By Tara Q. Thomas

  It's pitch black, the bed is literally shaking and the roar is deafening. As soon as I remember where I am-Crete-I think, great, this is it. I'm going to die in an earthquake that will go down in the history books just like the one that ruined the Minoan cities back around 1450 BC.

  It's not until morning when I wake up alive that I realize it was just a plane taking off from the nearby airport, where I flew in last night.

  I've come to find out what's going on with Crete's wines, which used to be pretty uniformly brown and punishingly tannic. Recently I've tasted some good ones-fresh and filled with a combination of tart fruits and bittersweet spice that's fascinating and delicious-and yet made from the same sort of grapes as most of the island's reds-kotsifali and mandilaria.

  The change reminds me of the transformation that occurred in the rest of the Greek wine scene about ten years ago, when the industry was just starting in earnest to make wines that could compete in the international marketplace. It was an exciting time that's resulted in some great new wines (see p. 59 for 59 examples). I'm hoping I'll be able to trace a similar arc in quality here.

  From the hotel window in Irakleon, the capital, all I can see is the massive, imposing 16th-century Venetian fortress, framed on all sides by a stormy, steel-blue sky and sea. The view is different once I look inland, when vintner Sotiris Lyrarakis and his son Bart come to pick me up and we head out of town. The island appears to be a series of mountains, with snow-capped peaks testifying to their height. Here and there, a patch of white breaks up the green-small towns clinging to the mountainsides.

  As Bart negotiates the twisting roads posted with signs warning of errant mountain goats, he strikes up a conversation in perfect, casual English polished during a five-year stint in Holland. "Crete produces about one-fifth of all the wine in Greece, you know," he says. I had no clue, actually-you wouldn't know from the dearth of Cretan wines on American wine store shelves. But the history of winemaking is long here, he tells me. "The peak of winegrowing was around 1350. From the 13th to 17th centuries, the Venetians were here; they had vineyards everywhere. But then came the Turks, who obliged everyone to stop making wine. They started making olive oil instead."

  That explains the landscape, which is made up of olive trees and vines on every plantable patch of mountainside. Strangely, instead of heading into a vineyard, Bart plows the little car up a steep slope as far as he dares. Before he gets the parking brake on, his father is sprinting up the scrabbly, wildflower-covered hill, never mind his dress clothes. When we catch up, he ushers us through a gate onto a large rock surrounded by chicken wire. "This is where the Venetians made wine," he says.

  Lyrarakis means it literally. We are, in fact, standing on the floor of a Venetian winery from 400 years ago. Lyrarakis points out the large, rectangular hollow in one section of the rock: "This is where the grapes went; there would have been walls on all four sides." A spout on the downhill side of the square funneled the must into a deep hole; the remains of thick wooden bars stick out of the sides of the hole, remnants of the supports for the grape-treaders.

  "I grew up here," Lyrarakis says, explaining how he found the place. "This is where I'd take the goats, where we kids would play." It may sound idyllic to live in a place where Venetian ruins become playgrounds and ancient history is close at hand, but as Lyrarakis points out, until recently Crete's wine industry wasn't in such great shape. "In the 1930s, people started planting grapes again, but phylloxera wiped almost everything out in the eighties."

  Many farmers replanted their vineyards with sweet, high-yielding Thompson seedless grapes, here called sultanina. Others turned to international varieties like chardonnay and cabernet. Lyrarakis has planted some syrah and cabernet, but back at his winery, it's the whites from native grapes that most impress me-the lemon-pithy vilana, an apple-scented plyt— and a tangy white made from dafn’, which lives up to its name-"bay"-with a vivid, savory scent of fresh bay leaf. "No one else was cultivating dafn’ a few years ago; we found a few vines and propagated enough for a vineyard," Lyrarakis says.

  There are other interesting whites at Creta Olympias, where enologist Sofoklis Panagiotou shows me several wines made from vilana. The most distinctive is a 2001 bottled under his Curriculum Vitae label. "It's my first ever CV Vilana, and the last bottle left," Panagiotou says.

  It's a common belief on Crete that vilana doesn't age well; it's a grape suited only for drinking fresh, or for blending with grapes like chardonnay and sauvignon blanc that have stronger backbones. This 2001 has turned a golden yellow, but in fact, it's full of life. Chamomile-scented and tasting like quince, it's charged with a bright, lively acidity that carries the flavors for minutes. "When it was first released, it had so much acidity that we had problems." Though vilana's youthful acidity may not be as prominent in some of Panagiotou's blends, the CV shows what the variety can do without making any concessions to international taste. "It's not a fashion wine," he says.

  "There are many more native grape varieties on Crete than we even know about," says Stelios Alexakis of Vinobon, which produces wines for brands such as Cambas, Kourtaki and Achaia Clauss. We're standing in his hulking, spotlessly clean winery watching wine get pumped into silver bags that are vacuum-sealed and then plopped into boxes by workers, who close them up and insert the carrier handles. His son Lazarus takes a box off the line and taps it so we can have a taste. It's actually terrific-clean, fresh, juicy and crisp as a just-picked red apple-the sort of wine I'd love to slurp beachside with some fried seafood. "It's made from sultanina," Lazarus says, "and a bunch of other grapes."

  I feel sheepish, a wine critic praising a wine made from seedless table grapes, but I like it, which makes Alexakis happy. "People didn't replant well after phylloxera; it was especially the fault of the government, which gave bad advice," he says, citing the recommendations to plant sultanina and a prodigious red variety called kotsialeatico, which has often been mistaken for kotsifali. And since Alexakis gets fruit from some 15,000 growers, he gets his share of these grapes. "Now, we're trying to set up contracts to encourage growers to cultivate grapes for bottled wines," he says. "We are paying not by grapes but by acres, so we can ask them to produce smaller quantities of what we want."

