Let’s Talk About Wine in Crete!!! Part 2- Why Is It Special?

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As we saw in Part 1 wine is among the most ancient alcoholic products that have accompanied human development for centuries. Greece always had a special connection with wine and its production. The Greeks even believed in a God among the Greek pantheon that was protecting and blessing wine production in the country, the world famous Dionysus. The importance of wine and its presence in the every day life of the people of Greece is highlighted even in the Christian Era with Jesus blessing the three most important products, bread, olive oil and wine! Wine in Crete, being among the most prominent viticulture areas in the Mediterranean,was considered among the most celebrated and important products in the everyday life of the people of the island. This importance together with the special character of the Cretan wine makes local wine production a must see for every visitor of the island. Having looked at the historical context of wine making in Crete, let us now examine other characteristics that make the Cretan wine so interesting for the traveler in search of flavors.

Geography and Climate

The case of wine presents an excellent example of the importance of the location of Crete in the Mediterranean for the special climate of the island and its relation to  the biodiversity of Crete. Some scientists argue that Crete has such a diverse environment that for environmentalists and nature scientists it could be considered a continent it self. However this can be observed even if a visitor is not a scientist. The aggressive red stones of the South East meet the black sand of the South, that change into the forest of the Selakano forest as you head to the sandy North shores through the mountains. Herbal low vegetation areas alter to cypress hill forests and maple trees in the rocky mountain tops. The wine areas of the rolling hills of central central Crete meet a completely different environment than the wine areas of the West that are more exposed to rain and lower temperatures.

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Perhaps an indicator of the importance this terrain and conditions offer to the viticulture of Crete is that in a geographical space of  8,303 km2 (3,206 sq mi) there are 10 different endemic grape varieties. These are Dafni, Plyto, Vilana, Thrapsathiri, Vidiano, and Moschato Spinas for the white wines and Kotsifali, Mandilari, Liatiko and Romeiko for the red. Each and every variety has its own special, unique flavorful characteristics that will surely surprise every wine lover. In addition to these varieties a lot of wine makers brought different vines from other parts of the world for experimentation in two levels. First in order see how these vines will do in the Cretan terroir. The results actually were very good. Varieties such as the Syrah, Grena and Cabernet Sauvignon did rather well. The second reason was to combine these international flavors with the local special flavor in order to make it more applicable to international markets. Let us not forget that local market is not an easy one for the Cretan wine makers.

The climatic conditions of the island have a very important role on the flavors these amazing varieties give and the experience every wine maker has during the making of the wines. The climate of Crete is characterized by extensive dry periods during summer, and heavy rain periods during winter. The rain periods are not consistent like northern European countries, but are short and heavy. In order to put this in perspective the amount of rain we receive in Crete is the same as in Bordeaux, which means around 700ml a year. The difference is that this rain is between the months November to March. Add to this that Crete is an island that has approximately 250 sunny days and it becomes easy to imagine the effect these climatic conditions have on the flavors of the wines. Of course there are always surprises like this year (2015) where the whether, just like the economic and political situation in Greece, have been unpredictable.

The Culture of Harvest

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The Cretan moto “trigos, theros, polemos- τρύγος, θέρος, πόλεμος”  which loosely translates as, wine harvest, wheat harvest-reaping, and war is an indicative of the belief that these are the three toughest and most unpredictable situations. They are hard work and you never know what you are going to get. Trigos, the wine harvest, is a hard laboring job. Traditionally wine harvest was a family job. Towards the end of August the family would go from vineyard to vineyard in order to collect the grapes. Some grapes would go for raisins, others were table grapes, and the best would go for wine. Jobs were distributed among the family. The eldest and most experienced, together with the women and children would cut the grapes. The youngest and strongest men would carry the heavy boxes with extra care to a location where they could be easily transferred to the wine press. Now draw picture in your mind. This job is done under a 30C degrees heat minimum. The juices from the grapes that are freshly cut attract wasps and bees that enjoy their juices as much as we do and your feet are constantly mixing with the vine branches and leaves that are long and tough to go through. Not an easy job.

Around noon the family would sit under the shadow of an olive or walnut tree that were most commonly found in the vineyards. Lunch is usually simple. A Cretan Salad, with fresh tomatoes, atzouria (a type of cucumber), onions, olives, eggs, boiled potatoes, rusks, olive oil and vinegar would be served to share with some bread. After lunch the family would continue with the harvest until late afternoon.

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After the harvest is over and all the grapes would be collected it was time for the press. Each house had its own patitiri-πατητήρι, a wine press that was usually located either in an underground basement, or somewhere outside. The grapes would be emptied in the large confined areas and the family started the wine dance. Careful, rhythmic, heavy steps, with one foot close to the other were pressing the grapes in order to squeeze the juice out. In the bottom of the container where the dancing was taking place, there was a hole for the juice to come out and end into the barrels. Again this is not an easy and as fun as it looks like job. The grapes are pinching your feet, the wasps are partying on the juices, the dried juice sticks in your feet, and you must not stop until the job is finished otherwise the grapes will go sour. Once the pressing was done, the grapes that were pressed are collected in a corner of the patitiri, and heavy, flat pieces of wood were placed on top of them over night for the remaining juices to strain out.

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With so much work it is no wonder that people of Crete are proud of their own production. If the vineyards survived during the maturation period without any damage from the weather or other imponderable factors, there was the responsibility of collecting the grapes and creating the wine that made the end result even sweeter (even if it wasn’t).

Grapes and wine are inseparable for the life of the Cretan. The grape is an incredible fruit that offered so many things to the people of Crete and they in turn make sure they respect and continue their tradition around grapes and wine making. From the depths of history to the amazing, courageous, and very well educated wine makers of today Cretan wine and grape harvest lives on. Perhaps my wish is for the younger generations to continue these traditions and education. After all it is this combination that suckles them into being courageous and take the risks involved in modern wine making. The science of wine making suggests that today you must not step on the grape since it is the skin of the pulp that gives you the flavor, but it definitely does not suggest that enjoying the family moments of the hard labor of trigos does damage to the wine. It is these moments, as they combine with the amazing Cretan landscape that visitors must seek in order to make their experience on the island unique and UNFORGETTABLE.

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