The Revival of Cretan Wine

Photo by Koula Rozakis Kokologiannakis

As Anna Maria Kambourakis opens the wire mesh gate to a Syrah vineyard, a woman from the nearby winery shouts a warning. They have a brief exchange in Greek, and then we’re in, walking among the maroon leaves of the vines.

“She said I shouldn’t come in here because I’m wearing red, and the rams might attack me,” explains Anna Maria, before walking off to find the very creatures that might charge her, so she can take a photo.

We are at the Anoskeli Winery in western Crete, where rams, sheep and lambs are used to clean up the vines after harvest. Anna Maria’s husband Vasilis Kokologiannakis and I stand back and watch her venture into the vines with her red coat, red nail varnish and red lipstick.

Perhaps this is unsurprising behaviour for someone who boldly goes where few would dare. Anna Maria Kambourakis and her husband Vasilis Kokologiannakis were both born and raised in the US, but five years ago, they decided to quit their jobs, leave their friends and family behind, and move back to their ancestral homeland.

Moving to Greece during the time of economic crisis — one that caused over 300,000 people to leave the country — was, to say the least, unusual. But Anna Maria and Vasilis are wine people: Anna Maria is a certified sommelier and Vasilis has been making his own wine for years in California, following the tradition of many Greek Americans, who keep their own barrels of homemade wine. And for wine people, Crete is an exciting place. Not only is a new generation reviving the island’s ancient wine tradition, but its northern city of Rethymno was proclaimed European Wine City 2018.

Photo by Koula Rozakis Kokologiannakis

“The other day I read an article about how Lebanon is trying to make their answer to Assyrtiko — one of Greece’s most famous white grapes — which is awesome, because ten years ago, it was our response to Chardonnay, or Cabernet,” said Anna Maria.

Anna Maria has spent most of her career trying to promote Greek wines. It’s something she is extremely passionate about, although this wasn’t always the case. When she was young, she was a political junkie, and wanted to major in international relations. But two weeks into her freshman year, 9/11 happened “and my little, suburban, middle-class bubble…burst. I had this feeling that the world just cannot be fixed,” she said.

It was a shock for the naive 17 year old, who thought she could change the world. She no longer knew what she wanted to do. She tried graphic design, spent six months in Crete, then returned to the states to take up waitressing. It was while she was working at a diner in Boston that a friend of her boss’s would frequently drop by with wine at various times during the day. He was funny, flashy, always talked about wine and for a long time, she couldn’t figure out what he did. When she finally asked, she was told that he sold wine for Martignetti, one of the biggest wine distributors in the area. Excited about the fact that this could be an actual job, she decided to pursue a career in wine.

“Years ago, when I was selling Greek wine, people only knew about Retsina and Mavrodafni. Greek wine had a terrible reputation, and rightly so, because most of our wines were terrible for a really long time,” recalls Anna Maria.

This is surprising because Greek wine tradition is the oldest in Europe, and in Crete, it stretches back 4000 years. In fact, some of the world’s oldest wine presses can be seen at the island’s ancient Minoan ruins in Vathypetro. In addition, Crete’s geographical location in the very south of Europe is ideal for making wine. The grapes have no problem ripening due to the hot weather.

But its geographical situation is also key to its turbulent history, which has impacted its wine industry. Lying between Africa, the Middle East, and Europe, has made the island a strategic point for empires and wars over the centuries. Although certain occupations, like the Venetian one that stretched between the 13th and 17th centuries, made Cretan wine famous by bringing it to the rest of Europe, subsequent empires and wars damaged the industry. Wine was banned completely during the Ottoman Empire, and the wars of the 20th century, including WW1, WW2 and the Balkan wars, left the island devastated. It wasn’t until about 20 years ago, with help from EU funds, that the industry was given the chance to modernise and recover.

“Before the money from the European Union, we had something like 14 wineries on Crete, and now we have 34. Plus, now, we have an educated winemaker,” explained Anna Maria, referring to a new generation of winemakers who have studied abroad, in places like Germany, Italy and France. Now, these winemakers are applying their knowledge in their old family vineyards, where people had been making the same way for generations.

Tradition Meets Innovation

“It’s this second generation that are really thinking outside the box and being a little bit more creative, more realistic and taking risks,” said Anna Maria.

As part of their wine tour, Anna Maria and Vasilis took me to visit the Karavitakis Winery, which experienced exactly this kind of shift when son Nikos took over from his father Manolis. There, we tried a Vidiano — one of Crete’s three indigenous white grape varieties.

“Everyone is making a good Vidiano right now. It’s the sweetheart grape of Crete, because it’s showing the most potential in terms of being internationally loved,” said Anna Maria.

The Vidiano we tasted was light, subtle and easy to drink, with recurring notes of peach. A perfect summer wine.

Photo by Koula Rozakis Kokologiannakis

A few days later, I visited the Douloufakis Winery further East, in the old wine-producing region of Daphnes, where winemaker Nikos Douloufakis is also experimenting with Vidiano. He’s using the same grape variety, of the same vintage, in different ways — fermenting them in steel tanks, barrels, producing sparkling wines — which demonstrates the versatility of Vidiano.

As is the trend, Nikos, who is the third generation of winemakers in his family, studied oenology in Alba, Piemonte. As well as bringing a more modern, scientific approach to the process of making wine, he is interested in working with native Cretan grape varieties, such as Vidiano, Vilana, Liatiko and Kotsifali.

This fresh return to tradition is mirrored by Anna Maria and Vasilis. Not only are they a new generation returned to their familial homeland from abroad, but they each embrace a different aspect of Crete.

Vasilis has returned to work on his grandfather’s land, which had been abandoned for decades since his death. He grows grapes and olives and makes his own wine and olive oil for the use of his family and guests. His cousin offers him a few lambs a year in exchange for using some of Vasilis’ land as pasture for his herd. This is how the old Crete works. The village Crete.

Anna Maria, on the other hand, is interested in the future of Cretan wine, and continues to promote it to an international audience. That’s why she started her own company, Chania Wine Tours, which she and Vasilis run together. At the time, it was a huge risk.

“For a while, we were hanging on by a thread. I’ve never worked so hard for so little money in my life, but it’s totally worth it,” said Anna Maria, who continues to push the business into new territory, with ideas such as Women’s Wine Week.

Most of all, however, the couple find Crete a great place to live and raise their two children.

“The kids get to run around and if one goes missing, you know that he’s eating chocolates at a neighbour’s house and not been kidnapped. The food is not processed, and for the most part, we know exactly where it comes from,” Anna Maria told me. And the wine is delicious.

Madhvi Ramani writes articles, essays and fiction. Her work has been published by The New York Times, Washington Post, Asia Literary Review and others. She grew up in London and currently lives a thoroughly bohemian lifestyle in Berlin. Find out more at www.madhviramani.com or follow her on twitter @madhviramani.