Sip and savor in Crete wine country
A day trip in the wine country of Crete
Vidiano, Vilana, Dafni, Plyto, Thrapsathiri, Muscat of Spina, Kotsifali, Mandilari, Liatiko, Romeiko
These are the beautiful names of the white and red grape varieties of Crete. Have you heard of them before? I hadn’t until we spent a day in the wine country of Crete during our 12-day trip to Greece.
Winemaking in Crete goes back to the Minoan times of 4,000 years ago, making the grape-growing areas of Heraklion — Archanes, Peza and Daphnes — the oldest in Europe. The wineries we visited are in Peza, the largest of the three wine-producing regions. The scenery reminded me so much of some of my favorite wine regions, especially Sonoma County, California.
Crete is such a large island that we knew from the start we wouldn’t even scratch the surface of all it had to offer — history, gastronomy, culture, beaches, nature, and recreation. So to round out the trip experiences we’d already had in Athens, Santorini , and other locations in Crete, we chose a day trip with Made in Crete, a specialized tour company run by Pierre (Petros) Graff, a Belgian who fell in love with Crete’s culture and people during visits many years ago. He felt so much of a connection with the island that he decided to make Crete his home. Petros, a former journalist and chef, was fun to spend time with as he shared his passion and knowledge of the winemaking of Crete, introduced us to the locals, and regaled us with anecdotes about Cretan life and culture.
Expertly guided by Petros, we traveled through the rolling hills and vineyards of the Heraklion area to get a taste of Cretan wines and traditional Cretan dishes. Our day trip included wine and mezze (Greek appetizers) at two wineries and a lovely multi-course lunch at a restaurant in a wine country village. Our generous hosts were friendly and knowledgeable, making each a delightful experience. It was also entertaining and informative to listen to Petros interacting with the hosts and adding his knowledge and perspective to conversations.
Digenakis Winery in Kalloni
“We live in a place where the relationship between human and nature is based on the emotions.” — Digenakis Winery
Digenakis Winery is a family business opened in 2017 in Kalloni, 20 km south of Heraklion. Its tasting room is large and contemporary and also used for cultural events, performances, and cooking classes. The Digenakis philosophy is that winemaking part of a collective culture interconnected with many forms of cultural expression, including art, music, literature, and theater.
As you can see below, the tasting room provides visitors with expansive views of the Peza wine country surrounding the winery.
We began our visit with a tour of the cellars and bottling facility. Later in the tasting room, we had the pleasure of meeting the winemaker Leftheris Digenakis while we sampled five Cretan local varieties — “Prime Life”, “Aeriko”, “Marisini”, “Allusion”, and “Kotsifali” — and mezze (Greek appetizers).
Although Mr. TWS and I enjoyed them all, we each had a different favorite. Perhaps not surprisingly for those who know us, my choice was Prime Life, a white wine made with 100% vidiano grapes.
“Local variety Vidiano, a jewel to the Cretan vineyard. The golden colour and the freshness of the prime life highlight the distinct features of the variety such as the delicate citrus fruit scent, white pepper and the discreet citron touch. Greasy and lavish in taste it retains the long and dominant aftertaste with a brief and soft mineral hint.” — Digenakis Winery
Also not surprising to many, Kotsifali (a red wine) made with 100% kotsifali grapes was the one Mr. TWS savored the most.
“The most classic local variety is ideally expressed at a single vineyard called ‘Livades’. Strong and tasty tannins, sour cherry and cherry flavours with traces of carnation, cinnamon, dark chocolate, leather, plum and paprika. Vivid mouth with a long lasting aftertaste. Lives in oak barrels for 10 months.” — Digenakis Winery
And then we were on to our next winery, just about 10 minutes away.
Lyrarakis Winery, another family-run business, has a long history in the area, making Cretan wines since 1966. Their specialties are in producing rare local varieties and single variety wines. Since our visit, I have learned that they were recently recognized by Wine & Spirits as one of the “Top 100 Wineries of 2022”. The family is recognized as bringing back to production two Cretan varieties of ancient times, Dafni and Plyto as well as a recently reintroduced “vineyard treasure”, the melissaki grape.
The setting was stunning outside among the vineyards and olive trees with vistas of the Peza countryside and the Lassithi mountains. Warm breezes and the distinctive fragrances of the nature around added to the delightful experience.
Our tasting included four wines paired with tasty mezze. The sampling convinced me that vidiano would be my go-to white wine while in Crete. And once again, Mr. TWS loved the kotsifali.
We also tasted two other special treats (shown above).
ZaZaZu is a semi-dry sparkling wine produced by Lyrarakis made with vilana, vidiano, and muscat grapes.
“Vilana and Vidiano encounter the aromatic Muscat in and give us a light wine with aromas of apricot, peach and lemon and floral notes. Ideal for aperitif with gentle bubbles, refreshing acidity and noticeable sweetness. Bright and vibrant light yellow color. Rich fruity aromas of fresh apricot and peach jam, with notes of lemon. The creamy mouthfeel with fruit flavors is perfectly balanced with the natural sweetness and playful bubbles.” — Lyrarakis Winery
Merlot Liatiko is a lovely rose for those warm summer days.
“An explosively aromatic rose wine, fruity and balanced, vinificated by combining indigenous and international grape varieties, which have perfectly acclimatised on our island.” — Lyrarakis Winery
And that wasn’t the end of our Cretan flavors experience. It was on to lunch!
Bakaliko in Ano Archanes
The tasting experience didn’t end after the two winery visits. Driving through pretty wine country scenery for about 20 minutes, we arrived at Bakaliko, a mezze restaurant in the village of Ano Archnes.
After sampling a few luscious olive oils (an integral ingredient in the daily diet of Cretans) in the restaurant’s small shop, we dined under sun umbrellas on the restaurant’s terrace on a small square in the center of town. Several courses were served — salads, rice dishes, saganaki, olive fritters, and meat and vegetable plates — each paired with a wine chosen by our host.
When the day ended, we dropped off our four tour companions at their hotels in Heraklion and Petros drove us back to our hotel in Plaka. We shared stories as we recapped the day and our favorite things, feeling fully sated with the excellent food and wine of Crete.
When you visit Crete, we highly recommend that you savor a day of wining and dining in the beautiful Heraklion wine country with Made in Crete tours. Specific wineries visited may change from one tour to the other, but they are all carefully selected by Petros to provide an authentic Cretan experience. The particular wineries may vary by tour, but they are hand-picked by Petros as top producers.
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