Walking the Roads of Wine on the island of Crete can turn into an incredible experience if you know where you’re heading to, what to look for and what steps to take. In order to walk this road well, we got in touch with Wines of Crete, the local network association working for the promotion of the island’s wines. They explained us all there is to know about Cretan Wines. This Wine Road is not only one of my favorites, but also the one that ignites my curiosity the most.
A meeting with the voices of Cretan Wines
Within the outstanding scenario of the Galaxy Hotel Iraklio, surrounded by the cosy atmosphere of the Per Se Lounge, I spent a pleasant afternoon with Nicos Miliarakis, President of Wines of Crete, also head of one of the many traditional wineries in the region of Peza, Minos-Miliarakis; and Stella Astirakaki, Operations Manager of the Association.
During our conversation, we discussed different aspects of local wine production which I was not aware of. I learned about wines and tastes, of course, but also about logistics, numbers, and goals which are really decisive for those interested in making this island bigger and better-known… And not only for its pristine, incredible beaches. Here’s an account of our meeting:
What is “Wines of Crete”? How was it born and when did it all start?
The main part of wine production on Crete is located in Heraklion, so, back in 2006, we decided it was necessary to create a Wine Makers Association of the region to promote our wines. The real goal was to promote all Cretan wines, ours was just a starting point. After our first steps, we approached those producing wines in Chania, to explain them about our final goal of promoting Cretan wines. We suggested one of the ways to do so, was for them to create a similar association that would cover the western part of the island. These are, now, the two legs that form the main body of Wines of Crete, which was finally born between 2009 and 2010.
How many wineries are part of the Association?
Today we are counting a total of 31 wineries, most of them private. But there are also a few cooperatives (as the Cooperatives of Peza or Heraklion). There are both small and big wineries within the Association;
some of our wineries are producing about 40.000 bottles, the average wineries produce between 150.000 to 350.000 bottles, but we also have winemakers producing more than a million bottles.
Wines of Crete represents more than the 90% of the bottled wine production of Crete, a huge picture of the wine panorama on the island. To put it in national figures, Crete is about 10-14% of the total wine production in Greece. Plus, we are one of the areas in the country better-referenced through our Association. That is because other regional associations do not represent the local scenario. For instance, some of them formed by just a 40 to 50 % of local wineries. On the other hand, in our case, I’d say most of the island’s production can fall under one brand name which is Wines of Crete.
How do wineries become members of Wines of Crete?
There are two main things a winery must comply with to become part of the network. First, they have to produce their own wines. There are some winemakers who are not producing their own wines, so they are not really winemakers. They are buying, bottling, labeling and marketing a wine that has not been made by them. This is something our association will not accept. Besides, wineries also have to produce bottled wine. Not only wine in bulk or bagging boxes. Wineries must also sell in bottles.
All this applies to production. Wineries must also comply with a financial investment. Our philosophy states that if you want to become a member you must get involved. Our entrance fee equals the exact amount we initially supplied our association with, at the beginning, to start operations.
Does European financing help the tasks of Wines of Crete?
European financing started back in the 90s when we got a first program to finance cultural investments in our field, mostly for wine tasting. Another important series of programs, in more recent years, was fundamental for winemakers to invest on wine roads. It’s a fact that European funds have helped us a lot, not only as far as wineries are concerned, but also in a global improvement in the wine industry.
Which goals has Wines of Crete achieved?
When we started, the first goal was to start working on our wines locally. We needed to get more interest from professionals and consumers here on the island. Of course, if we take into account that part of the island is also devoted to the touristic market, that was the first place where to focus on: wine tours.
Another important strategy was to work on the quantities we import, focusing on increasing those numbers. A more difficult task which calls for more funding as well.
In between, there is also the rest of Greece to think about. It is also important to add that some of the fundings we received were only intended to be invested outside the European market, this is why we started organizing exhibitions and events for instance in NY. By means of our brochures, maps in different languages and dedicated magazines, we are explaining our history and our varieties. We are introducing our wines all over the world.
We also wanted to create local exhibitions on the island. This lead to OiNotika, a fair created to increase awareness on Crete: People must know what we are producing, they must learn about our local varieties. We need to bring people to us and show them our results. Our job is to feed new generations of wine consumers with the right information. We have to give them the opportunity to come over here and taste our labels.
Until 2000 there were no exhibitions for wines, especially for local wines on Crete. This is another goal achieved, this year we will be holding the tenth OiNotika.
