Thyme Warp - Wine & Spirits Magazine

Thyme Warp

Crete, Greece’s largest island, is home to a wine and food culture all its own.

photos by Elisa Carucci

No matter where you turn in Crete, the mountains that are home to some of Greece’s oldest vines meet your eye.

“If you walk all the way to the west end of the harbor, I think it’s just up the last side street. Look for a fairly ramshackle place on the right—the furniture is cheap and there’s a halfway ancient and fully disinterested waiter sloping around with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth.” This was the best I could manage in directing my friend Michelle Biscieglia to a café in Chania, western Crete’s capital city, for a dish that had been haunting me ever since I’d enjoyed it a year before. That café was completely unknown by the Internet: no website, no image-search results that matched my own photos, a mocking void on the map where I was sure it was—and a last-ditch search via Google Streetview ended in blurred outlines. Aggelou Street, it would seem, remains the road not traveled by when it comes to the company’s camera-car fleet.

The item in question was a marathopita, a savory pie—basically like a pupusa—filled with braised fennel fronds and leeks, served with a piece of tangy cheese on the side. It is disproportionately delicious relative to its ingredients, even without a Greek coffee, or the sunny morning view of an old Venetian lighthouse at the water’s edge. Maratho is the wild fennel that carpets much of Crete; it is different from our Florence fennel—less bulb, more tender stalks and greenery, and with a complex flavor that imbues much Cretan cooking with a lovely wild savor. Michelle, then the beverage director at NYC’s Blue Hill, was on vacation and on the hunt to taste what was unique in Cretan food and wine, so I knew she had to experience marathopites, but I also wanted her to try Cretan snails; horta (wild greens); kalitsounia—savory phyllo packets of salty local cheese shallow-fried in olive oil, then drizzled with honey and speckled with sesame seeds; rabbit braised in red wine with onions and cinnamon; and the wines made from liatiko, kotsifali, thrapsathiri and vidiano.

Crete is different from the rest of Greece. By far the country’s largest island (about a third larger than the state of Delaware), it has a more complex climate than the other Greek islands in the Aegean and Ionian Seas, higher mountains and more fresh water. Lying at the southernmost edge of the subduction zone where the African tectonic plate is slowly grinding its way under the Aegean plate, its soils are as complicated as its history. The center of the ancient Minoan civilization (see Josh Greene’s interview with archaeologist Donald Haggis), Crete went on to endure a succession of occupations. As close to Africa as it is to Athens, Crete’s position made it a strategic target for many European powers, among them Romans, Macedonians, Iberian Moors, Byzantines, Genoese, Venetians, Ottoman Turks and Nazis.

All of these occupying forces focused on the coast and low-lying areas, not so much the interior mountains, a long spine of peaks running the length of the island, reaching over 8,000 feet above sea level. Giannis Siganos, a native Cretan who runs several of the finest wine shops in Greece, says that the mountain refuges served as a reservoir for ancient food and wine traditions. “In Crete, you have four prefectures, and in each area they say they have their own cuisine, but when in the mountains, you have exactly the same cuisine from one prefecture to another, which is different to the foods you have from the valley and the plain. When you go up on the mountain, you also get the same grape varieties, so you have liatiko throughout Crete in the mountains, and the same shepherd culture that goes on for two thousand years.”

Siganos points to his family’s lamb recipe as one of those unbroken traditions, a preparation passed down from his grandfather that involves cooking the meat in a casserole with just olive oil and salt—“No pepper. Nothing. It’s wild animals who run all day long [with no processed feed], so the meat is so beautiful that you don’t need to add anything.” While he says many Cretans drink liatiko, a red wine, with this dish, he actually prefers a white, specifically the Heliades Sitia bottling from Giannis Economou, a legendary producer in the high, windy Ziros plateau in Crete’s far east.

