The mountains of Crete stretch on for miles in every direction. Except for a few rocky bits and areas punctuated by brilliant fuchsia wildflowers, everything is green. Of course there are olive trees—this is Greece, after all. But there are also miles and miles of perfectly manicured grapevines swooping down the slopes. What we didn’t know before we arrived on this beautiful island is that Crete wineries account for about 20 percent of all the wine made in Greece, which gave us no shortage of varietals to try during our time on the island.
Discovering Crete wines was a happy accident. Although we’ve enjoyed our share of vineyards and wineries from Texas to South Africa, it wasn’t originally part of our itinerary for Crete. And then we came across a small sign at the end of the road heading uphill to our apartment in the seaside village of Bali. Surely it was meant to be. Exploring Crete wineries quickly became part of the plan.
The history of wine-making in Crete is long. Four thousand years long, in fact. Archaeological evidence indicates that wine was produced as far back as the Minoan civilization that existed here beginning around 2600 BC—proof that wine and daily life have been inseparable for much of recorded history in Crete. Up until about 30 years ago, much of the wine made in Crete was made in people’s home and mainly intended for private consumption. But things are quite different now, as roughly 30 wineries are spread across this 160-mile-long island.
Although production has moved out of people’s living rooms and kitchens, some aspects of Greek wine are still very family-oriented as we saw in the first two Crete wineries we visited. Our first stop was Klados Winery whose sign we had seen near our apartment.
Perched on one of Crete’s many slopes, Klados Winery is surrounded by olive trees and their organic vineyards in all directions. This family-run business knew what they were doing when then picked the pretty spot for their winery 10 years ago when the business was already 10 years old. The only winery in the Rethymno area, Klados Winery was founded by Manolis Klados, a master Oenologist, in 1997. Now his daughter and son, who ran our tasting, oversee operations. The passion for wine and pride in the family business were clear as we talked about their products.
Klados Winery uses some grapes that will be familiar to most wine drinkers such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Sauvignon Blanc. But they also showcase local varietals like Kotsifali, a mellow grape with plum notes that’s a bit like Merlot, and Liatiko, a sweeter red. Their Muscat Spinas and Vidiano, Crete’s flagship wine that’s a bit like Viognier, were the grapes in our favorite of their wines, Great Hawk.
On land that has been in the family for five generations, Yiannis Stilianou cultivates his organic mountain vineyard outside of Heraklion. Stilianou Winery focuses on Greek varietals, including Kotsifali and Vidiano. Mantilari, a light-bodied red grape, is included in their Theon Dora rose and Theon Gi red. Thrapsathiri, a fruity, aromatic white grape, adds to the Theon Dora white.
Stilianou Winery does a limited production of 20,000 bottles, all of which are numbered. Our visit included the whole family, with Yiannis’s son and daughter providing a tour of the production facilities and Yiannis himself guiding the tasting. The care for their products (including the olive oil they produce) and for our experience came through every moment of our visit.
Our last stop in Crete was quite different from our first two. Boutari Winery has six locations around Greece and is the maker of many of the best-selling Greek wines in the world. With a 130-year history and lots of production and marketing might, Boutari has worked to elevate the profile of Cretan wines around the world.
Boutari’s Fantaxometocho (phantom) estate outside of Heraklion includes seven hectares of hillside, some rising to 700 feet. Sitting in their tasting room, which has a panoramic view of thousands of vines, we got just a glimpse of the capacity of Boutari. Like other wineries in Crete, Boutari blends well-known grapes like Chardonnay and Syrah with Cretan grapes like Kotsifali, Thrapsathiri, and Vilana (a light, floral white). Our favorite of the four wines we tried was Iouliatiko, a sweet, barrel-aged wine made from sun-dried Liatiko grapes.