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Wines of Crete:  from origins to modernity!

Knossos minona palace is a wine producing area for more than 4000 years

Cretan wines seems something new for many wine lovers, even for some wine professionals. But Crete has a long history with wine and was an important wine production area in the past, when minoans exported their deep red wine in Egypt. Crete was also an important place for the european prefered wine in the 14th century: Malvasia. In fact, Crete has a non stop wine producing of more than 4.000 years. It is time to discover, or rediscover, cretan wines, the new wines of ancient world

origins of wine in Crete

Man has been consuming grapes for thousands of years. Thanks to grape seed residues, archaeologists have been able to date the origin of grapes by three distinct processes:

  1. Carbonization: on contact with fire, the seeds are reduced to the carbon state and keep, more or less, their original shape.
  2. The imbibition: the seeds are buried in a humid environment; they keep their shape.
  3. Mineralization: the organic tissues of the seeds are replaced by mineral salts loaded with calcium phosphate.

 The shape of the seeds has made it possible to determine the type of vine. There are in fact two large families of vines: Lambrusque (Vitis sylvestris), wild vine known as Lambrusque and Vitis vinifera, domesticated and cultivated vine. As their pips have different characteristics, archaeologists can identify which type of vine they are facing . The seeds are short and stocky for the vitis sylvestris. The seeds are long and narrow for the vitis vinifera.

On the basis of archaeological discoveries, it can be determined that man has affected the gathering of Lambrusque grapes at least since the Lower Paleolithic (between -500,000 and -120,000). There is no evidence that man discovered the natural fermentation of grape juice into wine, but it is probable for many scientists.

Grapes known by humans 17.000 B.C.

Traces of large quantities of grapes dating from -17,400 at the Israeli site Ohalo II, -10,000 in the Franchti cave on the east coast of the Gulf of Nafplio in Greece, -6,900 and -6,300 at the Neolithic site of Atilit-Yam (Israeli coast). These large quantities of seeds suggest significant grape-related activity, but do not provide precise evidence of wine consumption.

origin of wine in Crete; Grape seeds 

Grape seeds traces found in Turkey

 6th millennium B.C., during the Neolithic, in the Near East, jars at the bottom of which tartaric acid residues had been found. They dated between -5,500 and -5,000 and were located in Haji Firuz Tepe, north of the Zagros Mountains in Iran.  In these jars, archaeologists have also found traces of resin, demonstrating that this conservation process was very ancient. Cultivated vine seeds have been identified at Shulaveris-Gora, Georgia, and at Cayönü, northeastern Turkey. They made it possible to postpone this dating until the beginning of the 6th millennium. In 2017, 8 jars dated to 8000 BC were found by archaeologists about 50 km from the capital Tbilisi. After analysis, these jars were found to contain certain chemical deposits such as tartaric acid, a true signature of the presence of wine. This discovery would be the oldest testimony of wine making by man.


 Since Crete experienced strong migratory flows during the Neolithic period (6000 bc), it is very likely that the newcomers (from Asia Minor, Anatolia) brought with them the wine-making process. The art of viticulture is said to have started with the agricultural revolution around 5,000 BC. The Arians (ancestors of Indians living in the area of Caucasus-Caspian Sea), the ancient Persians, the Semitic people and the Assyrians are considered to be among the first known vine growers. In fact, at that time, wine was known even in ancient China! The art of viticulture and winery was then passed on to the Egyptians, the various peoples of Palestine and Phoenicia, and the Greeks.

Egypt had a long tradition in winery, starting prior to 4000 BC Many traces of wine presses have been found in Crete (41 Minoan presses dating back to 1500bc, the most famous of which is the site of Vasypethro, near Archanes. It seems that these Minoan presses are the oldest remains of wine presses in Europe. The vestiges of earlier presses, including those of Tbilisi, are rather basins of foot treading. The Minoan presses seemed to be closer to the modern techniques of mechanical presses. On the island of Crete, excavations have uncovered the Minoan palace of Epano Arhanes, where the oldest wine press in the world, at Vasypethro, has been identified. The extraction of the juice from the marc, which made it possible to obtain red wines, after vatting, to the free-run wine, was now added to the press wine.


In addition, tablets in linear writing B in some Minoan temples and palaces report varieties of wine. The Minoans were the first known inhabitants of Crete. They were also the first civilization in Europe to domesticate grapevines, produce and trade wines and keep records of production and trade. The great Minoan palaces such as Knossos, the oldest architectural monument, and Malia, among others, have many traces of jars that contained wine. vast underground wine storage facilities and relevant drawings in all Minoan Palaces provide evidence not only of wine’s central role in the life of the island, but also of the sophistication of the Minoans’ know-how. The main products Cretans successfully cultivated and traded were olive oil, cereals and wine.

