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Wine laurels

From the archives. Shortlisted  for the Young Wine Writer of the Year Award  in 2013.

Driving along the winding ‘Old Road’ due south from Heraklion to Peza; I’ve just rushed past a deserted ostrich farm. Which Cretan wine would go well with ostrich meat, I wonder.

I stop by a hillside monastery in the car-sized shade below an unkempt Cypress tree. The 3G signal is strong. Perhaps ostriches run deep, I think, and type “Minoan ostrich” into my device. Between three and five thousand years ago, the ancient Cretans (called Minoans) were Europe’s most advanced civilisation. My cypress-shaded googling reveals that the ostrich/wine pairing is as ancient.

Minoans imported ostrich eggs from Egypt and fashioned them into drinking vessels called rhytha. Here I am, on the way to my first Cretan winery and the first thing I know about Cretan wine is that it was served in Egyptian ostrich shells. I enter the monastery with an overwhelming desire for a taste of grape product.

Early grape catches the bird

The central square is tidy and silent in the mid-day heat. Walls are adorned with expansive bougainvillea and wall-clinging cacti surround a squat, star-shaped chapel. The roar of the cicadas gradually turns into a muted, familiar tinnitus. There is a faint sound of lunch from inside the monastery’s living quarters. A chilled “mesa kilo” (that’s half a kilo) of Cretan red would hit the spot right now.

Instead, I pass through the back gate, aiming for a vineyard adjoining the monastery. Black water hoses lie like snakes beneath the vines. There’s an olive tree plantation next to the vineyard.

Small, sharp olive tree leaves flash silvery in the sun, and the trees emit a musky bruised olive aroma. Like the rhythm of the cicadas, the olive musk ebbs and flows with the breeze. The red grapes are not quite ripe, but no matter. I’ve tasted something now; I’m in the thick of it.

There’s no way to know for certain, but I believe that I tasted ‘Kotsifali’ that day. The grape is named after Crete’s blackbirds (kotsifos). They love this early ripening variety and build nests among its vines.

Winemakers are more ambivalent because the colour of Kotsifali wine is unstable – the grape’s skins are too delicate and thin. One year old and youthful in its red-fruit and taut goat-skin aromas, the wine will look frail with the pale-brick colour of old Burgundy. And so the traditional Cretan red is a blend of Kotsifali with the tannic and astringent Mandilari, called Kotsifomandilari. A word of warning: if you pass roadside goat-herds with open car windows on your way to any Cretan wine tasting, “goat-skin” is guaranteed to be part of your tasting vocabulary.

Terroir in the check-in queue

A week after robbing monastery grapes, I am at the airport queuing among other pleasure seekers to check in. The queue winds its way through the terminal, a slow moving river of travellers. In ancient Greek mythology, the souls of the dead drink water from the river Lethe to forget all previous life. Total oblivion is the condition for re-incarnation.

There is only a small difference between the mythological river and airport check-in, but it is an important one. While the Lethe obliterates memory, I will not re-enter life empty handed. There are five wines in my suitcase, all carefully chosen for their potential to provide aleitheia, which is Greek for ‘unforgetting’, or ‘truth’.

Yet suddenly, all seems lost. The spectre of total oblivion casts a shadow over the queue as I overhear an apprehensive traveller’s  conversation with an Aegean airline representative.

“How many bottles can I check in?”

“Actually, none,” is the reply, “perhaps you can try taking one bottle, perhaps you can, but wrap it safely.”

The traveller, small next to her suitcase, refuses to accept this. “EU rules say 90 litres!”

Silence falls behind the safety glass of the help desk. I imagine a shrug of indifference aimed at EU rules. My Vidiano, Moschato Spinas Malvazia, Plyto, Dafni and Liastos are under threat.

Liquid assets

The Vidiano is from Minos, a producer in Peza known as the wine-making capital of central Crete. Minos grew out of a 19th century travellers-inn, a shelter for travellers locked out of the capital city Heraklion at night. All Cretan wineries are pioneers in one sense or other. This one had the first bottling plant on the island, established in 1952. Vidiano has an unmistakable tangy acidity, and lime and stone fruit aromas and a saline seawater elegance.

