The Real Midas Touch: Lyrarakis Winery and the Wines of Crete.
In the beginning, back when the gods liked to congregate on Mount Olympus, Zeus had a little trouble understanding monogamy. In one of his many dalliances, Zeus slept with Semele, daughter of King Cadmus of Thebes. Hera, the ever reproachful wife, disguised herself as an old crone and befriended Semele, and after a time, made her doubt that Zeus had ever slept with her, suggesting that Zeus would have to reveal his true form to prove it. Of course, Zeus knew full well that revealing himself would kill Semele, as no mere mortal could look upon the full splendor of a Greek god. Nevertheless, she persisted, and Zeus came to her wreathed in balls of lightning. Semele perished, but Zeus saved her child by sewing him onto his thigh. The child, born months later, was Dionysus. God of wine and fertility.
The Greeks were certainly on to something.
When you think of Greece, you probably think of this:
Or maybe this:
But probably not this:
The Ancient Greeks get a lot of credit. The foundations of Western philosophy, democracy, the Olympics, ending wars with wooden horses left as gifts....they got around. But their impact on the wine world is mysteriously absent--well, perhaps absent is not the word. Wine, as it turns out, was just as prominent in Greek culture (say hey Dionysus), and their knowledge of viticulture spread to France, Italy, Austria, and many other nations that are now well renowned for their wine-making in the heyday of Ancient Greece. So what happened? Why is there no Greek equivalent to Barolo or Burgundy?
Answers are never simple, but suffice it to say Greece simply didn't have the luxury of time in the modern era. In 1458, Athens was captured by the Ottoman Empire, and by the early 16th century, all of modern day Greece was under Ottoman control. While wine was still produced in small amounts for valuable tax revenue,the Ottoman Empire was Muslim, and did not consume alcohol.We tend to forget just how long the Ottoman Empire was a relevant power, and they held the Greek territories for centuries. When the Greeks declared independence in 1821, they embarked on a vicious nine-year conflict that found Greece recognized as a nation (through the skin of their teeth) by the London Protocol of 1830. Rebuilding the nation was costly, especially given that Greece had a whole history built up as separate nation states. Then came the First World War, The Second World War, and the Greek Civil War. Survival was the primary objective, wine would have to wait.
Branding was a part of the problem as much as anything. While the English were busy looking for ways to distinguish the wines of France by their regions and varietals (hello, Bordeaux and Champagne), Greece was still trying to stabilize and was not so focused on the export market. Despite their trials and tribulations, Greece has been making wine for a very long time, and very good wine at that. Assyrtiko has already started to become more widely recognized in the United States, both in restaurants and wine shops, but we're focusing on a stellar producer from Crete this week, Lyrarakis.
It's hard to parse out where wine began in the ancient world, but it is believed that Greece learned wine-making practices from the Ancient Egyptians, who were trading with the Minoan civilization that inhabited Crete. The Minoans were an early power in Greece and brought the practice to mainland Greece during the Mycenaean era. That was the era that made Greece mainstream, where Greek culture was exported across Europe, and the time of Odysseus, Agamemnon, and Homer. But after the collapse of the Byzantine Empire, Crete fell into Venetian hands, and there are still remnants of their wine-making, even treading tanks that have been carved into the limestone rocks that dot the Cretan landscape. The Venetians would hold on to their first colony until the Ottomans came in 1645, though their capital Candia, now known as Heraklion would hold out under siege from 1648-1669 (seriously).
It wasn't until 1930 when the first wine cooperatives in Greece started to take shape. Even so, the bottling market for wine was extremely limited, and bottling and exporting was even more rare. There was also the matter of Retsina. The pine sap infused wine is not short of strong opinions--both for and against, and it made a particular impact on the international view of what the Greek's had to offer.
Crete, which holds one of the earliest examples of the wine press, is also responsible for 20% of Greece's total wine production, but it's had its share of hardships in viticulture as well. Phylloxera, the American native aphid that tore European vineyards asunder, only reached Crete in the 1970s, and after its expected devastation, the decision was made to replant Crete's many vineyards with international varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Chardonnay, among others. Now, especially with the boon of interest in single varietal wines, distancing Crete from its heritage seemed like a mistake. Cretan wines would have fallen into relative obscurity, but thanks to a handful of producers like Lyrarakis, native varietals have come back in force.
