Crete is one of Europe’s oldest wine regions. It does not fall into the emerging category. Due to the convergence of environmental and political factors, as well as a changing tourism landscape, modern Cretan winemaking remains in its infancy.
Crete accounts for more than 10 percent of all the wine produced by Greece. This includes 11 native varieties, seven PDOs, and the majority of its growth in the last 20 years. Nikos Douloufakis is the owner of Douloufakis Winery. He says that Crete’s wine industry is rooted in the past but also at the dawn of a modern era, thanks to a combination of ancient heritage, modern exploration, and the island’s native varieties.
A Late Phylloxera Outbreak
This renaissance was made possible by the fact that phylloxera arrived in Crete only in 1977, well over a hundred years after it had ravaged Europe’s continent. It wiped out Crete’s vineyards just as European wines gained popularity around the world. This outbreak was devastating for the agriculture industry on Greece’s biggest island. However, it coincided with the end of the Greek dictatorship and the rise of tourism in Europe after World War II, creating an opportunity for ambitious young winemakers.
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Afshin Moavi, owner of Manousakis Winery, says, “It was an entirely new start.” This blank slate was necessary to propel Crete’s growing wine industry onto a foreign stage.
Before phylloxera hit, many rural Crete residents made their wine. Giorgios Mastrakoulis is the event coordinator for Wines Of Crete. “Wine wasn’t a luxury,” he says, “and winemaking used to be part of a typical person’s life,” using communal wine presses in village centers. The commercially produced wine in Crete had little value for local consumers. It was made primarily in bulk by large co-ops, and only a small amount was bottled.
What’s worse, the viticulture industry and vinification practices were based on quantity rather than quality. Douloufakis says that “vineyards were planted using a mixture of native grapes varieties, known as Logado. This means mixed local varieties.”
In 1988-92, nearly 20,000 acres were replanted with vineyards. The majority of these vineyards, mainly based on the input of European enologists and not native grapes, were planted with international varietals. Maria Titaki is the co-owner of Titakis Wines and an enologist. She says that the first people who tried to renovate vineyards did not know the value of Cretan grape varieties. The Cretan winemakers also had very little experience with monocultural vines or varietals and were unaware of the individual characteristics of their native grapes.
During the agricultural reconstruction of Crete, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Syrah became Crete’s main grapes. These international grapes not only thrived in Crete but also had a higher appeal to Crete visitors and the local population. For a very long time, there was a belief that anything foreign is automatically better, says Mastrakoulis.
After a history of political and environmental challenges, Crete is experiencing wine industry growth. Photo courtesy of Manousaki’s Winery.
Modern Cretan Wine
Currently, however, the Cretan landscape of wine is dominated by indigenous grape varieties such as Vilana and Liatiko. Young, ambitious producers are combining tradition with innovation to promote the region and its abilities. In 2023, Crete will have 38 boutique wineries compared to the few large cooperatives that existed in the past. This is a more than doubled increase in 15 years. The restoration of Crete’s native grapes and the modernization of Crete’s winemaking industry was a result of a combination of ambition, data, and a new tourism wave rooted in authenticity rather than familiarity.
In the beginning, the reconstruction of vineyards sparked a growing interest in enology. Titaki and Douloufakis studied abroad and brought advanced viticulture techniques and vinification methods back to Crete. Douloufakis says “Vineyards were cultivated using microclimate data, scientific vine management techniques, and native varieties.” Internationally, the popularity of Greek grapes grown in other regions was also a factor. Molavi says that the growing popularity of Assyrtiko (from Santorini) and Nemea [from Naoussa] has also contributed.
Reintroductions of Cretan grape varieties began in the 1990s. By the early-mid 2000s, most wineries had begun planting or grafting, and several Cretan PDOs were established. Early wines produced with indigenous grapes were often blended with international varieties in order to gain the acceptance of visitors and locals. If you have a popular variety in the glass, it is easier to get people to try it.