Sea air, music, dancing, the food and the wine: What enters the mind when you talk about Crete.
Wine is an important part of island life. It is everywhere, from your uncle’s harvest in the village to that fantastic glass you sip by the harbor on a beautiful summer evening. And just as ever-present throughout the island’s history as it is today.
Wine making on Crete began over 4,000 years ago during the Bronze Age. The impact and reach of ancient Cretan wines was strong and vast.
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 grape remnants from the oldest known wine press at the Minoan villa of Vathypetro, just outside of Knossos, are vitis vinifera sylvestris, the same species of grape used for winemaking today. They likely acquired grapevines and grape growing techniques from the Egyptians who had a booming royal wine industry along the Nile Delta.
Egypt remained a strong trading partner for the Minoans. They traded wines, wheat, honey, timber and other food items in exchange for papyrus, copper and ivory.
Frescos and pottery found at Knossos depict wine as a daily and important daily part of Minoan life. Wine was also a cataloged and recorded commodity as depicted in Linear A and B etchings found in storerooms around the island.
Unsurprisingly, the fertile soil surrounding the palace of Knossos is still the epicenter of Cretan vineyards.
The landscape and climate of Crete, mild winters and warm summers, create the perfect conditions for abundant agriculture.
Agriculture nourished not only the Minoan’s bodies but also their economy. They were able to settle down and build a vast empire instead of migrating to find food.
The Minoans’ impenetrable navy and abundant resources allowed them set up trading posts and colonies along the majority of the north coast of Africa, Asia Minor and throughout the Aegean islands and Mediterranean.
Minoan hieroglyphics tell a deeper story of trade. Hieroglyphics from the palace of Knossos have been found in shipwrecks and storerooms as far as Italy.
Developing evidence even shows Minoan artifacts in the North Atlantic! This is the first indication that wines from a specific place were seen as important and superior.
In The Odyssey, Homer praises Crete, the island in “the wine-dark sea.” The prestige and historical timing imply a high likelihood that the first vines planted in Sicily and southern Italy were introduced by the Minoans.
Minoan settlements throughout Crete offer further clues about the Minoan wine industry.
Based on analysis done on pithoi, clay amphora vessels, found in Minoan storerooms in Myrtos dating to 2200BC, Minoan wines were likely resinated with pine sap, not unlike modern day retsina. The pine resin was added to mask the bad flavors of spoiled wines.
In the archeological site of Monastiraki in Rethymno, remnants of these resinated wines were also found in Minoan cooking tripods leading researchers to believe the Minoans cooked with these wines as well.
Monastiraki is in the region of Amari, Rethymno- the possible birthplace of Cretan’s modern sweetheart grape, Vidiano. Even more interesting is that remnants of toasted wood aroma compounds were also found, meaning wood was potentially used to flavor wines as far back as the Middle Minoan period.
Toasted oak barrels give the vanilla and spice flavors of some of today’s best wines from around the world. Grapes and vines were a major decorative theme of Minoan art. Paintings, jewelry, and ceramics show that grapes were familiar and an important aspect of their lives.
Even though the Minoan civilization tragically vanished, the export of Minoan wine had lasting effects. From the figurative and literally seeds planted by the Minoans, vines and wine spread across the rest of Europe and evolved into the wine industry we know today.
On frescos, cups of wine are often lifted in the air to depict that wine was celebratory or ritualistic. The next time you’re enjoying a glass of Cretan wine, raise your glass and cheers to show gratitude to the Minoans who started it all.
About the author
Anna Maria Kambourakis is a Massachusetts native. She studied wine in Chicago where she also became a Certified Sommelier. She has been active in the Greek wine industry for many years and is its biggest cheerleader. In 2013, she took the giant leap to move to her ancestral home of Crete where she owns Chania Wine Tours. She has established herself as a leader of wine tourism on the island. She delights in sharing wine stories with her guests on her tours and to the world through her writing. Follow their Facebook and Instagram pages.