The Thirsty Guide to Greek Wine: Crete Edition

There is no denying that Greece is a global hotspot these days. After a two-year lockdown, people are once again flocking to the picturesque Southeast European country to explore all that Greece has to offer. And along with stunning beaches, picture-perfect villages and some of the freshest, most delicious food, there is something else that makes Greece so special: the wine.

Greece is one of the oldest wine-producing regions in the world and while the various varietals produced there may not be as well-known as, say, ones from Italy or France, Greek wine is having a moment — one that is sure to stay.

“Greece is a country that has been producing wine for thousands of years, and wine has been of cultural significance for millennium,” explains Johnny Livanos of Diamond Wine Importers. “While Greece is a relatively small country, there are dozens of unique regions that focus on a variety of indigenous grapes, each with their own distinct qualities and flavor profiles. This immense history and diversity of the country makes it a wine region where exploration is constant. There is always something new to explore.”

The next region to explore: PGI Crete and PDO Dafnes.

The Wines of PGI Crete and PDO Dafnes

Crete is the largest and arguably the most famous island in Greece, marking the southern edge of the Aegean Sea. The island has a long and illustrious history dating back thousands of years and today, the Cretan wine industry is thriving, notably PGI Crete and PDO Dafnes.

If you ever visit the island, do not miss the opportunity to try pale, aromatic red wines are made here from Liatiko, sometimes blended with Mandilaria, of PDO Dafnes or light, delicate white wines made from Vilana and Athiri, which is a representative sample of PGI Crete wines. While most Cretan wine is made from native varieties, innovative producers have begun to experiment with grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc. These are often blended with the Cretan mainstays of Liatiko, Vilana and Kotsifali, giving rise to new styles of Cretan wine.

Modern winemaking on Crete began in the 1970s, and today, the island is host to four PDO-level appellations: Peza, Arhanes, Dafnes and Sitia. These are complemented by six more-generic regional appellations: PGI Level — Chania, Rethymno, Lasithi, Kissamos, Heraklion and Crete itself.

While these appellations are spread east-to-west across the 150 mile-long island, most of the vineyards are planted on the northern side. Here, the wine sites are sheltered by Crete’s extensive mountain ranges from hot North African winds and instead benefit from cooling breezes from the Aegean Sea in the north. This helps to slow ripening during Crete’s hot, sunny summers, preserve acidity in the grapes. Vineyard altitudes reaching as high as 3000 feet above sea level also provide cooler environments for premium grape-growing.

“The zone of PGI Crete in Greece lies at the spot where the continents of Europe, Africa and Asia meet and is divided into four regions: Chania, Rethymnon, Heraklion, and Lassithi,” explains Chris Lampadaris, owner of Stafili Wine Cafe. “It’s southern location and combination of altitude with limestone soil gives the grapes such unique characteristics.”

Soils on the PGI Crete are usually rich in limestone, and vary from light, sandy loam to more-dense clay-based soils. The uniqueness of PGI CRETE wines is due to the particular characteristics of the region (soil, climate, effect of the winds during the summer) in combination with the cultivated varieties and the applied cultivation techniques. Steep vineyard sites provide good drainage, and the vines are often deep-rooted to reach hydration and nutrients deeper in the ground. This serves to lessen vigor and promotes the vines’ production of high-quality berries with good flavor concentration.

PDO Dafnes

“Crete, this relatively small island is so varied, it feels like an entire continent, as high snowcapped mountains coexist with coastal warm areas,” says Nikos Douloufakis, of Douloufakis Winery, in the village of Dafnes, which is an indication of origin as well. In Dafnes, the vine and the wine are inextricably linked with the economy but also the social life of the people. The “Wine Festival Dafnes” held in Dafnes for more than 40 years, every year at the first ten days of July where plenty of wine is served with local delicacies. What makes the wines of this zone unique is that they all produced from the variety “Liatiko”, in the region of Dafnes with specific vinification method are indicated as “DAFNES Protected Designation of Origin (P.D.O.)”

The Minoans of Ancient Crete are thought to have been among the first civilizations in Europe, and evidence of viticulture on the island reaches back to at least 5000 BC. Ancient wine presses have been found in sites across Crete, and paintings in Minoan palaces denote grape-growing and winemaking.

“The soil of the vineyards is clay calcareous, of medium fertility and slightly sloping, with good drainage and sun exposure,” adds Douloufakis. “The climate of PDO Dafnes is characterized as Mediterranean climate, hot with dry summer and mild winters.”

Crete can be considered as the ideal wine growing zone for both white and red grape varieties, says Douloufakis.

“Grapes are collected by hands and then the fermentation takes place in stainless steel tanks or wooden barrels, under controlled temperature. They are hand made wines. As Douloufakis is a family-owned boutique winery the wines have the personal touch of the winemaker. We don’t produce large quantities — we have wines that stand apart because of character. Ancient history, indigenous varieties, a wonderful Mediterranean climate and incredible Cretan terroir are all encapsulated in our bottles.”

At Douloufakis Winery, the family-run team is all about high-quality product that honors the land and history.

“The family’s philosophy is to work in harmony with nature as their tradition dictates,” Douloufakis says. “We prefer a softer approach of cultivation rather than intense, better quality over quantity. We try to keep the character of the island into our wines and therefore to offer the wine lovers a unique experience.”

So what are these wines from PGI Crete and PDO Dafnes really like?

“Crete produces wines with intense and very complex aromas,” says Stafili Wine Cafe’s Lampardaris. “With whites you can find aromas of peach, apricot, pear, hints of herbs and saltiness with a nice minerality; with red wines, you can find aromas of red and black fruits. On the palate, they are light to full and have elevated levels of alcohol, but the medium to high acidity keeps them in balance.”

The best pairings: foods that connect the grapes with the land it comes from.

“The real taste of Cretan wine is warm, joyful and  hospitable character, the attributes of Cretan people and Crete,” says Douloufakis. “They pair wonderful with all the Mediterranean cuisine, but they best be enjoyed with good friends and family.

Lampardaris adds: “Wines from Crete can be enjoyed with or without food. These wines pair with the local Creten cuisine, hard and soft cheeses, white meat, fish and seafood.”

However you choose to enjoy these dynamic varietals, one thing is for sure: Cretan wines — and wines from Greece, generally — are making their mark.

“I believe that it is time for all of us to see Greece as a bigger picture,” says Lampardaris. “As a wine country and not as a region.

Wines from PGI Crete and PDO Dafnes — and other Greek regions — can be ordered by visiting

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