Late-morning sun warms the harbor’s edge in Heraklion

Economou is a man seemingly made of contradictions. He got his start in the 1980s, selling tanks, roto-fermenters and other winemaking equipment to producers in Piedmont, later consulting for several of the rising Barolo Boys—though he prefers an old-fashioned nebbiolo, raised in botti. His labeling machine is hand-operated, from the 1920s, and his press from the ’40s, while his ringtone on one visit to his winery was the Red Hot Chili Peppers; before that, Eminem. A champion of Crete’s local grapes, he has also experimented with syrah, grenache and cabernet. On the one hand, he put nearly 100 percent of his 2002 and 2003 vintages into his (extraordinarily tasty) vinegar because he didn’t like them (much to the distress of his wife, Natassa, who keeps the accounts); on the other hand, he once told me, “It’s fascist to make a perfect wine.” He does not like to discuss his winemaking, other than to say he does not have a recipe. “I feel it,” he says. “Like a cook who doesn’t measure grams. Because the material is never the same that they’re working with. You take a little salt and pepper and feel if you need to add more.”

Perhaps it is not surprising that such an approach to the craft of wine, coupled with ungrafted vines in limestone soils at over 2,100 feet in elevation, has yielded some of the most singular wines in Greece. The whites—a Sitia blend (roughly 70/30 vilana/thrapsathiri) and an assyrtiko—are rich and broad, with waxy textures, wild herbal complexity, and dynamic personalities. Historically, Economou bottled one version of each, but the latest release from the estate has two of each, as he explores longer, less reductive aging, deeming it more traditional to the area. The current releases are 2015 for the fresher versions and 2014 for their more oxidative counterparts. The reds are also seeing some changes. Greek authorities regulate the Protected Denominations of Origin and Protected Geographical Indications (equivalent to DOC and IGT, respectively). From the 2012 vintage, Economou succeeded in having the PDO requirements for Sitia reds changed, so that the wines may be purely liatiko (previously, 20 percent mandilari was required). Now, he has moved toward a varietal liatiko labeled Sitia and a PGI Crete 60/40 liatiko/mandilari.

“It’s a break—breaking the rules to say that a wine from nowhere famous can also be a great wine.”

—Giannis Economou, Winemaker in Sitia

Now, it’s a scramble to get his wines when they arrive in the US, which happens on an irregular basis, as Economou will often delay a shipment (sometimes for years), deeming a wine unready. But that kind of decision goes back to his first vintages: When Economou returned to Crete in the mid-’90s to make wine, he didn’t release a bottle for ten years. Understanding that much of the world saw Greek wine as coming in two styles—cheap, industrial plonk or huge, oaky sledgehammers made from international grapes—Economou knew that it would take extraordinary measures to prove that a third way was viable. Releasing decade-old liatiko was a statement, and the wine started turning heads in export markets. It hit somewhere in the middle of old-school Rioja, Burgundy and Barolo, but infused with the scent of the hillsides covered in thyme, rosemary, sage and other local herbs slowly drying in the Cretan sun. Still, in Greece, he says, “liatiko was the rubbish of Crete and I couldn’t sell it here.” Nowadays, Economou’s success has not only inspired other producers in Crete to bottle a liatiko, but has helped draw international attention to wines from the island. And he’s not the only one getting noticed anymore.

The Lefka Ori (White Mountains) in western Crete

Iliana Malihin couldn’t get out of Athens fast enough. Though born and raised in the city, she hated the noise and the bustle, saying that “The rhythm of life there is very intense, and I couldn’t live without green in my life.” Like many Greeks, her grandfather, a Cretan, had always made wine for family consumption, and summers were harvest affairs for the extended family. “After that,” she explains, “we would gather at home and taste the wine. My parents would talk about vintages, and I started to have questions as to why the wine was different each year.” After studying agriculture at university, she got a postgraduate degree in oenology, writing her thesis on the DNA of yeast strains native to the vidiano vineyards in Fourfouras, a small village near her grandfather’s, high in the mountains of Rethymno, in south-central Crete.

Later, while working as an oenologist at Akra Chryssos in Santorini, she returned to Fourfouras to find vidiano vineyards as a source of fruit to blend with assyrtiko from Santorini. “I was looking for a long time—most of the vineyards in Rethymno have liatiko,” Malihin explained. “One day, a woman told me that in Melabes [the village across the valley] they used to cultivate a lot of vidiano. So, I went to search. I didn’t know anyone; I was just wandering in the village, asking anyone I saw. Someone took me to the top of the mountain, and I saw the vineyards and said this is so unique, it has to be something different, not a blend.”

