Around 6,500 years ago
Most traces of vineyards date back to prehistoric times. According to archaeological evidence, the cultivation of vines started in the region south of the Caucasus, around the Caspian Sea, and was introduced to Mesopotamia and Egypt later. The first vestiges of winemaking were found in Philippi in Macedonia.
Recent findings, analyzed with the Carbon 14 dating method, during excavations at Dikili Tash –the prehistoric settlement, 1,5km east of Philippi in Macedonia, northern Greece– date back to 4500 BCE. The findings are charred grape seeds and crushed skins of wild and cultivated vines. This constitutes clear proof of the earliest vine cultivation and winemaking, at least in the area that today is Europe.
5,000 years ago
The oldest evidence of the existence of wine during the Bronze Age in Greece was discovered after analyzing findings in jars during excavations in Myrtos, one of the first Minoan settlements ca. 3000 BCE, on the southern coast of Crete. The existence of grape-products with resin additives was confirmed by the examination of organic residue, such as crushed grapes, seeds, skin, and stems taken from fragments of jar walls. Additionally, scientific analysis of a three-legged pot (ca. 1900-1700 BCE) reveals wine with resin, stored in either smoked oak barrels or with added smoked oak pieces in the barrel. The special taste that such an addition gives to the wine resembles the taste of modern-day Scotch whisky. Analysis of cone cups of the same era excavated in Apodoulou, in the valley of Amari in Crete, showed that they contained wine scented with terebinth resin. In the same settlement, phosphoric acid –a compound present in brewery buckets dating from before 3000 BCE in Egypt– as well as 2-octanol were traced in three-legged pots, all of which clearly demonstrate that some sort of fermentation took place.
In Mycenae, analysis of amphora wall fragments, amphorae, and jars, showed that they contained different kinds of wine: plain, with resin or with some other non-fermented ingredient. Analysis of findings in various cooking pots, amphorae, cone cups, and rhytons found in Crete, Mycenae, mainland Greece and Cyprus, dating from 1600 to 1100 BCE, indicate the presence of herbs, resin, laurel, lavender, rue, and sage being included in the wine. Another fermented drink also may have existed, one with other ingredients in it, such as tartaric acid, honey, mead, oil, beeswax (oil and beeswax were used to preserve wine and seal storage jars) or a barley brew. However, the re-use of jars to store wine, mead or barley brew may justify these findings and may constitute proof that such ingredients were used in the fermentation process of making wine. The oldest grape-press was discovered in a Minoan mansion built ca. 1550 BCE in Vathipetro, about 4km south of Archanes and some 20km south of Heraklion. In the backyard of this mansion, the remains of an olive press were also found.
The Greeks considered the cultivation of vines an indispensable part of their lives and wine was part of their daily life.
In the Gortys Inscription, the most complete and oldest written enactment of laws, which was discovered in the valley of Messara in ancient Gortys in 1884, we encounter for the first time a series of rules about vineyard cultivation.The Gortys Code –dating back to 480-460 BCE– constitutes a valuable source of knowledge about the justice principles and the meaning of justice in the powerful Doric Crete between 600 BCE and 300 BCE. According to evidence and some researchers, the first cultivation of grapes took place in Crete, while for others it occured in Thrace, and dates back to ca. 700 or 600 BCE.
2,500 years ago
Regardless of who initiated it, the Greeks considered the cultivation of vines an indispensable part of their lives and wine was part of their daily life. This is underlined by the fact that they worshiped gods like Dionysus and also by the feasts they organised to honour him such as the Dionysia, the Anthesteria and the Lenaia. Additionally, wine is regularly featured in works by Homer, Pindar, Strabo and Athenaeus.
Vineyard work and winemaking are also reported and described in Theophrastus’s “Enquiry on Plants”, in Virgil’s “The Georgics” and in Pliny the Elder.
Around 67 BCE, half a century before the birth of Christ, grape cultivation and winemaking experienced tremendous growth in Crete. Rome eventually conquered Crete and the wine from Crete conquered Rome. It was the first golden age for the wine of this beautiful island.
We learn from the Romans that there were special laws in many Greek cities, which ensured both the good quality of the wine and the protection of a healthy wine trade.
Also, the production, place and origin of the wine were marked on the amphorae (much like present-day wine labels on bottles).
What is more, wine laws introduced in the 5th century BCE on the island of Thassos, in the North Aegean Sea, as well as on other islands in the Aegean Archipelago, constitute the oldest legal writings for the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) of wine. In fact, wine laws were so strict, that ships carrying foreign wine that approached Thassos illegally had their cargo confiscated.