  He says that quality has improved a lot in the past ten years. "It used to be that, for red wines, we could only find romeiko, one of the worst varieties," he says, handing me a glass of red to taste. Its dried cherry flavors have the unmistakable spice of kotsifali but with more juicy freshness than typical. It turns out he has enough farmers growing syrah that he can use it to enrich the kotsifali. They've also been searching remote mountain vineyards for pre-phylloxera vines. "We get our best grapes from these vineyards," Lazarus says, crediting the vine age, variety and cooler temperatures of these sites. By encouraging vintners to return to native grapes, Alexakis now has a regular supply of quality native varieties such as plyt—, dafn’, thrapsathiri, vidian—-and real kotsifali, not kotsialeatico-to use for bottled wines.

  On the way to another appointment, we pass an orderly array of stones, similar to the remains of Minoan towns scattered along the coast. "That's Vathypetro," Lazarus says, "an ancient Minoan ruin. They think it has the oldest winepress in the world."

  Moments later, we pull into a long driveway and follow it to a low, glass-fronted building as chic as anything in the Napa Valley. This is Fantaxometocho, the winery that Boutari opened two years ago as a showcase for Cretan wines.

  Boutari's chief enologist, Yannis Voyatzis, and I hike up the hill behind the winery to the top of the vineyard, and he points out the different vines they have planted-every Cretan variety I've heard of and more, plus assyrtiko from Santorini, every clone of malvasia they could find here and in Italy, and an array of international varieties, from chardonnay to sylvaner. "At first we worked only with the native varieties," Voyatzis says. "But in whites, we found nothing with a very strong character, so we turned to chardonnay to blend with vilana."

  It's getting dark and the breeze has a chill in it, so we head back down to the winery. It's so quiet that we can hear not only the whoops of the farmer down in the valley herding his sheep but the trampling of their hooves as they skitter this way and that.

  In the winery, Maria, the cook, brings out steaming bowls of manghiri, an ancient dish of fresh pasta enriched with toasted pasta and lots of fruity olive oil. It's exceedingly simple and deeply satisfying-a poster dish for Cretan cuisine. Boutari's Fantaxometocho white matches it perfectly. The wine's light oak blends with the toasty pasta, the fruitiness of the chardonnay picks up the olive oil and vilana's acidity cuts through the richness. "What we want to do with Fantaxometocho is to add more finesse to vilana, and yet not have such a heavy wine as so many chardonnays," Voyatzis says.

  A few years back, Boutari's Skalani was the first wine to pique my curiosity about Cretan reds. A blend of kotsifali and mandilaria, it had lots of spicy, fruity dried cherry flavor without so much of the vicious tannin common to mandilaria. As Voyatzis pours a barrel sample of the 2005, he describes the evolution of the blend. "For red wines, we worked on both kotsifali and mandilaria; we're still working on kotsifali, but it doesn't have the tannins. We need a second grape in order to make a superpremium wine." The wine he's poured is rich and round, kotsifali's spicy, lean character padded with a generous plumminess. "We considered merlot, and decided on syrah-we plan to make a kotsifali-syrah blend-but we're still working for a wine with strong personality, and a Greek personality inside." As we nibble on an array of sharp sheep's milk cheeses and watch the lights of a minute town twinkle across the valley, the Cretan personality-updated for the 21st century-is coming through clearly.

  Not everyone on Crete believes in the native grapes. Ted Manousakis, who commutes here from his home in Washington, DC, doesn't grow any native grapes at his winery in Xhania on the western end of the island. With the advice of a group of consultants from California and France, Manousakis chose to concentrate solely on Rh™ne varieties. Kostas Galanis, who manages the estate, explains on the two-hour drive from Irakleon that it's not as hot here as many would imagine, given the latitude of the island: The prevailing winds come from the north, not south (which would bring hot African winds), and many vineyards sit at altitudes of 1,650 to 2,000 feet. The climate, along with the soils, led them to believe that roussanne, grenache, mourvedre and syrah were the way to go.

  Eventually, he pulls into a small village. As we scramble through a cold, misty drizzle in the vineyards and cross a field of chamomile to the winery, I'm reminded of the Rh™ne in the springtime. It's not what I had imagined Crete to be like in May. It's also cold in the cellar, where he thieves some grenache from a barrel. It's a light, lovely shade of raspberry in color and taste. Galanis shakes his head. "I'd like more density," he says, although I disagree, loving its frisky texture and weight. He's happier with the mourvedre, which has the variety's dense, gamey blackness-something closer to the typical Cretan red, only fresher and more concentrated.

  The most exciting wine, however, is a blend of grenache, syrah and mourvedre named Laurence, for Laurence Féraud of Domaine de PegaŸ in France's Ch‰teauneuf-du-Pape, who has become a friend and frequent visitor to the estate. The gorgeous purple liquid is spicy with syrah's black pepper bite, bright with grenache's red fruit and carried on the growl of mourvedre. I had come to Crete expecting to be excited by the native varieties and depressed by the imported ones, which don't typically make Greece's best wines. But, whether due to the young vines or the terroir, at the moment Crete seems to be an exception: This wine is as impressive as any I've tasted from local varieties. Galanis, however, wants more from it-from all the wines. "Sometimes you feel you are working for the next generation," he says, locking up the winery and heading back into the rain.
Wine&Spirits August 2006