Now, in the schist and quartz-riddled clays of Mt. Psiloritis (a.k.a. Mt. Ida, rumored birthplace of Zeus), she produces two vidiano wines from Melabes—one from young vines and the other from vines 80 to 200 years old—and has more on the way. At altitudes ranging from 1,840 to 2,960 feet, these vines—all ungrafted—are bush-trained, to shield the grapes from wind. The winds in these heights are strong and constant; when I visited in early 2020, the gusts seemed to be actively trying to remove us from the mountaintop—no gentle Zephyrs, these. The wines, vinified with ambient yeasts, clearly show the potential of vidiano. Pointing to its high acidity and aromas of stone fruits, Malihin calls the grape “the white diva of Crete,” adding, “If you use bâtonnage, it can give richness and length, and it can age very well.

Giannis Siganos loves to pair Malihin’s vidianos with a yiahnáki—an old-fashioned dish of horta (seasonal wild greens) and maratho fennel simmered with olive oil, onion, crushed tomatoes and snails. Snails are a specialty in Crete—when his grandmother would cook them, Siganos says all the children would fight to see who could eat them faster, so they could get seconds.

For Nikki Rose, founder of Crete’s Culinary Sanctuaries, horta is the other key element that grounds the yiahnáki in Crete. “Most of all, I think what really sets us apart is our greens,” she told me, explaining that the chefs she works with teach her students how to forage and cook the different varieties of chicories, thistles and other greens that are tied to different seasons of the year. They show students how to take just the top of the plant and not the root, so that the same plant can be harvested every year. Just as foragers in the US have their secret spots for seasonal mushrooms, ramps or watercress, Cretans all have their own hidden spots for horta, and sustainable harvesting is key.

Rose, a Greek-American graduate of the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), lives in the central-Cretan village of Archanes. She first came to Crete in 1997, when interest was surging in the US about the so-called Mediterranean Diet, as unusually high life expectancies (and low incidences of conditions associated with those long lives, like Alzheimer’s and cancer) were documented year after year on three islands: Italy’s Sardinia, and Greece’s Crete and Ikaria. The CIA had asked Rose to come up with an introduction to the cuisine, but what she was finding on Crete didn’t seem likely to extend anyone’s lifespan. With five million visitors descending on the island each year, tourists had become the latest in the string of foreign occupying forces in Crete (the local population is under 700,000). To satisfy the tourists, restaurants had borrowed richer, meat-heavy fare from Northern Europe, Britain and the US, supplanting the traditional local cuisine based on foraged wild ingredients.

“Most of all, I think what really sets us apart is our greens.”

—Nikki Rose, of Crete’s Culinary Sanctuaries

Traditional meals in Crete are all about small dishes, mostly plant-based.

Rose says it wasn’t only mass tourism that left a mark: there were also EU agricultural directives aimed at moving people from subsistence farming to monoculture. With EU financial incentives, the Messara Plain in the south of the island was converted to olive production, resulting in a sharp increase of groundwater use (a resource already scarce due to overgrazing of sheep and goats) and eventual desertification and loss of topsoil. Elsewhere in Crete, similar EU programs encouraged the wholesale ripping out of grapevines that were hundreds of years old. Siganos says the vines that remained, in parcels here and there of a few stremmata (less than a quarter-acre), supplied the local co-ops, not fine wine producers. Economou adds that the EU programs were protectionist: “Because Europe already had a ton of wine, they said, ‘We give you money to destroy your vines because we don’t know what to do with all this wine.’”

Economou sees that vine removal as a crime, and as part of a longer arc of assault on the island’s viticultural traditions, starting with the arrival of the Ottomans in the late 17th century. Turkish occupation meant that Greece, historically a major exporter of wine through the millennia, lost their traditional local Venetian customers and also were cut off from northern European export markets just when the introduction of glass bottles, corks and sulfites were changing the game. Crete, in particular, has yet to fully recover that market share.

Winds blowing down out of the mountains have their way with the post-prandial tableau in Archanes.

