The stars among Cretan wines

FT Wine — The story of Europe’s 19th-century phylloxera crisis (American root-feeding insect devastates European vines) is well known. Grafting European vines to naturally resistant native US-vine rootstocks was the solution, practised from the late 19th century onwards — but the tiny insect still has the power to cause trouble.

On Crete, however, the problem was a different one. Phylloxera only the island in the 1970s, just as mass tourism was taking off and as Greek aspirations turned towards its European neighbours following the fall of its military junta in 1974. When the vineyards were replanted, it seemed logical to choose fashionable French varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Syrah in place of indigenous varieties.

Crete, though, is not only the source of a significant volume of Greek wine (the mountain foothills behind Heraklion are the country’s second-biggest wine-producing zone), but Cretan wine traditions are also of extraordinary antiquity.

The move from native varieties, producing fascinating, gastronomically adaptable wines, to immigrant northerners, producing wines only weakly differentiated from similar varietals the world over, now looks to have been an error. Greece’s economic turmoil has seen consumption on Crete dwindle. Foreign importers, by contrast, prefer true Cretan varietals and blends.

Given that Heraklion lies south of Tehran, Tunis and Algiers, you might assume that conditions are uniformly hot and that Crete is therefore a land of sturdy reds. In fact, some 68 per cent of Cretan production is of white wine, generally bottled between 12.5 per cent and 13 per cent.

The reason is altitude. Average temperatures tend to drop by 1C or so for each gain of 180m, and most of Crete’s vineyards lie between 200m and 900m above sea level; they are therefore much cooler than raw latitude would suggest. Technically, too, it is easier to produce pristine, fresh, young white wine than serious gastronomic red wines, where the production process is longer and more hazard-strewn.

The indigenous star among Cretan whites is a grape variety called Vidiano, originally from the coastal city of Rethymno. Depending on the altitude at which is it grown, Vidiano can vary from fresh, green and sappy, like a southern echo of Sauvignon Blanc, to peachy and creamy, with a cascade of petal foam more evocative of Viognier or Roussanne. Thrapsathiri is another local variety which can astonish with its delicacy and scented charm (its fragrant slightness can evoke Galician Albariño). The widely planted Vilana is more typically “Greek”: structured and lemony.

The star among the red varieties is, in fact, Crete’s most widely planted: Liatiko. Its pale colour, rich natural sugars and propensity for oxidation mean that it often ends up as a sweet wine — but the grandest Liatiko emerges in dry form, when its generous tannins have been leached from the skins to balance that natural sweetness. It also blends exceptionally well with another indigenous red variety called Mandilari, which is its opposite: deeply coloured and much more acidic but lacking the central palate fleshiness that Liatiko has in abundance. Kotsifali is a third indigenous red which in general makes a fruitier and simpler wine than either Liatiko or Mandilari. Widespread use of the Crete PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) means that, helpfully, these grape variety names often appear on labels.

Crete’s version of sub-regional appellations is still in its infancy, but the limestone foothills of Heraklion’s hinterland are certainly the island’s leading quality-wine zone at present. Look out for the PDOs (Protected Designation of Origin) of Dafnes (Liatiko reds), Archanes (red Kotsifali and Mandilari) and Peza (white Vilana and red Kotsifali and Mandilari).

A second Cretan area of great potential is found in the lower-lying Lasithi zone to the east of the island, in the PDO of Sitia. Red clay, schist soils and dry, windy, arid conditions provide both whites and reds with much greater density and succulence than the high-altitude Heraklion hinterland.

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