The celebrations and feasts of the first 15 days of August are now past which means that wine harvest is about to begin. The weather this year has been really strange and unusual but this means all the more interesting time for winemakers of the island and this years production. A year full of unexpected rain, late summer and no heat waves can only mean a new interesting product from the grapes of the island. Wine making and the people of Crete go hand in hand for centuries. It is this time of the year that it is just about right to talk about grape harvest, Cretan wine making and the importance of wine on one of the most interesting wine making regions of the world.
The majority of of wine making varieties that are cultivated on the island, as well as, Europe belong to the Vitis Vinifera, the vine that brings wine in a more lose translation. The Vitis Vinifera comes in Europe from Caucasus where the land and climatic conditions made it ideal for its development and growth.
Wine making and viticulture develops during the agricultural revolution (5000 B.C.) with the Arians, the Persians and the Assyrians to be among the first people to cultivate vineyards. The Egyptians, the Phoenicians and the Greeks are said to have learned the art of wine making from them. For many years the Egyptians and the people of Mesopotamia were the best in wine production, but soon their glory was lost by the Greeks and Phoenicians because of the quality of grapes grown in their areas.
In Crete wine making and viticulture have been essential for the growth of the Minoan civilization and the importance of the island in antiquity. The archeological evidence of wine making dates to 4000 years ago, while Vathipetro is a location in central Crete where the oldest wine press is found and dates 3500 years ago. Homeric poems make special reference to the world famous wines from Crete. Large amphora, the discovery of underground storage facilities, as well as, Minoan fresco and artifacts demonstrate the importance of wine making in Minoan everyday life.
The Minoans being conquerors of the seas and the largest naval force at their time have developed trade to a great extend with other countries. Besides, trade is what made the Minoans the force they came to be. Wine was among the chosen products for exportation and it did rather well judging from the archeological evidence. Wall paintings in Egypt depict Minoan ships arriving to the Egyptian ports, while the discovery of a ship wreck close to the coast of Turkey revealed an amphora filled with wine that dated 3000 years ago. Finally the Law Code of Gortyn is the oldest legal text in Europe makes special reference on wine making laws.
The Romans brought a new dimension to wine making on the island. Their need for large amounts forced the cultivation of vineyards all over the island, while at the same time helping people of Crete to advance their knowledge and specialization skills on wine making. This combination led to the exportation of Cretan wine to Rome.
However with the arrival of Christianity and the division of the Roman Empire to Eastern and Western, as well as, the implication of Crete to different battles stalled and even damaged the wine production practices on the island. it was only until the taking over of the Venetians that the local wine making sees new developments. Cretans use the marketing connections of the Venetians and the safety they provided in the Mediterranean in order to start export again. Special Cretan varieties such as the Malvazia Di Candia the Malvazia of Crete become famous as far as England. Records of the time suggest that the king of England had to send an ambassador to Crete in order to regulate the prices and exportation. Annual reports of the year 1445 make reference of 20.000 barrels being exported from the ports of Crete.
The end of the Venetian Era meant the end of the Cretan wine in the rest of Europe too. Ottomans gave little attention to the continuation of this trade and kept most of the production within the shores of Crete. This turned the production into family oriented productions with each house producing their own wine for domestic consumption.
From the 19th Century to Today
The transitional periods in Cretan wine making have a significant importance if we want to understand the basis upon people understand and use wine in Crete today. The domestification of wine making and its sudden change from a “world commodity” to a local product brought a lot of changes to how people perceive it today. Even today, in the modern, western, open wine palleted world industrial wine making in Crete is owned by families that try hard to establish themselves in the world wine market.
Domestic wine making meant the shift of attention from the local market completely. In Venetian times perhaps there was also no local wine market but there was a local hub that was responsible for the exportation and distribution of the product in different markets. After the Ottoman empire each winemaker or vineyard owner was making wine for his own household. This meant that the wine experience as we know it today did not exist. The hard work wine harvesting involved, as well as, the delicate and sensitive work wine making is made each wine maker and producer very proud for the end result. A visit in any household was accompanied with the offering of the house wine. The guest was also the wine critic and the household marketing before the offering would be one to highlight how special and unique the house wine is. “You have never tried such wine. It is a plain blessing. If you will not like it i will be very surprised. It has no additional flavors like other put. Berries, apples, pears and the like. This is pure.” Even if the wine was close to vinegar the passion and sparkle in the eyes of the maker would oblige the visitor to agree.
Today similar perceptions exist and are very lively. Truth be told if anyone ever tries to make wine, one must be extremely objective in order to develop the flavors desired. It is very hard after so much time, effort and hard work to admit to failure when the result is something not bad. Wine is not like food. You cannot ditch it and make another. If it is bad, it is a years efforts going to waste. So it is not hard to imagine why these perceptions develop and exist. A region so rich in wine making and export can only develop passionate feelings about its products.
Modern wineries although they prize their products they are open to co-operations and teamwork for the promotion of their products. The result is not bad at all. In my humble, nevertheless Cretan oriented opinion, Cretan wines have nothing to be jealous of. They can stand on any competition or market with pride and highlight their specificity and uniqueness, which is the combination of both the terroir, as well as, the hard work and specialized knowledge of the local wine makers.