The cultivation of grapes expanded from Greece to other places in Europe when Greeks established a wave of colonies in Southern Italy and Sicily, known as Magna Grecia, and from there vines made it to the south of France and Spain. The Romans continued to spread the cultivation of vines as their empire grew and thus vines were introduced to most European regions such as Northern France, Germany, Austria and Hungary.
Roman Republic, Res Publica Romana Senatus Populusque Romanus (509 BCE – 27 BCE)
Roman Republic, Imperium Romanum Senatus Populusque Romanus (27 BCE – 476 CE)
The Romans became fascinated by the island of Crete and its wines, and were impressed by its strategic geographical position and unparalleled natural beauty. They began controlling its wine production and around 67 BCE, half a century before the birth of Christ, the wines from Crete conquered Rome. Vineyard cultivation and wine making on the island, which became part of the Roman Empire, developed rapidly. Wines were exported all over the Mediterranean and to Europe, while at the same time the amphora industry enjoyed its own growth and evolution.
This era was considered as a golden age for the wines of Crete. The island’s strategic geographic position, on the most important sea route of the time –connecting Rome with Egypt and Asia Minor–, was indeed unique. Numerous amphorae were discovered in Pompeii with the Latin inscription “CRET EXC” on them, which according to archaeologists means “excellent Cretan wine”.
Byzantine Empire (330-1453)
In 565, Justin II succeeded Emperor Justinian and Christianity completely prevailed over the worship of Dionysus; at the same time, Greek wine enjoyed a new peak. Wines from the Peloponnese, Rhodes, Chios and Lesbos were exported to the beautiful city on the Bosphorus. Cassianus Bassus gathered all the information known until then regarding land and vine cultivation in his work “Geoponica”.
The Malvasia wine, the superior wine from Crete, was the most famous
wine during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
Four centuries later, an improved version of this work was composed by Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos or “the Purple-born” (i.e. born in the imperial bedchamber) (905-959), who was well educated, a scholar, a writer and the most important representative of Byzantine tradition and culture.
Venice Republic (697-1797)
Traditional wine production declined along with the decline of the Byzantine Empire. However, vine cultivation in Crete continued to thrive, even though the rest of Greece was under Ottoman rule.
The Venetians ruled Crete from 1204 until 1669 and during this period the Malvasia wine from the island became the most famous wine in the known world, gifting Crete with another prosperous wine period and renaissance. The moment the Venetians started trading Malvasia wine, it became the drink everybody wanted to drink. For four and a half centuries, throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, it gained unprecedented fame and glory. The end of this prosperous period came when the Turks conquered Crete in 1669 and wine production was severely restricted.
19th century and the New Greek State
When Greece was liberated from Ottoman rule and the new Greek State was declared –even though Crete would continue to be under Turkish rule until 1898–, scientists immediately realized that in order to save Greek viticulture and winemaking, a thorough study and listing of all the indigenous grape varieties was essential. This grape catalogue was of uppermost importance and would go a long way to re-establishing Greek wines’ fame and fortune. This moment in time was crucial for the future evolution of the Greek wine industry, as it marked the first dedicated attempt to record everything about vines, grapes and wine in the country. What is especially noteworthy is the following: harbingers of the first travel journalists, a number of foreign visitors and travellers from all over Europe, but especially from France and England, inadvertently became valuable contributors to this first-ever Greek grape and wine catalogue. When they went back to their countries, their reports included detailed comments about the different grape varieties and the wine they drank while in Greece.
Harbingers of the first travel journalists, a number of foreign visitors and travellers from all over Europe, but especially from France and England, inadvertently became valuable contributors to this first-ever Greek grape and wine records. When they went back to their countries, their reports included comments about the different grape varieties and the wine they drank while in Greece.
Their work constitutes extraordinary historical proof about Greece, Greek vineyard cultivation and Greek wines. The first published work on Greek indigenous grape varieties dates back to 1836 and was written in Greek by Grigorios Palaiologos, a professor of Agriculture and Economy in Nafplio, in the Peloponnese. He published the first winemaking manual, in which he cites major white-grape varieties such as Mavroudi, Savatiano, Fileri, Rhoditis, Muscadine, Siriki, Rozaki, white Gigarton of Ionia and red Gigarton of Corinthia. In 1837, Stamatis Valezis, a student who gained a scholarship to study winemaking in France, became the first ever oenologist in Greece. Three more students went to France in 1855 –Nikolaidis, Mikroulis and Georgiadis– as part of a Greek winemaking development effort. In 1876, G. Orfanidis, a professor at the University of Athens, made an attempt to write a two-volume project “Greek Ampelography”, but did not manage to complete it.