Minoan jars Knossos for cretan winesMinoan jars for olive and wine, in Knossos palace

The Minoans and their powerful merchant fleet established trading posts along the Mediterranean, Africa, Asia Minor, … Minoan remains have been found in Italy. The Minoans had many contacts with the Egyptians, especially for the wine trade. The Cretan wines invites themself  to the table of the pharaoh of Egypt. The Cretan red wine, dark, is considered as a wine of event. It is due to this Minoan technique, unique at the time, adding press wine to free-run wine (first steps of modern techniques).

better climatic conditions and grape varieties, combined with the know-how of the Minoans throughout their trade, will gradually establish the reputation of cretan wines.  The Law Code of Gortyn, the oldest legal text in Europe, includes the first set of rules on vine-growing.  Greeks developed winery to a great extent, almost establishing a monopoly in the market for centuries

Rome conquer Crete and cretan wines conquer Rome

A few centuries later, when Crete became a province of the Roman Empire, the Romans realised that their needs in wine – a commodity they were particularly fond of – was too great to be met by the vineyards of the Italian peninsula. They eventually turned to Crete. Its plains and hills were gradually turned into vast vineyards, while Cretan winemakers increasingly improved their vinification skills and produced excellent sweet wines which, through Rome, conquered the entire known world at the time.

Many Greek and Latin writers of the time spoke very highly of Cretan wine, which was also considered to have medicinal properties. The numerous Cretan amphorae found offer indisputable proof of this ancient commercial success. What is more, one such amphora found in Pompeii had CRET EXC inscribed on it, which, according to experts, means Exceptional Cretan Wine.

shipwreck discovered off the coast of southern France included nearly 10,000 amphoras containing nearly 300,000 litres (79,000 US gal) of Greek wine, presumably destined for trade up the Rhône and Saône rivers into Gaul. It is estimated that the Greeks shipped nearly 10 million liters of wine into Gaul each year through Massalia

 Christian tradition slowly started to dominate the world and the star of the pagan Roman Empire started to fade. But wine still held a high place in people’s lives. Greece, together with almost the entire Mediterranean world, became part of the Byzantine Empire, the first Christian superpower which was beginning to form.  Crete took part in a series of wars and went through tumultuous times which did not favour vine-growing and winemaking.

Malvasia, king of cretan wines during venetian occupation.

When the Venetians occupied the island of Crete, they oriented agriculture, until then food-producing, towards speculative production. The system adopted was colonial: large estates turned towards agriculture to meet the needs of Venice and a surplus of exports. Olive oil and wine are booming. According to some historians, wine is cooked for preservation and, via the Bosphorus, exported to Wallachia and Poland. Via Hamburg and Danzig, it is exported to Germany. The wine from Candie and Chania is not worked and is destined for consumption in Venice.


During the period of Venetian occupation of the island, Crete played the leading role in Venetian maritime traffic. Every year, two convoys of merchant ships, also called “mulae”, pass through Crete for Beirut and Alexandria. The vine is cultivated directly by the Venetian owner or conceded “in gonico” to growers in front of a share of the harvest.

Malvasia is the most prized wine in Venice. Besides that, the Venetians try to produce on the island the sweet muscatel, or Garbe.


But it was the wine of Malvazia that would make Venice’s fortune and experience considerable growth. The wines of Malvazia were so famous and prized in Europe that there are a dozen places in the city of the Doges that refer to it, such as the “calle della malvazia”, the “ponte della Malvasia vecchia”, “Corte della malvasia” the dock “Fondamenta della Malvasia,” …

Ponte della malavasia Venise.

Ponte della Malvasia, in Venise.  Cretan wines in Italy

Between 1300 and 1600, Malvasia wine was the most famous in Europe. One of the hypotheses of the origin of the term Malvasia would come from the port of Monemvasia (port with only one entrance, ethymological translation), a port of the Peloponnese, in Greece.

