Crete is the largest and most important Greek island in terms of viticulture. Only a small percentage of land is flat, mainly on the coast, since a series of relatively high mountains run the spine of the island from East to West. The climate of Crete should be the hottest in Greece, being the country’s southernmost point and numerous tourists can attest to this. However, mountains are vastly important for regional climate and, consequently, for viticulture in Crete. Vine growers have the option of planting high-altitude sites and thus securing much cooler meso-climates, an advantage not available in most Aegean Islands. Hence, most vineyards in Crete are found on high, north-facing slopes, sheltered from the hot, “African”, southern winds.
Crete is home to approximately 15 per cent of the nation’s vineyards, the lion’s share being in the prefecture of Heraklio, followed by the prefectures of Chania, Rethymno, and Lassithi. The majority of soils are clay and limestone, with a high proportion of clay in many sites. Soil fertility follows a general pattern, with slopes being less rich than plains.
Crete has four wine appellations, three of which are close to Heraklio and the remaining being in the town of Sitia in the Lassithi prefecture, which can be either white or red.
White Sitia must be at least 70 per cent Vilana, a fresh and lemony variety, together with Thrapsathiri, which adds floral complexity. Sitia red is 100 per cent Liatiko, giving round and rich character, but producers are allowed to add 20 per cent Mandilaria, to increase colour and acidity and give a moderately high alcohol content. Liatiko also produces here excellent, concentrated sweet wines.
The three Heraklio appellations are Dafnes, for dry or sweet reds; Archanes, only for dry reds; and Peza, by far the largest appellation, producing dry whites and reds. From all the key varieties, Vilana is the principal white grape and Kotsifali the most popular red. Dafnes is 100 per cent Liatiko, showing a spicy character and sheer power. Archanes and Peza reds are 75 per cent Kotsifali, an intense, leathery variety with high alcohol, low acidity and round tannins, as well as Mandilaria. Archanes shows more intensity and structure, while Peza has added fragrance and elegance. Finally, Peza white is pure Vilana, lemony, fragrant and full of freshness.
Apart from the appellations, wine producers in Crete are expanding their portfolio in many thrilling ways. Vineyards are planted with Bordeaux and Rhône varieties and many of these attempts show true potential. More importantly, several young winemakers have been trying to resurrect almost extinct local grapes, like Dafni or Plyto, or forgotten styles, like
the solera-aged, sherry-like Marouvas, making wines that only add to excitement.