Some 111 different grape varieties were recorded in the region of Attica, and that represented just a fifth of the total number. Orfanidis believed that more than 480 varieties thrived in Greece. The most complete description of these varieties, however, was published by the French traveller J.-M. Guillon in his book “Les cépages orientaux” in 1896, Paris. Amazingly, this book is still in print and can be ordered from Amazon.
At the same time, during the first years of the country’s independence, and more specifically in the middle of the 19th century, the first major wineries were established, owned or partly-owned by Europeans. In fact, the first modern rules and principles of winemaking were also established then. These wineries based their operations on modern winemaking principles and had immediate access to European ports to export their wines. Other important wineries followed later: Cambas in Attica, and smaller wineries in Nemea, Samos, Naoussa and Santorini. Santorini had become the country’s largest exporter, supplying its sweet wines mainly to the Russian market. Greece continued to expand its borders, annexing the islands of the Ionian Sea and Thessaly, to reach almost half its current territory. Towards the end of the 19th century, while phylloxera afflicted and destroyed the French vineyards, most of Greek wine production was exported to France. Even so, it was not enough. To produce more wine, great amounts of raisins, good enough to be made into wine, were also exported and a lot of vineyards planted with wine-grape varieties were planted with the raisin variety. However, within a few years, the demand for raisins stopped, causing the raisin crisis, a calamity of seriously destructive consequences to both the industry and the economy of the entire country. By the end of the 19th century, phylloxera appeared in Greece, turning an already dire situation into a living nightmare. Phylloxera appeared in Thessaloniki in 1898 and spread to the Macedonian vineyards of Northern Greece –its biggest victim, along with the vineyards in Epirus– and elsewhere on the mainland.
The first decades of the 20th century are even more dramatic for the Greek wine industry, due to more mishaps and calamities: the spread of phylloxera and its wiping out of some historical vineyards and varieties, lost export markets, emigration, and the inability of the State to effectively organize wine production. To crown it all, millions of Greeks are forced to leave their homes from Asia Minor and Pontus, while constant destructive wars eradicate what had managed to escape phylloxera.
Despite these unprecedented conditions, in 1910, professor of viticulture Vassos D. Cribas and his associates, started the first successful attempt at recording and classifying the wine-bearing grape varieties, in their work “Contribution to Greek Viticulture”.
They managed to complete this oeuvre in 1928, initially including 190 varieties against a very difficult backdrop of political and military turmoil, and eventual independence for most of the Greek territory. Their work was later enriched with new varieties, some 350 of them. And while the science of agriculture was being developed, the first Ampelography Collection was incorporated in the School of Agriculture of Athens in 1930, and the Greek Wine Institute was founded in 1937. In fact, during those years, more than fifty percent of the potential of the entire vineyard land in Greece was thriving and expanding in Crete. The reason behind this was the absence of phylloxera on the island. The two-volume work “Greek Ampelography” was completed and published by the Occupied Ministry of Agriculture, in 1943, despite the on-going German occupation
and all the terrible hardships it brought to the Greek civilian population.
After the end of World War II (1939-45) and the Greek Civil War (1946-1949), two decades of planning and reconstruction of both Greek agriculture and grape cultivation followed.
The first categorization of Greek wines took place in 1971, when laws
concerning the designation of origin were enacted,
based on French legislation models.
The end result of this reconstruction established the first categorization of Greek wines in 1971, when laws concerning the designation of origin were enacted, according to French legislation models. This was the time when some exceptionally important research was carried out by the Greek Wine Institute with its gifted principal, Stavroula Kourakou-Dragona, in charge. The diverse project by Kourakou-Dragona and her associates highlighted the timeless and abundant wealth of the Greek vineyard and of contemporary Greek wines, entitling many historical vineyards and wineries to protection, legal recognition and with the right to list such information on their wine labels. Several years later, as Greece became a full member of the European Union, Vins de Pays were recognized.
Greek wines are today categorized as follows:
PDO Wines: wines of Protected Designation of Origin
Greek wines with Designation of Origin (VQPRD, which are AOSQ wines), and AOC wine (Greek PDO wines are part of this category).
