Thursday, July 23, 2015

Wine of the Gods: Discovering Greek Wine in Crete

Anoskeli Vineyards Greek Wine Island of Crete
Photo courtesy Anoskeli
When you think of wine, do you think of Greece immediately?  I’m guessing you probably don’t.  Yet the Greeks have been making wine for thousands of years with grapes with names you may not recognize.  There’s even a Greek god of wine.  Greek wine regions can be found throughout the mainland and islands of Greece.  We received our Greek wine education on the island of Crete, first with a taste of Crete’s great wine paired with Cretan cuisine, and then with a behind-the-scenes tour of one of Crete’s great wineries, Anoskeli.

Greece is steeped in mythology, so of course there’s a Greek god of wine.  A proper Greek wine education isn’t complete without starting with a story involving Greek gods.

As many Greek mythology stories do, this story begins with Zeus and his hormones.  Zeus fell in love with Semele, a mortal.  He came to her at night when she couldn’t see him.  Semele felt very lucky to have a god for a lover, but she didn’t know which god it was.  Zeus’ wife Hera, with bad intentions, came to Semele in disguise and convinced her she should find out who her lover was.  Semele fell into the trap and asked her lover to grant her one wish.  He foolishly agreed and Semele asked him to reveal herself to him.  Zeus sadly had no choice and granted her wish.  Semele burst into flames from the sight of his glory.  Semele was pregnant, so the distraught Zeus rescued the fetus and stitched it into his thigh until it was ready to be born.  Dionysus was born from Zeus’ thigh and became the only god born of a mortal.

Maria Koukoula Grapevine Greek Wine Island of Crete

Hera tried to have Dionysus killed so Zeus arranged for him to be protected by nymphs in the mountains.  While in the mountains Dionysus created the wine making process and became the god of wine.  Dionysus later taught Icarius, the new king of Athens, how to make wine.  We can all thank Dionysus for our wine.

Back to the present day, there is a lot of wine flowing in Greece.  Many of the Greek wines you’ll encounter while traveling through the country are simple table wines made from a single grape from a single vineyard and are probably made by the family.  These are good, but the even better, more complex wines come from Greece’s wineries.

Idaia Winery Greek Wine Island of Crete

During our trip to Greece, we discovered the best wines on the island of Crete.  The restaurants have surprisingly thick wine lists full of wines from vineyards on the island.  Our first Cretan wine experience was at Chrisostomos, our favorite restaurant in Chania.  We shared a bottle of red wine from Idaia Winery, a winery in central Crete.  This wine was made with 60% Kotsifali grapes and 40% Mandilaria grapes.  Have you ever heard of those before?  I haven’t.  They are both wine grapes indigenous to Crete.  The wine was fantastic, dry with rich flavors of coffee, chocolate, prune, and vanilla.

After having our first taste of Cretan wine, we wanted to taste more and learn more.  With the help of Wines of Crete we were introduced to Anoskeli, creators of two Greek delicacies, wine and olive oil.

Anoskeli Tasting Room Greek Wine Island of Crete

The Greeks have a tendency of giving things very practical names, so Anoskeli Agricultural Company S.A. is named after the village in which it is located, Anoskeli.  Anoskeli is a small village in the town of Kissamos, which is in western Crete, a 30-minute drive from Chania.  Efi Georgiakaki gave us a wonderful tour of both the olive oil and wine-making sides of the business before providing us with samples of the olive oil and wine to taste.

The Anoskeli olive mill and winery is owned by the Mamidakis family, who were born in the village.  They started by making olive oil 20 years ago which is sold under the Anoskeli brand.  In the United States, their olive oil is sold under the Blue Olive Oil label.

Anoskeli's Greek Wines Island of Crete

Four years ago the family decided to try their hand at making wine.  All of Anoskeli’s Cretan wines, sold under the Ano Playa brand, are made with organic grapes.  They currently produce about 20,000 bottles a year.  The vineyards are in and around the village of Anoskeli, at an altitude of around 250 meters, and grow six varieties of grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Grenache Rouge, Assyrtiko, Vidiano, and Vilana.  The red grapes are familiar names, but the three white grapes were yet more Greek varietals of which we had never heard before.  

After showing us the olive oil making process in a warehouse on the property, Efi led us into the tasting room and down tile and marble stairs which led to the wine fermentation room below.  Here she told us about Anoskeli’s wine making process before leading us back up to the tasting room where we were able to sip the wine while also enjoying fresh tomatoes, local cheese, olives, bread, and Anoskeli’s olive oil.

Anoskeli Olive Oil and Snacks Greek Wine Island of Crete

Anoskeli’s white dry wine is a blend of 60% Vilana, 30% Vidiano, and 10% Assyrtiko.  The grapes are immediately crushed after harvesting and then pressed.  The must and yeast are put into stainless steel tanks for four to eight days to ferment and then the wine is cooled to stop fermentation.  The white blend is fresh, dry, acidic, and has an almost lemony taste.  It would pair well with salad, seafood, and pasta.

Anoskeli’s rosé is processed in the same way as the white, but is made using equal parts Syrah and Grenache Rouge.  The skins are left in anywhere from two to eight hours until the right color is achieved.  The rosé is also dry, fresh, and acidic.  It is tart and tangy, light, and slightly floral.  Anoskeli’s rosé can pretty much pair with anything.

Anoskeli Sweet Syrah and Raki Greek Wine Island of Crete

Anoskeli’s red dry wine is a blend of 80% Syrah, 10% Grenache Rouge, and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon.  The red wine ferments for 20 days and has to be pressed every other day.  It is filtered and then spends 10 months in French oak barrels before being bottled.  This Greek red wine is almost purple in color and tastes of red fruit and spices.  It would pair well with grilled meat, of which there is an abundance in Greece.

Anoskeli’s newest wine is called Anoferia and is made with 100% Syrah grapes.  The color is medium ruby red and the wine has a light taste with few tannins and an almost green herbal flavor. 

We finally tasted Anoskeli’s after-dinner wines.  First was a sweet Syrah that had just been bottled a week before.  Then we had Anoskeli’s tsikoudia, or raki.  Crete is famous for its raki.  Raki is served at the end of the evening meal.  Raki is strong and can range from tasting like paint thinner to being superbly smooth.  Anoskeli’s raki, Ano Kato Tsikoudia, is almost sweet and very, very smooth.  It was an exceptional example of raki.

Anoskeli Olive Grove Greek Wine Island of Crete

We sat in Anoskeli’s beautiful tasting room decorated with olive trees and grapevines created by Efi’s friend Maria Koukoula who makes art out of twirled wire.  A cool breeze flowed in through the windows even though it was over 80 degrees outside.  We sipped on wine, dipped bread in olive oil, and looked out over hills of olive trees and vineyards where the olives and grapes that made our olive oil and wine had been growing not that long ago.  We realized this was the best way to learn about the wines of Greece, which are not that well known outside of the country but should be.

Thank you to Anoskeli for providing us with a tour and tasting and Porto Veneziano Hotel and AutoClub Car Rental for hosting our time in Crete and making this post possible.  As always, all opinions are my own.


Discovering Greek wine on the island of Crete.

Katherine Belarmino has been traveling for over ten years on a quest to see as much of the world as possible, experience new cultures, and sample other cuisines and libations. She also writes the travel blog Travel the World, which journals her world travels with her husband Romeo and seeks to encourage others to take the time to travel.