It is difficult to separate Crete’s wine from the land: apart from Vidiano sea salt and Kotsifali goatherds, bruised olives dominate my notebook. Most wineries sell pure Vidiano, so it’s a useful benchmark to compare producers by. I visited one that has elected to oak the gentle flavours. A friendly and shy family of fellow tasters from Napa, California is enthusiastic.

The wine in my second bottle, called Moschato Spinas Malvazia, is a hybrid. Its first component is a classically Greek variety, but Moschato Spina is better known under its French pseudonym. Irene at the Silva winery has successfully married it with Cretan Malvazia, the stuff of legends, to produce a wine that is unmistakably silky and heady; peach! It’s easy to imagine a connection to sweet 15th century Malmsey. This was a sturdy wine made from sun-dried Malvazia, traded by the Venetian occupiers of Crete (or Candia as they called it).

The demise of Cretan Malvazia paralleled the demise of Venetian rule following the Ottoman conquest. Spain and Portugal took over the mantle of Malmsey production as trade shifted with geopolitics.

The next treasure in my suitcase, a bottle of sweet Liastos, proves the Cretan sweet-wine demise was temporary. At the Karavitakis winery in western Crete, I learn that Liastos is a clone of the revived Liatiko variety. Its second-rate juice is brown and unstable, suitable for blending. But if you dry Liatiko grapes in the sun for a week, right under the vines or on mats around the winery, they yield a luscious nectar.

εδαφοκλιματολογικος anyone?

There was enough suitcase space for another bottle. At the winery for which this bottle space is reserved, I follow signs towards a reception building: ‘taste Cretan wine here’, ‘this way for tastings’, and so on. I am met by a sommelier in a Rhone Rangers (or was it Grenache warriors?) t-shirt. We are waiting for the rest of the group he says. In the shop, rows of bottles are primed for efficient sale.

‘Terroir’ is emblazoned on bottles of olive oil and vinegar. Even the salt shakers and pepper grinders are ‘Terroir’. There’s a gallery of terroir themed photography. By and by, two groups of around twenty visitors are offloaded from Cretan Culture Tour Safari jeeps. Small talk and sales patter. I had hoped for something more personal. An industrial reality squashes my romantic expectations. I make my excuses and slink away past three caged dogs. “Your loss,” laughs the ‘sommelier.’

So I left without a bottle of “Terroir” labeled wine. Perhaps I committed the ultimate sin of the wine traveller that day, eschewing a wine for ideological reasons. Hundreds of TripAdvisor reviews say I was wrong to have left empty-handed. But I couldn’t bear another mention of terroir or another glimpse of terroirised salt shakers. Overused, a word becomes an empty shell. I feel a sudden urge to learn Greek and send an email to Nikos at the Karavitakis winery. What is terroir in Greek?

He fires back almost instantly. It is εδαφοκλιματολογικος, composed of the words εδαφο (soil), κλιματο (climatic) and λογικος (logic). “Edafoklimatologicos” may not have an appealing globe-speak ring, but it is precise and local. The wine-world has embraced the concept of terroir and we cringe when local wines give way to internationalised vanilla flavoured blends. But we ride roughshod over local wine-words, cracking the terroir whip. Local words for local wines!

Laurelled Revival

The final two wines in my suitcase are Dafni and Plyto acquired from the first winery I visited, with the taste of stolen monastery grapes still fresh on my palate. It is thanks to the Lyrarakis winery that these two varieties were spared a probable oblivion in mixed vineyards. Dafni means laurel, and it does have a slight (though weaker than advertised) herbal, laurel character. An older vintage is surprisingly rich and nutty. Plyto, though also herbal, has a lemony twang.

While Plyto is relatively common in Crete, Dafni is rare. The laurel wine is expensive to grow. Its great vigour demands constant pruning. Still, by the logic of soil and climate there should be more of this wine.

It all comes together in the end. Goat-herds, bruised olives, salt and laurels, lemon and Malmsey pass through check-in unscathed. Then the plane banks over the harbour from which the Cretan fleet sailed into the Trojan War, led by its hero Idomeneus. No-one really knows why Homer described the Aegean Sea as “wine-dark”. Yet through the lens of my five time-capsules it could have no other colour.

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