PGI Wines: wines of Protected Geographical Indication
All Regional Wines and any wines of Traditional Designation which have Designated Geographical Indication at the same time, such as Verdea and 15 retsinas (PDO wines) are part of this category.
Varietal Wines: wines in this new category include Table Wines, which conform to the rules and fulfill all necessary prerequisites as stipulated in Article 63, Council Regulation 607/2009. Wines in this category can indicate the vintage year and variety composition, but not their geographical indication, on their labels.
Table Wines: “ordinary” Table Wines are all wines which are neither PDO, PGI or Varietal Wines. Table Wines cannot list the vintage year and grape variety composition on their labels.
Vineyards dedicated to grape must and wine production cover some 69,907 hectares according to 2007/2008 figures, while production ranges from 3 to 4 million hl.
Crete, where the Alexakis winery is situated, produces around 20% of the total amount of must and wine of Greece and constitutes one of the most important vine growing and winemaking regions of the country. Some 8,123 hectares are cultivated here and more than 900,000hl are produced annually. Crete is the largest of all the Greek islands and the fifth largest in the Mediterranean. Vineyards on the island are situated in valleys and on mountains that reach altitudes of 800m. Virtually all vineyards are in the northern part of the island. Land and climate conditions –high day-temperatures and extremely dry atmosphere, mainly in the summer– are not favorable to grape growing. However, vine growers have carefully selected where to plant vines, both in valleys and on hillsides, where they can be exposed to cool northerly breezes from the Aegean Sea, which form unique microclimate conditions, ideal for yielding top-quality fruit.
Farmers planted their vineyards behind Mount Psiloritis (elevation 2,456m or 8,058 ft) to protect them from the warm wind currents coming in from Northern Africa. Most vineyards are in the north-central (around Heraklion) and the eastern part of the island.
Nowadays, the following wine-producing grape varieties are planted in vineyards in the Heraklion region:
Greek white-grape varieties: Athiri, Assyrtiko, Vilana, Vidiano, Dafni, Thrapsathiri, Moshato and Plyto.
International white-grape varieties: Chardonnay, Malvazia Aromatica, Sauvignon Blanc and Sylvaner.
Greek red-grape varieties: Aghiorghitiko, Kotsifali, Aidani, Liatiko, Limnio, Mandilari, Mavrodaphne, Romeiko and Fokiano.
International red-grape varieties: Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan, Grenache Rouge, Merlot, Mourvedre and Syrah.
Of the white varieties, Athiri is considered an old variety of the central and southern Aegean. It gives wines of fruity aromas, medium alcoholic volume and acidity, and with a pleasant, soft and full taste. Vilana gives wines of medium to high alcohol volume with average aroma characteristics. Dafni, considered resilient in dry and warm conditions, matures towards end of September and gives wines of medium alcoholic volume and acidity, which are characterized by a special bouquet reminiscent of the aromatic evergreen laurel (dafni in Greek) shrub.
Of the red varieties, Kotsifali gives wines of high alcoholic volume, intense aromas, high acidity, but due to its color inconsistency, it is usually blended with Mandilari, a variety characterized by an intense red colour and high aromatic potential. Also, Liatiko, an old local variety, gives high-quality, very aromatic wines and is great for producing sweet wines. Both the white and red international varieties mentioned above are cultivated in the same areas and are characterized by distinct terroir.
Twenty-first-century Crete continues a remarkable 5,000-year tradition of vineyard cultivation and of the art of making and enjoying wine.
As we complete this brief history, we would like to point out the following: Twenty-first-century Crete continues a remarkable 5,000-year tradition of vineyard cultivation and of the art of making and enjoying wine. Modern winemaking methods, technology, know-how and breaking-news innovation work hand-in-hand and contribute substantially to the quality of the end product. The uniqueness of the indigenous varieties blends to perfection with the experience, the intuition and the scientific knowledge of the people who create the contemporary wines of Crete. These are wines that win awards and praise around the world and serve as Greece’s silent ambassadors. And the people behind them are proud winegrowers, agriculturalists, winemakers, oenologists and all those who are involved in the production of wine directly and/or indirectly. Their guiding light is their very own inherent passion, their ally the ecosystem of this illustrious island; their splendid wines redefine Crete as a unique place on the world wine map, enrich the magnificent Minoan legacy and give enjoyment to all those who taste them.
Copyright © 2013 Alexakis SA, All texts Copyright © 2013 Alexakis SA