Another achievement that made us very proud of our work was to be included as a Selected Wine region of the Year by Wine Enthusiast Magazine. It was indeed thrilling to see Crete sharing the list with Champagne, Provence, Sonoma County and Willamette Valley.
Let’s talk Varieties
It is a known fact that, in past years, Cretan producers abandoned local varieties for some time, to focus their production on varieties that were also grown in many other world vineyards.
When did the island return to its indigenous varieties and how did that happen?
We can say our recent history has seen three stages. A classic one, when local varieties were used here for wines consumed locally, and those where Vilana, Kotsifali, Mandilari, Liatiko and that’s it. Yet, as the rest of Greece started to produce wines from other varieties, mainly French ones – especially Cabernet Sauvignon – we received a wave of new winemakers using foreign varieties simply because that’s what the local market was asking for (and by local market I mean Greek consumers). They didn’t want any Vilanas or Kotsifalis. They had had enough.
So we worked with foreign varieties which were cultivated, vinified and new labels were introduced into the market. This went on until early 2000. I believe, though, that with time, consumers got the ability to understand. They grew able to taste and see what traits differentiate several kinds of wines… And, maybe, they also started considering that local varieties were also worth to get to know. Local vines have a very special character and it was not a bad idea to be aware of them. In a way, when the consumer was ready for new or more difficult tastes, we were also ready to show them these “new” varieties. At the same time, a big part of this job was being done in the vineyards.
It’s also true that, with a global wine market getting tougher and tougher, we had to be better and better. Our produce of the highest quality. Besides, it was also necessary to have the tools for a market that was not asking for a Cabernet Sauvignon from Crete, but for a local variety. After years of work, we had the way to supply them with that high quality.
We believe regional varieties is what let us stand out, they are the key point to make any difference compared to what you can find in the market.
How do you relate wine and wine tourism to the wider and more general touristic tendencies on the island?
Wine has to do with the touristic market and with how Crete presents itself as a touristic destination. Unfortunately, I believe that the biggest percentage of visitors come to Crete only because of its convenient prices. Or because they’ve heard something about Crete. The island has not been portrayed as the complete cultural destination it really is, so far.
This is another goal we intend to meet and, why not..? Through wine tourism as well. We have to increase awareness in people coming to the island about the local culture and its character.
Crete is that perfect destination. Because of its climate; because of the immense variety of landscapes – from east to west and from north to south -; for its history; because of its gastronomy… and, of course, because of the authenticity of the people. Sadly enough, I believe that less than 30% of those coming to Crete, come looking for that. We should promote the discovery of the island.
What are the favorites of the island? The most consumed or more trendy varieties?
Wine and wine drinking depend on mood, moment and situation. Take, for example, the most trendy local variety, Vidiano. It’s a wine with character, with a great body. But then, we can also say Moscato Spinas, a very flowery and aromatic variety, is also and setting a strong trend, especially among women, thanks to a completely different character. Or even Liatiko, a very important and very interesting variety too.
On the other hand, a good Kotsifali or a good Mandilari will offer you the very essence of Crete. Their bottles carry the character of the island.
And I am not talking about a rustic red wine, but about a very well made red wine. A wine with a character from plum fragrances, leather, red fruits and smoky traits.
What would you suggest the consumer that approaches Cretan wines for the first time?
A foreign consumer should be able to forget about whatever else he has tasted in other areas of Greece or even worldwide. Forget about Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Syrah. You will discover something completely different which is impossible to compare to what you’ve already tasted. You need to learn about the local character, discover that local tastes resemble the island itself.
Forthcoming Wine Exhibitions
Let’s walk the Wine Roads of the Island tasting the Wines of Crete
The next two local Cretan Wine Fairs will be held on Crete very soon, and if you happen to be on the island and want to learn more about local wines, these two unique opportunities will put you in direct touch with local producers. You will taste and learn more about the Wines of Crete.
OiNotika Heraklion: 18th – 20th February, DEKK Expo Creta, Gournes, Heraklion.
OiNotika Chania: 4th – 5th March, Center for Mediterranean Architecture, Chania.
On 27th-28th May, we have the Open Wineries day in Greece. Then, of course, there is the annual exhibition OiNotika in Athens on the 5th of November.
Thanks a lot to Nico Miliarakis and Stella Astirakaki for answering all our questions. And for being a constant, authoritative reference for those working with local wines.
Thanks also to Yannis Economou, from Galaxy Hotel Iraklio, who always receives us with stunning hospitality in the most exclusive atmosphere.