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By Susan Kostrzewa

The Winemakers Reinventing Crete’s Wine Scene

Crete has one of the world’s oldest wine cultures. Now, a new generation is pushing traditions forward with terroir-driven and small-production bottlings.
By Susan Kostrzewa

From left to right: Alexandra Manousakis of Manousakis Winery; Emmanouela Paterianaki of Domaine Paterianakis; Nikos Douloufakis of Douloufakis Winery; Maria Tamiolaki of Rhous Winery; Nicky Paterianaki of Domaine Paterianakis; Afshin Molavi of Manousakis Winery; Dmitris Mansolas of Rhous Winery / Photo by Effie Paroutsa

Calling the island of Crete an “emerging” force for wine is a bit of a misnomer.

One of the world’s oldest winemaking regions, this 3,200-square-mile slab of paradise has a vinous culture that dates back to the fourth millennium B.C. Minoans began exporting red and white wines throughout the ancient world in 3000 B.C.—first to the Egyptians, then later to Romans, Venetians and beyond.

But political and cultural disruption impeded evolution. Ottoman takeover from the 17th to 19th century ground the winemaking momentum to a halt, and Greek annexation in 1913 threw the region into tumult, meaning serious wine production and promotion was shelved.

Most commercial viniculture didn’t resurface until the 1980s and ’90s, when Crete became a powerhouse producer of (largely bulk) wines, with international variety plantings at the forefront.

Today, the island is fast getting its groove back, with a growing interest in the distinctive, terroir-driven wines that thrive here. Though the island still accounts for an impressive 12% of Greece’s total wine production, Crete’s focus has moved to smaller production, high-quality indigenous varieties, says Heraklion-based oenologist Manolis Stafilakis. That shift is largely due to a new, younger force on the winemaking scene.

“In the last 20 years, Crete has been actively exploring and planting vineyards to new varieties as well as indigenous varieties that were forgotten in abandoned vineyards,” he says. “Globalization has brought new technology, and the younger, traveling generation has brought the know-how. We’re definitely in an exciting discovery phase.”

Meet the modern face of Cretan wine.

Emmanouela Paterianaki (left) and Nicky Paterianaki (right) of Domaine Paterianakis / Photo by Effie Paroutsa

Domaine Paterianakis

Emmanouela Paterianaki, Enologist & Winery Manager

Nicky Paterianaki,Director of Marketing & Sales

“Restless” is the word Emmanouela Paterianaki uses to describe the island’s next-generation wine influencers, and she’s certainly a testament to that drive. Working with her sister, Nicky, her passion for biodynamic practices and indigenous authenticity has put the family’s boutique winery at the Cretan wine forefront but, she says, she’s just part of the wave currently fueling the industry there.

“[As a group,] we’ve revived long-lost grape varieties, tried new blends, replanted our vineyards and modernized our process with state-of-the-art equipment,” she explains. “We’ve also pushed wine routes so that visitors can visit new or renovated wineries with an open-door philosophy.”

Domaine Paterianakis was founded in Peza by grandfather Manolis some 50 years ago and revolutionized by father Georgios, an engineer and champion of organic wine, in the ’90s. The winery committed to biodynamic practices at a time when most producers on the island turned away from what the sisters describe as a “pure” approach. Today, it specializes in indigenous and rare grape varieties like Moschato Spinas, Plyto, Kotsifali and Assyrtiko, with “holistic winemaking” still at the core of the business.

“We love and care for each wine we make” says Emmanouela, who studied oenology at the University of Athens and consulted for lauded Greek wineries before returning to the family business. “We cultivate our vineyards with respect to our ecosystem using a blend of modern winemaking and traditional secrets passed from our forefathers. This helps generate health and fertility in the vineyard.”

That philosophy results in wines with a “strong personality,” explains Nicky, who studied chemical engineering at the University of Athens and oversees chemical consultation at the winery in addition to her other roles. “We want all of the peculiarities of our local terroir and harvest to be reflected in our wines, and for the varieties’ authentic characteristics to unfold without interference.”

Both agree that connecting Cretan wine to tourism is essential for the future. “The next years are promising for Crete because so many joint efforts to connect our tradition, cuisine and culture are taking place,” says Emmanouela. “Wine is a key player in that plan.”

Maria Tamiolaki and Dmitris Mansolas of Rhous Winery / Photo by Effie Paroutsa

Rhous Winery

Maria Tamiolaki, Owner, Winemaker & Sales Manager

Dmitris Mansolas, Owner, Winemaker & Production Manager

When husband-and-wife winemaking team Maria Tamiolaki and Dmitiris Mansolas took over the Peza-based Tamiolakis Winery in 2012—later rebranding it as Rhous, the Greek word for flow, or the progression of things—they were publicizing a philosophy once elusive to many area winemakers: evolution without eradication of tradition.

“We believe in tradition on one side,” says Tamiolaki, a fourth generation winemaker, “and a contemporary and international approach on the other. We produce authentic local wines but with a modernism and mainstream sensibility.”

The couple met in Bordeaux, where both were pursuing oenology degrees, and spent a decade working for top producers (she for Château Haut-Brion and Château Malartic-Lagravière in France, he for Greek producers including Ktima Kir-Yianni and the Wine Art Estate) before taking the helm of their current endeavor. Today, the 50,000-bottle operation specializes in red, white and rosé blends of local and international varieties like Thrapsathiri, Kotsifali, Merlot and Chardonnay, among others.

