside. This assists in recognising the hard work of many growers producing the same grape varieties as the more famous regions, that happen to be located outside of their protected boundaries. Many of these vineyards are historical, but some have sprung up in the several decades since Archanes, Dafnes, and Peza were granted their appellations in the 1970’s.
Appellations: Despite being the largest and newest appellation found on Crete, PDO Candia is no less strict in it’s appellation requirements, being solely for dry wines. Reds are made from Kotsifali and Mandilaria, while whites must be a minimum of 85% Vilana (the remainder may be made up of Assyrtiko, Athiri, Thrapsathiri and Vidiano).
Established the same year as PDO Candia (2011) is another appellation called PDO Malvasia-Candia created specifically for the sweet and fortified wines made from sundried grapes. (See below a similar appellation in Eastern Crete also added that very same year).
These wines must be 85% Assyrtiko, Athiri, Thrapsathiri and Liatiko and may include a maximum of 15% of Malvasia di Candia Aromatica and White Muscat.
Sitia, in the Lassithi district of Eastern Crete has perhaps the most remarkable winemaking history on the whole island, with entire buildings devoted to wine production and trade discovered in the ruins of the Minoan palace of Zakros.
Zakros was destroyed around 1450BC, with hundreds of years of vinification taking place before that time.
In the more than 3450 years since then, Sitia has remained a place of reverence, with the Roman politician and general Lucullus famously sourcing wine for his lavish banquets from the region in the last century BC.
Vineyards in Sitia can be found on slopes on the Southern and Eastern coastlines, where they then rise to over 600m(2000ft) above sea level further inland.
The idyllic port town of Sitia serves as a gateway to the famous Vai palm forest and the vineyards of the Moni Toplou, a 15th Century Monastery that today offers wine tasting and a commanding view over the arid hills of Eastern Crete.
The main grape variety of note here is Liatiko, which is made into a highly-prized sweet wine thanks to it’s thin skins and high level of tannins.
Appellations: Almost identical to the PDO Peza appellation to the West the appellation of PDO Sitia was formed in two parts.
The zone for red wines being created in 1971 (focused on the North-Eastern Slopes and around the town of Sitia proper), and is dedicated to Liatiko (min. 80% of the final wine) which has been grown here since antiquity with Mandilaria being used in blends and with Liatiko in the production of sweet wines.
The zone for white wines was allocated much later in 1998 (situated at an average altitude of 620m/2035ft, in the centre of the district’s Lefki Plateau.
Vilana rules the roost at this elevation and is often blended with the Thrapsathiri grape as long as Vilana is at least 70% of the blend.
New to the area in 2011 was a second full appellation in the form of PDO Malvasia-Sitia , entirely dedicated to sweet wines made from sundried grapes and includes fortified versions as well.
Wines must be 85% Assyrtiko, Athiri, Thrapsathiri and Liatiko and may include a maximum of 15% of Malvasia di Candia Aromatica and Muscat of Spinas.
The wines here must undergo and mandatory ageing period of at least 24 months in oak casks before being released.
Rest of Crete
While much of the wine regions that have developed in the modern age (since the early 1970’s) have been focussed on the central and Eastern portions of Crete, there is growing interest and plenty of historical relevance in the West of Crete as well.
Chania (not to be confused with Candia) in the far West of Crete is the coolest and most humid of all the winegrowing areas on the island. Mostly flat, the region is loomed over by the Lefka Ori range of mountains which trap clouds coming off of the Mediterranean Sea.
The primary grape here is Romeiko which is often made into a wildly popular, high-alcohol “Madeira-like” wine called Marouvas that is aged in huge barrels and featured in the designated appellation of PGI Kissamos (est.1990) just West of the city of Chania.
Rethymno lies between Chania and Heraklion prefectures and is bordered by mountains on all-sides, especially the Lefka Ori range to the West that separates it from Chania, and to the East, the ever imposing Mount Psiloritis (often known as Mount Ida) the highest mountain on Crete and mentioned earlier as the Heraklion wine region of Dafnes lies on the other side.
While interest in Rethymno is relatively new, a PGI Rethymno was granted in 2010, and as the grape Vidiano (now highly popular and spread across the island) is said to have originated here, there is hope for continued development of the local wine industry.