A Wine Day on Crete
Sometimes, despite the best of planning, things just don’t work out.
And then there are the times when, with little or no planning at all, fortune smiles upon us and a perfect day ensues. Recently we had just such a day.
Dina and I have just returned from a long weekend trip on Crete, from my place of employ. And wonder or wonders, it just so happened that there was a wine festival going on this weekend, with free tastings at all participating wineries. Obviously, this was too good an opportunity to pass up, and as we had some unplanned time, and rental cars were available at reasonable rates, we headed off to discover what Cretan wine is all about.
Although we don’t hear much about Cretan wines here in Israel, apparently the wine tradition in Crete dates back as far or further than ours. Crete also has wine grape varieties that are unique to the island’s terroir and microclimate.
The rental car guy set us off in the right direction towards Peza in the general area of Crete’s capitol city Iraklion. First of all a big thanks to Kiriakos Papadopoulos, owner of the Eagle’s Travel Car Rental agency in Stalis. He took very good care of us and gave us an excellent rate.
On our way to the Peza region, we passed the ruins of the Minoan palace at Knosos. The palace, which apparently began construction some 4,000 years ago is large and impressive, and well worth a visit. Finds from the Neolithic period indicate that the site was settled as far back as 10,000 years ago.
From Knosos, where I also got a good deal on a t-shirt, we headed to the Boutari winery. Boutari is actually a group of wineries all over Greece, and the one we visited is near the town of Skalani. The view from the winery is breathtaking, and this picture hardly does it justice.
Vineyards planted around the winery included all the varieties used to make their wines, and the rows were conveniently labeled.
Inside we were offered tastings of four wines, two sweet and two dry. We opted to try the dry wines only, one white and one red. First the white, a 2011 blend of Chardonnay, Malvasia Aromatica, and Vilana grapes called Fantaxometcho (Haunted Domain). The wine was fresh and dry with flavors of lemon and grapefruit, with the lightly oaked Chardonnay adding body. Dina & I both enjoyed it, though neither of us was overly impressed.
The red, called Skalani after the nearby town, was a 50/50 blend of Syrah and Kotsifali. This wine reminded me of some Israeli Syrah-Merlot blends, so I wasn’t surprised to read that Kotsifali is sometimes described as the Cretan equivalent of Merlot. Very fruity and well integrated, we both enjoyed this wine, but were disappointed by its very short finish.
In Boutari ‘s tasting room there was an attractive and interesting display of corkscrews, and I couldn’t resist taking a picture.
Next was a brief stop at the Titakis winery, where we ran into a trio of English women who were on a similar wine adventure – actually we saw them leaving Boutari just as we arrived. We went into Titakis together, but although the door was open, there was no one there to tell us about the winery or offer us tastings. We did see a display of wines in plastic soft drink style bottles, and we also saw some box wine through an open warehouse door. Consequently, we all agreed that this “stop” was not worth our time and we decided to continue on together to the Stilianou Winery.
To reach Stilianou, we had to maneuver through the narrow streets of Kounavi, but the result was definitely worth the trouble.
Upon arrival we were greeted by owner/winemaker Giannis Stilianou. A 4th generation vintner, Giannis opened Stilianou as a commercial winery about 20 years ago.
Stilianou’s wines are all made from grapes grown organically in the family’s own vineyards. The grapes are only irrigated when absolutely necessary, and Giannis told us that the last time that happened was at least 20 years ago! To achieve high quality wine, Giannis Green Harvests his grapes by about 50% with a resulting yield of about 800 kg/dunam (8 tonnes/hectare).
What is unique about the vineyards is that the different varieties are grown and harvested together. The vineyards of red grapes contain Kotsifali and Mantilari varieties, planted in a 70/30 ratio, while the white vineyards are planted with Vidiano, Vilana, and Thrapsathiri. This means that there is no blending during production of the wines; since the grapes are harvested, crushed, and pressed together, the final blend is already in the juice. (From Wikipedia I see that this practice is called Field Blend and, while once common, it is rarely used anymore.) When we asked how he decided to do it that way, Giannis said that’s how his grandfather did it, and he’s not around anymore to tell us why. Considering the results, the grandfather knew what he was doing, and he was wise enough to select varieties that ripen together.
In addition to vineyards, Stilianou also has olive groves (olives and olive oil are Crete’s largest industry – there are over 35 million olive trees on the island), so before the wine, Giannis offered us a taste of his organic olive oil. I’m no expert, but even I could tell the difference between this oil and others I’ve tasted. It was very light with a delicate flavor and just the slightest kick in the aftertaste. Acidity was very low at 0.3% and at €7 for a one liter can, the price is right.
Stilianou, which produces about 20,000 bottles a year, currently has three wines, and we were able to try them all. We started with the Theon Dora (Gifts of the Gods) White 2012, an unoaked wine made from the three white varieties mentioned above. Even though it was far too fruity for my personal taste, I would describe this wine as luscious, with a host of well balanced flavors. I could taste apricot and grapefruit, and others in our group also detected peach and banana.
The 2012 Theon Dora Rosé is made from Stiliano’s two red varieties. The juice for this wine was left on the skins for 20 hours, resulting in a color much darker than normal for a rosé. Also, unlike most rosés, this wine is absolutely dry with very little fruitiness. The flavors I detected were sour cherries and a bit of grapefruit, and Dina also tasted raspberry. A very enjoyable and distinct wine.
The last wine in Stiliano’s current lineup is the 2006 Theon Gi (Land of the Gods), which is Stilianou’s only V.Q.P.R.D (Appellation) wine. Red wines in the Peza region may be identified as V.Q.P.R.D. only if they are made from Kotsifali or Mantilari grapes and aged in oak.
As soon as the Theon Gi hit my glass I could tell it was something very different. The color was slightly brownish red, and there was quite a strong sweet scent of raisins, both reminding me of Port. When I asked, Giannis confirmed a late harvest of the grapes, resulting in concentrated flavors. I am at a loss to describe the flavor of the Theon Gi. It is full bodied but not overpowering, and despite the aroma, the taste is only mildly fruity and not at all sweet; the flavors are complex and very well integrated, which is probably why I’m having trouble identifying anything specific, and the tanins are medium soft. It is hard to believe that this wine is made from the same grapes as the rosé. Of course, the process is completely different. Here, the juice is left on the skins for 2 – 3 weeks. After fermentation the wine spends 12 months in French oak followed by several years in a stainless tank, and then another year of rest in the bottle before Giannis is finally willing to release it. Considering the complexity and duration of the process, the €12 price tag on this wine is more than reasonable, and needless to say, I took a bottle.
I also asked for two bottles of the rosé (one for me and one for a friend), but Giannis regretfully informed me that it hadn’t been bottled yet. If I didn’t mind unlabeled bottles, he offered to fill a couple for me directly from the tank. Considering that some of the best wines I’ve had came in unlabeled bottles, I certainly didn’t mind.
Visiting Stilianou was a definite high point of our weekend in Crete, ranking among my all time favorite winery visits, and I thank Giannis Stilianou for his warm welcome, his patience with our (my) endless questions, and for sharing his outstanding wines with us. If you have plans to visit Crete, try to leave time for a visit to Stilianou. Don’t bother looking for Stilianou wines in the shops; you can only get them at the winery and at select restaurants where Giannis personally delivers them to ensure they are properly stored.
There are also quite a few more wineries in the area, though we didn’t have time to visit them. Certainly one good reason (and there are many) to return to Crete.