Crete on the Radar

Last time, I reviewed a tasting of the wines of the Jura – one of very few tastings I had been to since the start of the Covid-19 restrictions, but, as I noted then, tastings, like buses, seem to come along in pairs.  And, so, the very next day, I was off to another, this time hosted by Rachel of Corks of Cotham and focussing on the wines of the Greek island of Crete. 

Crete has been making wine since at least Minoan times (3500 to 4000 years ago) and that long history no doubt accounts for the wealth of unique local grape varieties found on the island.  But, unlike the Jura which uses its range of native grapes to create some idiosyncratic styles, Cretan wines are far more approachable and, as a result, the 2 tastings could not have been more different.

Rachel concentrated on the wines of a single producer, Lyrarakis – one that my wife and I visited when we holidayed on the island a few years ago – who, helpfully, label most of their wines with the name of the principal grape variety.

The tasting began with a pair of attractive dry whites – the crisp, fresh, citrussy Vidiano was more to my taste than the more perfumed and floral Dafni (£14 each).  The smoky Liatiko rosé (£18) seemed quite restrained on both nose and palate, but the Kotsifali red that followed was, for me, the wine of the night – even if it was the cheapest on show (£12).  Reminding me a little of a good Pinot Noir, this was smooth and elegant with quite low tannins and good red fruits; a wine that would react well to chilling slightly in warmer weather.

Liatiko reappeared in 2 contrasting reds.  The first, named ‘Queen’ (£14) was blended from several vineyard sites, a little weightier than the Kotsifali and full of pleasant spicy black fruits.  The other, from old (pre-phylloxera) vines in the sandy Aggelis vineyard (£19) was more complex and showed the benefit of 2 extra years ageing with lovely dried-fruit aromas and flavours together with hints of smoky oak and a good length. A wine for claret lovers to try.

The evening finished with a medium-sweet blend of 6 local varieties, Liastos (£16).  Made from partially dried grapes to intensify the sugars and with 12 months barrel ageing, this was full of marmalade and honey flavours but balanced with enough acidity to keep the wine refreshing.

A delicious end to an excellent tasting and further proof, if any was needed, that the wines of Greece and its islands should really be on every wine lover’s radar.

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Beyond the Familiar

When buying wine, particularly white wine, I find myself increasingly looking away from France.  It’s not that I don’t like French wines – I do – but there are just so many interesting and different grape varieties to explore.  And the more widely I look, the more exciting and attractive flavours I find. 

Take Italy for a start.  I’ve been a big fan of their whites for many years.  If you’ve not tried Greco, Fiano, Verdicchio or Vermentino, then do; you’ve got some delightful surprises awaiting you.  Then there’s the lovely whites from Albariño and Loureiro grown in Galicia in north-west Spain.  And don’t forget Austria’s Grűner Veltliner – I blogged about that a few weeks ago.

You may be familiar with all of those, but the 2 bottles pictured above feature varieties that fewer will recognise.  Firstly, Malagouzia.  That’s native to Greece and Giannikos Winery’s example from the Peloponnese region is a fragrant delight.  Tangy and fresh with lovely peach and apricot flavours, this would be perfect on its own or with fish, delicately cooked chicken dishes or light summer salads.  Local independent wine merchant Grape and Grind have it for £15.99 and it’s worth every penny.

With Fitapreta’s Ancestral from Portugal’s Alentejo region (Corks, £16.50) you get – not one obscure grape variety, but a blend of 6 including 2 – Tamarez and Alicante Branco – that the winemaker says have been rescued from near extinction.  I’ve not heard of either, so I won’t argue.  On pouring, the wine is almost gold in colour, so much so, that I wondered at first if it was oxidised.  But no, it was in perfect condition, rich, tangy, honeyed and savoury with real body to it; a friend who shared it with us thought that, tasting it blind, he would have said it was a red wine.  I know what he means; it’s likely that there was some skin-contact involved in the winemaking.  Not your standard easy-quaffing white, but a really enjoyable and deeply flavoured glass suited to more robustly flavoured poultry or, perhaps, young game birds.

2 very different bottles but each showing the benefits of looking beyond the familiar. 

20 Years On

It’s more than 20 years since I passed my Wine Diploma so, when my wife suggested a de-cluttering session around the house recently, I decided that it was time that my old study files could go.  But not before I had a quick read through to remind myself of how the wine world looked at the end of the last century.  How different it was!

Even though wines from Australia, New Zealand and California were already common on our shelves, the syllabus devoted more time to each of Bordeaux and Burgundy than it did to the whole of the ‘New World’.  And the prices!  Simple wines for less than £3 and a 2nd Growth Bordeaux for about £20.  Those were the days!

But, perhaps, most significant of all were the alcohol levels of our tasting samples: some were as low as 8%.  The majority were around 11% or 12% and only a Châteauneuf du Pape and an Amarone reached 13%!

Anyway, back to 2022 and later in the day I opened a Greek red to accompany our dinner – the only mention of Greek wines in my old files was a rather dismissive note about Retsina. 

Seméli’s Nemea Reserve (Novel Wines, £15.99) was a delicious, complex red made from the local Agiorgitiko (aka St George) grape; it was full of lovely black fruits (bitter cherries and blackberries) together with some dried fruits and subtle spicy oak from its 12 months maturation in barrel and, despite its 14% alcohol (what would they have made of that in 1999!), it was beautifully balanced with no signs of alcoholic burn. 

Like most reds, this definitely needs food to show at its best – a nice juicy steak springs to mind – and benefits from decanting an hour or so before you drink it to let it open up and show its true character.

The wine world has certainly moved on in 20 years – in some ways better, in others not, but the rise of wines from previously ignored countries gives a diversity that I could only have imagined as I sat my exam papers all those years ago.

2 Bottles to Remember

As we approach the end of another difficult year, I suspect that most people will be hoping that in 2022, we might finally get this wretched Covid 19 under control.  Perhaps even start doing the things I was dreaming of in the blog I posted this time last year: going on holiday, eating out in restaurants and running wine courses.  While still exercising care for ourselves and our fellow citizens, of course.

But, before finally leaving 2021 altogether, I’d like to mention a couple of wines we particularly enjoyed over the recent holiday season – both excellent value.

Sauternes is, perhaps, the best-known dessert wine in the world but it isn’t the only sweet wine made in the Bordeaux region.  Across the Garonne River, 3 other Appellations, Cadillac, Loupiac and Sainte-Croix-du-Mont, make wines in a similar style, if a little lighter in body, using the same grape varieties (Semillon and Savignon Blanc).  The last named of these villages has been a favourite of ours since visiting as part of a wine walk many years ago.  It was the end of a long day and a glass of the local liquid nectar was the perfect reviver.  Chateau La Rame is one of the best producers there, the wine sweet but not cloying and full of delicious orange, honey and marmalade flavours (available from Majestic, £12.99 for a 50cl bottle).

Another bottle also brought back memories of a trip abroad, this time to the Greek island of Crete.   Among the exciting producers there is Domaine Lyrarakis, who specialises in showcasing Crete’s marvellous range of native grapes, some only recently rescued from near-extinction.  Varieties such Dafni and Vidiano (both white) and Kotsifali (red) are all worth seeking out, but our bottle was made from Thrapsathiri – a grape that was completely new to me.  Full and rich, a little in the style of a white Rhône, this subtly oaked wine had flavours of peach and melon with a little spice and a delicious long herby, grassy finish.  Bought from the Wine Society for £14.50, but, sadly, now sold out.

Two bottles to remember from a year that, otherwise, many will wish to forget.