Another, more disputed, would establish that the name comes from the Malevizi district, in the Heraklion region. Noemvasia was an important hub for the sale of Malvasia wine, as well as other Greek wines, during the Venetian period. The considerable demand in Europe for this wine would have pushed the Venetians to produce Malvasia in Crete. An official Venetian document of 1342 mentions cretan wines  “the wine of Nomevasia and the malvasia di Creta”. The wine of Nomevasia, the malvasia, is traditionally sweet. It was made from sun-dried grapes, sometimes concentrated by cooking, or embellished with resin for long conservation and travels throughout Europe. The city of Rethymno had made it its specialty during the period of Venetian occupation, so much so that the city was serenissima fortified to protect this precious commercial rhyme of Malvasia wine.

There is also Malvasia di creta, a dry wine, which was only consumed in Italy. There is frequent confusion between Malvasia grape varieties (including Malvasia di candia aromatica) and Malvasia wine, a sweet wine produced and marketed by the Venetians. This type of wine is still produced in many regions (Malvasia in France, Malvezerec in Slovenia, Malvasijie in Croatia, Malvasia or Malvagia in Spain, Malmsey Malvasia in Madeira, … To add to the confusion, many Malvasia wines are not produced with grape varieties of the Malvasia family such as Pinot Grigio malvasia from the Valle d’Aosta. This was the case of Malvasia wines from Crete and Greece, which were vinified with Greek grape varieties such as Aïdani, Assyrtiko, Thrapsathiri, Athiri, Liatiko, Kydonitsa, Vilana.

For many amphelographers, the origin of the Malvasia grape variety is still controversial. For some, DNA analysis would link it to the Athiri grape variety that is widespread in Greece. Others would link it to Malvasia di Casorzo (studies of Lacombe 2007).

Anyway, during the Venetian period, Cretan wine exports exploded thanks to the Venetian trade routes. A 1415 annual report of the city of Venice reports 20,000 barrels.

Wines of Crete, from turkish occupation to modernity. The rise of young and talented wineries in Crete

In 1669, Crete was conquered by the Ottomans. For the next two centuries, there is no clear picture of wine production in Crete, but Islam’s prohibition of wine consumption must have had a negative impact. Nevertheless, even the supreme religious and political leaders of the Ottomans, the Sultans, often succumbed to the temptation of this exceptional cretan wines.


Crete was liberated from the Ottoman rule in the late 19th century. The new and fairly progressive independent administration of the island promoted the restructuring and updating of agricultural production with all its might. The wheels of wine production thus started turning anew. In the international fair held at Hania at the beginning of the 20th century with the aim of promoting new Cretan products to the markets of the West, 18 winemakers were awarded prizes for the quality of their wines.

Young cretan wineries. <The future of cretan wines

Modern wineries opened in Crete in the end of 90′

In 1913, Crete was annexed to the Greek state. Cretan winemaking tradition survived all these hard years, owing to its core unit: the family.  In the 1950s, Crete did not change its agricultural production model. Small family farms produced in small quantities. Only 7% of the island’s land is considered good agricultural land for vegetables and fruits. 97% of the small farms cultivate olive trees and 80% vines. Crete produces then annually 40.500 tons of oil, 55000 tons of grapes. for wine and 18700 tons of table grapes.for comparison, Crete produces at that time some 500.000 tons of citrus fruits! Cretan agriculture faces problems of scale: small producers cannot buy modern agricultural equipment and turn to the cooperative system that is also developing in Greece. Notably to help with the purchase of fertilizers, machinery, or to start irrigation works, the American aid plan concentrated on Malia and Lassithi. This cooperative movement will also develop for the vine. Crete is gradually moving towards a massive wine production of average quality.


The cooperative phenomenon has been particularly developed in Crete since the island has 6 cooperatives for 264km, the largest concentration of wine cooperatives per region in Greece. The oldest is that of Archanes, founded in 1933 and one of the oldest wine cooperatives in Greece. In 1966, the brothers Manolis and Sotiris Lyrarakis established a winery in their native village of Alagni. Other winegrowers will gradually follow suit.

 In 1972, phyloxera arrived on the island, many vines were affected but the slow progression of the disease allowed winegrowers to react, grafting their vines on resistant stocks and planting vine rootstocks resistant to the disease, such as 110R Franz Richter (cross between Vitis Berlandieri and Vitis rupestris) and 41B (It was obtained in 1885 by Alexis Millet and Charles de Grasset by hybridizing Vitis vinifera, variety chasselas B and Vitis berlandieri. ). It is mainly the vines of Kotsifali, Mandilaria, and Liatiko de Peza and Archanes that were affected.

The real flight of Cretan wines, speaking about quality wines,  will take place in the 90s, when the new generation of winemakers, having studied in France and Italy, returns to the island with projects to promote the expression of local varieties and terroir.