July 2023 - Crete (Douloufakis)


July 2024

Crete

Winery Spotlight


Featuring:

Douloufakis

               

As Greece’s largest and most populous island, plus the second largest wine producing region in the country, it is remarkable how little attention (and love) the island of Crete receives. The wines of Crete are often overshadowed by the miniscule-production, high priced wines from Santorini, or the affordable and numerous wines from mainland or peninsular Greece. I’ll admit that I’ve personally overlooked them for years - up until two months ago, I couldn’t even name a native Crete grape or appellation on the island. For all of us, that changes today!


Geography


When we think of the Greek archipelago, we will often think of small, sparsely populated islands that are just a stone’s throw from one another. Crete proudly defies this image. The island sits at the southernmost part of the Aegean Sea, with the Libyan Sea to the south. To the Northwest lies the Pelopennese, a peninsula that juts off from Attica (where Athens is). To the North lies the Cyclades, the most famous group of Greek islands (including Santorini and Mykonos). To the Northeast lies the Dodecanese, the islands just off the coast of Turkey (including Rhodes).

Crete is long and narrow, roughly 160 mi long and between 37 and 7.5 miles wide. The landscape is highly mountainous, with a spine of mountains running along the length of the island. The tallest of these six ranges just break 8000 ft while the other four have peaks in the 4000-7000 ft range. There are gorges, inland plains, several rivers, and numerous white sand beaches all along the coastline. To say that the landscape is drastic is an understatement!

The flora is similar to other mediterranean regions - dry scruband (or garrigue) with cedar in the forests and palm trees towards the beach. There are numerous wildflowers and birds, plus some small wild animals. Arable farmland is about ⅓ of the total area, and farmers generally tend to smaller plots with little mechanism due to the extreme features.

In terms of geology, the island is almost entirely gray limestone. The landscape was formed by the compression of tectonic plates when the supercontinent of Pangea broke apart. When the seabeds sitting atop the plates pushed together, they cascaded upward, breaking through the water (over the course of millions of years). Limestone, which is generally formed out of fossilized sea creatures, is the resulting soil. This is not at all unique in the Mediterranean, but is vastly different from the volcanic islands in the area, such as neighboring Santorini or the distant Sicily. 

When looking through the lens of wine, limestone is generally considered one of the ideal soil types. It drains well but also holds water, has natural micronutrients favorable to grapevines but not to other plant life, and has a high pH that often correlates to wines with a lower pH (higher acid).

Climatically, Crete is a temperate Mediterranean climate with hot, dry summers and mild winters. Highs in the growing season generally hover around the 70s-80s, with lows around the 60s-70s. Like many Greek islands, powerful, unpredictable winds blow on Crete. The wind, called Meltemi, blows northwesterly (from NW towards SE), and is usually seasonally isolated to the summer months. Unlike other famous winds in Europe, there is not an opposite wind that blows during winter. While the Meltemi can at worst be life threatening for sailors and at best an annoyance for beach goers, it holds little weight in Cretan viticulture. The same wind blows so hard on the exposed island of Santorini that they’ve developed their own training system (kouloura - a low basket made of trained canes that protects the grapes from the wind). However on Crete the steep mountains and varying landscape breaks the wind enough that typical training methods like cordon and goblet are often used. One potential benefit of the Meltemi is that the warm, dry wind can blow away mildew or other disease pressure, allowing greater ease in practicing organic farming methods.

While Crete may be a rugged and somewhat isolated place to grow grapes, the geography, climate, and soil all land in favor of the vine. It is no wonder why it was one of the first places in Europe for the grapevine to be cultivated.

 

History


Crete is suspected to be the bridge between early wine civilizations and European wine, with the first grapes being cultivated roughly 4000 years ago. The Minoans, who inhabited Ancient Crete from ~2700 to 1420 BC, are said to be Europe’s first Advanced Civilization. They learned technology (including winemaking, agriculture, and a form of hieroglyphics) from their trade with the Egyptians, and had a robust farming system focusing on polyculture of vegetables, grains, olives, and grapes. This allowed their population to increase and was likely the foundation of the 1000+ year civilization. The Minoans are responsible for some of the terraces that are still used today to cultivate grapes on the island.

Around 1420 BC, the Mycenaeans from mainland Greece became integrated into Minoan culture, and much of the defining characteristics of Minoan civilization started to fade. This period was followed by several other ancient or medieval civilizations controlling the island, including Romans, Byzantines, Venetians and Ottomans. A series of uprisings starting in the mid 1800’s led to the establishment of the Cretan State. This state, formed by the Great Powers of Europe, lasted a mere 15 years before the island was officially integrated as part of Greece in 1913 (which was the ultimate goal of the uprisings starting 65 years earlier). Wine production stayed as an integral part of Cretan culture during all of these periods except the Ottoman rule of the mid 17th century to the end of the 19th century. Scholars suspect that small, clandestine production continued at this time, however the Islam ideology of the Ottoman state forbade alcohol trade. Towards the end of its tenure in Crete, the Ottomans introduced an empire-wide tax on alcohol, which allowed them to profit from any non-Muslim populace in the empire producing or trading wine. 

