Day 2: Crete
Morning comes beaming in to our top-floor, seafront room in Sitia town centre.
First stop is Toplou monastery, on a peninsula on the North-eastern edge of Crete and a national park blissfully devoid of concrete. The monastery has only four resident monks but their activities far outweigh their modest number with a sizeable olive oil production, winery and distillery, largely down to their enterprising patriarch. Past the monastery you find the Vai palm tree forest, fed from a freshwater spring.
Toplou Monastery, Sitia, North-eastern Crete
Vai Palm tree forest
Monastery wines don’t predispose you well but Toplou is a pleasant surprise. The winemaker is the suitably softly-spoken Manthos, whose aim is to produce terroir-driven wines. At 35oN and practically sea-level, this means a lot of sun and heat bearing down on the 30ha of organic monastery vineyards planted with local varieties such as Thrapsathiri, Vilana, Assyrtiko and Liatiko, as well as Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah, producing punchy, high-alcohol wines. The results are a set of great food-pairing wines, with real development showing with each vintage of his Liatiko.
Liatiko is an old Cretan red variety, the name, so the story goes, deriving from Iouliatiko (i.e. of July) suggesting it ripens early. However everyone we speak to dismisses this. It has a very pale colour and turns a dull orange with age so is often blended with Mandilari for a deeper red hue. Liatiko produces gentle wines with soft tannins and aromas of sweet red fruit and spices. It is used in the PDO appellations of Dafnes and Sitia. Traditionally Liatiko was used in sweet wines and is still used to produce naturally high-alcohol sweet wines.
Liatiko produces wonderfully delicate light red wines, that
turn browny-orange with age.
From Toplou we drive south through rolling countryside with olive groves, vineyards, streams and cypress trees and up through small villages to reach Domaine Economou, on the Ziros plateau, run by Giannis Economou.
Giannis is a collector and fixer of all manner of farm equipment - rusty old tractors, hand ploughs and a French bottling machine from the 50s - and has a similarly hands-on and adept touch with his vines and natural wines.
The production focuses on two labels, a blend of Thrapsathiri and Vilana and a Liatiko, from old, ungrafted, bush vines.
40+ year-old ungrafted bush vines of Cretan Liatiko. Plough looks a bit older.
Giannis has made his name releasing wines only when he thinks they are ready so the 2009 might follow the 2012. He demonstrates the new vintages by scrambling around barrels and tanks to blend them in our glass with the aim of matching the style of the previous vintages he’s opened for us to try (2006, 1999 and 1998). Sublime.
Old vintages tasting
From here we drive along the Southern coast of Crete through acres of greenhouses growing tomatoes, oranges and bananas and then vast plains of olive trees where the air is still heavy with the smell of ripe olives long after the harvest.
The limestone soils of Dafnes
Our destination is the village of Dafnes, nestled in the hills above Heraklio, the chaotic capital of Crete. The last winery of the day is Douloufakis, run by Nikos Douloufakis and his wife Katerina, who produce the local PDO wine from 100% Liatiko, handling the delicate grape by aging 60% in mostly old barrels and the rest in tank. The sister wine to the Dafnios Liatiko is the Dafnios white, which is made from the new star of Cretan white varieties – Vidiano. The variety has good acidity, a full body and complex aromas of apricot, peach, herbs and minerality. Nikos is also famous for his single-vineyard, barrel aged Vidiano ‘Aspros Lagos’. The new vintage will be with us soon.
Βarrels for Vidiano
Nikos trained at the prestigious Alba wine-making school in Italy, which, combined with a fortuitous local planting of Sangiovese, produces his winemaker’s favourite - a wonderfully deep and complex Sangiovese-Cabernet blend. He puts the great concentration of his wines down to the area’s limestone soils.
Dafnes is where Stef’s grandmother was from so we are enveloped again by the generous hospitality of friends and neighbours and fed a home-cooked meal with local rabbit braised and chicken soup.
The next morning we waited at Heraklion departures for the plane to take us back to Athens but Crete has other ideas. Strong winds had been blowing from the South all night and though they had died down, conditions at the airport, which is particularly vulnerable to gusts from the South, were still treacherous. An hour late, the plane from Athens comes into land but after one failed attempt turns straight back to Athens…