Strangely enough, though Crete falls closer to the equator than Tunis or Algiers, the climate is mitigated by the relatively high altitude, and most vineyards in Crete lie around 500 meters above sea level, that coupled with limestone rich soils, lends the island a terroir that is a fascinating home for unique varietals to flourish.
Lyrarakis Winery was founded in 1966, and almost immediately set about revitalizing some of the ancient varietals of Crete. Plyto and Dafni, and Vidiano are the varieties that gained them international recognition, but with over 350 varietals native to Greece, it's hard for us to pick favorites. We're focusing on their Legacy White (a blend of Vilana, Vidiano, Muscat of Spina, and Sauvignon Blanc), their Legacy Red ( a blend of Kotsifali, Mandilari, and Syrah), as well as their single-vineyard Mandilari.
You'll find Lyrarakis Vineyards just 20 kilometers south of the ancient city of Knossos, where Jason once faced the Minotaur. While no purported half-men and half-beasts remain, Crete is nevertheless dedicated to its untamed roots, at home with both more rustic and robust fruit driven styles. Given the high heat, you'd think that the majority of Crete wines are red, but 68% of the wines grown on the island are white, and Vilana is its fickle mistress.. Unique to the island, Vilana is notoriously delicate, susceptible to the slightest changes in elevation, orientation, and oxidation. When made properly, Vilana is a thirst-quenching white wine, with just the right touch of acidity and appealing aromatics of spiced apples and dried herbs.
Grown on a much smaller scale, Vidiano is nevertheless the perfect counterpart to Vilana, with a richer body, and when done well, it exemplifies a wine that is layed and lively, with more notes of summer peaches and freshly cut herbs. These two grapes' major counterpart in the Legacy White is the Muscat of Spina, a clone of Muscat that made its way to Crete in olden times where it was most commonly used in dessert wines. The aromatics of this small, thin skinned grape add a tremendous honeyed and floral bouquet to the wine. This trio, along with Sauvignon Blanc, make The Legacy White a vital white wine for the summer-- fresh and dynamic, familiar but intriguing.
The Legacy Red from Lyrarakis has the same principle, with the majority of the wine made from grapes indigenous to Crete, and a touch of the familiar. Kotsifali makes up the majority, a grape that is low in color, but with smooth tannins and low acidity, as well as a piquant finish. This is a natural pair to Mandilari, which has more robust tannins, but lower alcohol than its lighter counterpart. The remainder of the blend is Syrah, which manages to marry both the piquant nature of Kotsifali and the more fruit driven nature of the Mandilari.
We would be remiss to avoid tasting one of Lyrarakis's fine single vineyard expressions, and we have their Plakoura Vineyard Mandilari. Sourced from the namesake vineyard located some 500 meters above sea-level, this hand-picked Mandilari is aged in a combination of old and new oak for 10 months and bottled for an additional 9 months before release. Not only drinkable now, Lyrarakis takes pride in making this wine as something that can stand for over 10 years without diminishing returns.
Crete is a fascinating entry-point into Greek wine, and appropriate, given how it all began. The legend goes that King Midas asked Dionysus for the gift to turn anything into gold, only to come back when he realized he would starve, but Dionysus was the god of wine after all, and when Midas went to the river to wash away his power, the shores turned to gold, and perhaps the vines did too.
The Fine Print:
Lyrarakis Legacy White - ̶$̶1̶7̶.̶9̶9̶ $15.15
Lyrarakis Legacy Red - ̶$̶1̶7̶.̶9̶9̶ $15.15
Lyrarakis Plakoura Vineyard Mandilari - ̶$̶2̶4̶.̶9̶9̶ $21.99
Brief overviews of Kotsifali, Mandilari, Vidiano, and Vilana can all be found on the fantastic Berry Bros & Rudd Limited Website, who just happens to be Britain's oldest wine merchant, in operation since 1698 with royal warrants for both H.M. The Queen and H.R.H The Prince of Wales...so just small potatoes, really.
This great little article in the Financial Times about Cretan Wine was illuminating