Modern Crete wine history is defined largely by the outbreak of Phylloxera in 1977, a full century after mainland Europe struggled with the grape louse. Phylloxera devastated the island’s vineyards at the same time that European wines were gaining a foothold in the world wine market at an unprecedented rate. This, coupled with the geopolitical factors of Greek dictatorship ending and post WW2 tourism booming across Europe, led to a quick recovery of the Cretan wine industry. This recovery was largely fueled by young, ambitious winemakers who were finally able to break their families cycle of selling grapes to co-ops or large producers who favored low-quality, bulk wines rarely put into bottle or exported out of Crete.

The first part of this recovery process was largely focused on international varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon and the like). As other Greek regions started to gain popularity abroad, the acceptance of native varieties like Xinomavro and Assyrtiko started to become noticeable. At the turn of the millennia, local growers on Crete took advantage of this change in the market and started to focus on their own native varieties, such as Vidiano, Vilana, and Liatiko. As of 2023, there are 38 wineries on Crete, most of which are small, boutique family wineries like we will focus on this month.


Douloufakis - Winery Spotlight


The Douloufakis winery is located in the village of Dafnes, located centrally on the island and just a 10 mi south of the island’s capital, Heraklion. This is the heart of the Crete wine industry, with five PDO’s (appellations) located around here and only two on the far eastern part of the island. Dafnes sits on the western edge of this large agricultural plain sitting at roughly 1000 ft elevation, between two mountain ranges. The largest mountain range in Crete (which includes Mt Ida) lies just to the west, offering a sort of protection from the Meltemi winds.

Douloufakis was founded in 1930, by Dimitris Douloufakis. Since the winery’s inception, it was always a ‘commercial winery’ with intent to produce and sell wines as a business, rather than the basement operations we see in the early days of some other multigenerational wineries. In 1960, George Douloufakis inherited the winery from his father and took over operations, slowly expanding and modernizing the family estate. During both George and his father’s eras, wine was sold commercially in jugs or in bulk, but never in labeled glass bottles.

1977 marked the beginning of the phylloxera incursion, and by 1980 replanting had begun in vineyards and lasted nearly a decade. In 1993, the third generation inherited the estate. Nikos Douloufakis - fresh out of viticulture school in Piedmont, Italy - is the first 

formally trained winemaker to head the family winery. He brought immediate changes to the winery and vineyards. In the vineyard, Nikos began to focus on the Cretan variety of Liatiko, while still maintaining production of international varieties his father and grandfather produced (Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay). The training systems were modernized to increase grape quality, and harvest dates were moved to ensure more optimal ripeness. In the winery, Nikos brought in stainless steel tanks, electric pumps, and modern presses. In 1996, the Douloufakis put their wines into glass bottles for the first time - a Sauvignon Blanc and a Liatiko Dafnes red. It wasn’t until 2000 that Nikos discovered the white variety of Vidiano, which was almost extinct. He immediately planted vineyards and a few years later produced his first commercially available wine of Vidiano. The next two decades consist of moderate but consistent progress - organic certification, a tasting room, facilities expansion, nationwide representation and, finally, global export.

Today, Douloufakis is considered one of the top wineries of Crete and a benchmark producer for the native varieties they’ve so diligently championed. They farm a total of 74 acres and produce roughly 25,000 cases per year. Nikos continues daily work at the winery and in the vineyards, constantly bringing new ideas into the fold. His latest experimentations have centered around Amphora aging and skin contact for the whites (to be poured at the pickup party), as well as larger, French oak barrels for his reds.

And yes, I know you are wondering - the fourth generation is growing and is fully expected to take over the family business one day.


Vidiano, PDO Dafnes, Crete 2023

100% Vidiano, sourced from vineyards planted by Douloufakis in the early 2000’s. Organically grown and fermented in entirely stainless steel. The first iteration of this wine was made in 2005.

Vidiano makes a full bodied, rich wine reminiscent of a Chablis with more salinity. This young expression shows notes of bright citrus, salt, and stone fruit. There are hints of floral notes (like chamomile and jasmine) alongside the pronounced minerality. It is elegant and fresh, with driving acidity. The winery says this can be aged up to five years, with the fresh fruit notes developing into melon, butter, dried apricot, and beeswax. 

I absolutely agree with the winery’s pairing recommendations here - fish with a light sauce, pork with leeks or celery, and a chickpea soup or salad with fresh herbs. Of course, this would also be pleasant to drink by itself, maybe with some Greek olives or Feta to cleanse the palate.


Liatiko, PDO Dafnes, Crete 2020


100% Liatiko, sourced from vineyards planted in the early 1990s. Organically grown. Maceration in open top vessels lasts for 3 days before being transferred to stainless steel to continue fermentation. Aged for 12 months in large, old French oak barrels. The first iteration of this wine was in 1997. 

Liatiko is a delicate, elegant variety that results in light-medium wines with a bright ruby color. With high natural acidity, the wine can be aged for up to a decade but is also drinkable upon release. As a young vine, this exhibits notes of fresh red fruits and floral notes. As the wine ages (as it has started to), it shows ripe and/or dried fruits, leather, and peppercorn spice.

The winery recommends this to be paired with fish with a red sauce, cured meat pie, or rabbit and lamb stew. For those of us who do not live on a Mediterranean island, I think it is the perfect grilling wine and would be well received at a mid-summer BBQ.



Gallery

Images courtesy of Douloufakis

 

Dafnes vineyards, interplanted with olive groves.

Harvest at Douloufakis.

Winemaker Nikos Douloufakis examining grapes.


The humble Douloufakis winery and tasting room.

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