“We have a great respect for the rich population of indigenous Cretan grapes, but I’m convinced the potential of these grapes is unknown territory, and that’s what we’re searching for,” says Mansolas, who calls sustainable agriculture an “ally” in their quest. “We’re not interested in producing predetermined styles of wine or intense oenological intervention. We do apply innovations, though, such as aging Mandalaria in cement eggs instead of oak, if it can help the grape’s DNA to be better expressed.”

The couple’s modernism is reflected in the styles they produce. “Blending is our hallmark,” says Tamiolaki, referencing the Skipper White, a combination of Vidiano and Plyto, a native Cretan grape. “We love rediscovering old indigenous varieties and bringing out their qualities through the complexity of blending.”

Despite the obvious expertise both bring to the table, they’re in agreement that the raw material is key to their success.

“All you need here is to be fueled by passion,” says Mansolas. “The rest is given in abundance from the enormous diversity of the Cretan landscape.”

Afshin Molavi and Alexandra Manousakis of Manousakis Winery / Photo by Effie Paroutsa

Manousakis Winery

Afshin Molavi, Owner & Winery Manager

Alexandra Manousakis, Owner & Winery Manager

Listening to the circuitous route that led husband-and-wife team Manousakis and Molavi to running one of Crete’s most important wineries–Manousakis Winery–is akin to reading Homer’s The Odyssey. Dramatic twists and turns unfold like an addictive page turner, especially when told by the vibrant and wise-cracking couple over a few glasses of wine.

Manousakis was born and raised in Washington, D.C., attended New York University to study art, Hellenic studies and business, then dug into a career at a Manhattan-based real estate marketing and sales company. Sweden-born Molavi studied aeronautical engineering and culinary science (“dining room philosophy and sommelier studies”) before heading to Athens to intern at, and later help open, several area restaurants.

“I moved to Crete in 2007 expecting to be back in New York by 2010,” laughs Manousakis, who met Molavi in 2009, prompting his move to the island. “My father, Theodore, is from Crete and established a winery here in 1993, and we were producing 35,000 bottles at that point with plans to build a new winery. He offered me a job overseeing the construction and I fell in love. Ten years later and I’m still in Crete.”

The winery’s pedigree has always been serious. During the ’90s, Theodore brought in big guns like French winemaker Pascal Marchand, to help develop Rhône varieties. In recent years, the couple has also doubled down on local varieties like Romeiko, Muscat of Spina and Assyrtiko, representing a new wave of innovators who Manousakis says are “willing to take risks that previous generations were not comfortable making.”

The winery now produces over 100,000 bottles annually, exporting to 10 countries worldwide and attracting some 40,000 people to the tasting room each year. Though they employ a global perspective and staunch quality control (stating that “If we’re not happy with the final product, it does not get released”), the region continues to challenge even their most nimble efforts.

“The terrain keeps you on your toes and offers endless possibilities,” says Manousakis. “Crete is just beginning to show its potential.”

Nikos Douloufakis of Douloufakis Winery / Photo by Effie Paroutsa

Douloufakis Winery

Nikos Douloufakis, Owner & Winemaker

Ask third-generation winemaker Nikos Douloufakis about the latest projects at his family’s namesake winery in Dafnes, and he’s quick to geek out over the wines he’s macerating in Greek amphorae or aging in 1.5- and 3-ton wooden barrels, the latter of which his grandfather did before him.

But make no mistake about where this Piedmont-educated viticulturalist’s sensibilities lie when it comes to progress. Over the past decade, he’s embarked on a deep dive into the revival of Vidiano, a nearly-extinct Cretan white variety, working with previously unknown vinifications of the grape to help put it back on the global map.

Douloufakis stresses that this drive for change is a family trait; his grandfather was at the forefront of progress back in the 1930s, at a time when the industry was faced with serious challenges. “I’m following the family tradition because, much like my grandfather, I’m passionate about innovation,” he says. “By combining traditional and modern techniques on my work, I’m honoring his legacy.”

The 300,000 bottle winery also specializes in “strong reds and fruity whites” from locally grown grapes like Vilana, Malvasia, Mandilari, Liatiko and Kostifali, as well as producing international varieties like Chardonnay and Syrah. A sparkling Vidiano was recently released, as well.

“My key initiative is to develop and push forth the Cretan indigenous varieties,” Douloufakis explains. “By using cutting-edge equipment and employing the latest vineyard management techniques, we’re able to produce wines of a higher quality than in past.”

This increased quality, he hopes, will resonate on the foreign market, another focus of his. The wines are currently exported to the U.S. and Canada, and soon, Hong Kong and Japan.

“This area has been hospitable to viticulture since antiquity,” he says. “We’re just adding a modern twist to an ancient practice.”

Published on January 4, 2018
Topics: Greek Wines

About the Author
Susan Kostrzewa
Executive Editor

Reviews wines from Greece and Cyprus.

Executive Editor Susan Kostrzewa joined Wine Enthusiast in 2006, when she moved from Sonoma, California, to Manhattan. Kostrzewa has written and edited wine, food and travel stories for the past 14 years, and oversees all editorial direction of Wine Enthusiast Magazine and WineMag.com, in addition to the tasting programs. Kostrzewa co-edited the Wine Enthusiast Wine & Food Pairings book and has co-authored numerous books on wine and travel in her career. Email: skostrze@wineenthusiast.net

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