Looking to the future, Economou is thinking about cru-specific bottlings of liatiko (he has the 1999 vintage from each of his top two vineyards, Vassilikés and Pentálofos, waiting patiently in the cellar). But for the moment, he wanted to make something more imaginative, inspired by the great wines Henri Jayer made from less celebrated sites in Burgundy, and so has just released a special selection called Antigone, a blend from both sites. Because we are operating on Economou’s time scale, the inaugural release of Antigone, which arrived in the US in April of 2022, is the 2004 vintage. Explaining his choice of the wine’s name, he told me, “Sophocles’s play was a revolution against the standards of religion and society. It’s a break—breaking the rules to say that a wine from nowhere famous can also be a great wine, not just from [places like] Burgundy and Barolo. In every moment in your life,” he told me, “you have to make your choices and go your own road. If you make compromises, you will never reach your goal.” He also plans to release a masculine counterpart, to be called Prometheus, after another revolutionary figure—perhaps this fall.

“The second year, they saw that the vineyards were going really well with the organic cultivation. Now I have 37 growers.

—Iliana Mahlihin, winemaker in Rethymno

Southern Rethymno sustains most of the remaining very old vines on Crete, and Malihin is gaining access to more of them all the time. “That first year, I had five growers from Melabes,” she says. “I gave a very good price as a tease because I didn’t know them.” Having stipulated only compost and worm castings for fertilizer, no more tilling of the soil, and only sulfur against fungus and mildew, she was pleased with the results. So were the growers: “The second year, they saw that the vineyards were going really well with the organic cultivation, and they brought more locals. Now I have thirty-seven growers.” With the additional fruit, Malihin will be releasing three new wines: a thrapsathiri, an old-vine liatiko, and an old-vine vidiano from Fourfouras.

Currently at work on a documentary about the island’s unique foodways, Rose is encouraged by what she’s seen from the young generation over her 25 years in Crete. She says that the children of those Cretans who turned in the 1970s to more globalized and processed foods are switching back. She points to a surge in heirloom seed-saving and more interest in botany in general. “During COVID lockdown here, it was very quiet. People were coming to me to ask about how to do botany because they were finding that mass tourism wasn’t cutting it when it came to putting food on the table.”

Afthonios Dretakis, a monk, took up arms against the Ottomans in Archanes.

For his part, Siganos is working to incubate small wine producers where he sees a spark. While he takes particular pride in the island’s top wines, he also wishes there were more of them. He’s frustrated by producers who blend indigenous varieties like vidiano with chardonnay, or kotsifali with merlot, and lacks patience with those who use commercial yeasts, or too much sulfur. “I’m constantly looking for new wineries to do business with,” he says, “because I don’t have enough wine.” When he sees someone he thinks could do something great in the future, he pounces.

Recently, a friend brought a bottle of wine to dinner from Endochora, a winery in Crete’s far west, and Siganos tasted potential. After hunting down the winemaker, Michaelis Tsafarakis, he told him if he’d double-down on the less invasive direction he was exploring in his winemaking, he would buy everything, adding, “If something goes wrong, I will take the risk. I will pay for the wines.” While admitting it was a crazy thing to do, he told me, “I shouldn’t say that, but I really liked the guy and he is really trying. He’s trying to make a living out of it, and the production is small. He makes like 7,000 bottles. But I cannot go around saying that to everybody. It’s not an empire. It’s guerrilla warfare. Everything I do is small in scale.” Even so, he’s on the hunt for a bigger warehouse this summer.

Back on Aggelou Street, traditional marathopites are still sliding out of the kitchen at a leisurely clip at Café Meltémi—its existence and pie primacy confirmed, thanks to the intrepid Michelle’s field investigations. The old Venetian capital, the site of the most elegant melding of ancient and contemporary architecture I’ve encountered, also offers up the traditional wine and foodways to today’s curious eater—if you know where to look.

In Crete, the ancient, the colonial and the modern are in daily conversation.

 Between July 15 and 19, 2022, a massive wildfire ravaged southern Réthymno, completely engulfing the old, pre-phylloxera vines growing fruit for Iliana Malihin’s vidiano wines. It will take five years to rehabilitate any vines that may have survived. There is a fundraiser currently in effect to support Malihin’s growers during this time with the goal to preserve these old parcels for the future. Click here to read more.

Susannah is the Editorial Coordinator for Wine & Spirits magazine in addition to covering the wines of Greece and Cyprus.

This story appears in the print issue of Summer 2022.
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