I found myself in the position of arriving to Crete at the onset of the 2017 harvest. My uncle Giorgos did not hesitate to invite me up to his village vineyard.
My uncles pick-up truck comes roaring in at 07.42, in the best Greek tradition, 25 minutes later than agreed. Despite tardiness, this does not stop my uncle from stopping and punching the hazard lights on, to grab his daily take away iced Freddo Espresso. With me are his two sons (and my cousins) Minos and Fivos dressed in second-hand clothes and ready to make their contribution to this yearly family-outing.
Having worked professionally with wine for many years as a sommelier, I jumped at the opportunity to join in on the harvest on my “home away from home” island. As I gaze out into the rugged landscape, I reflected upon my own perceptions of wine. I feel people truly tend to forget the humble origins of wine. First and foremost, it is an agricultural product that has, through market mechanisms and subsequent critical coverage, become a somewhat elitist domain, so much, in fact, that a lot of people hesitate to join in the fun.
I was once told by an esteemed sommelier that wine should never be put up on a pedestal where it doesn’t belong. I strive to understand wine culture as very individually anchored in value creation. It is a thing of value for some in form of indulgence, prestige, meditation, pride, escapism and even medicine. The ways in which people assert value to wine are as varied as the very nature of wine itself, from the astounding amount of grape varietals, to the descriptive terms now filling up dictionaries in wine books. I understand why wine can be so intimidating, but I personally urge others interested in this world to let down their guard and approach wine with a youthful curiosity, the best sommeliers and winemakers are also the best teachers, they are people who will gently guide you, despite the occasional (hopefully playful) arrogance inspired by this suave profession.
One must, however, keep in mind. Wine wasn’t always produced after meticulous research on vineyard setting, 10-11 times pruning a year and subsequent oak-barrelling. In this case, the humble origins live ever so clearly on in this family oriented production.
Through gravel roads and sharp turns, we finally reach the top of the hill where we meet the third generation (Grandma “Giagia” and Grandpa “Babu” ) ready to drive us up the hill in a bulky red pick-up truck. Apart from the roaring engine, the only sounds we hear are those of distant bleating sheep and the caws of the above encircling ravens. There is a certain bleakness to the journey as the clouds start to form at the top of the hills, we start to consider whether the harvest will fail because of heavy rainfall. Luckily, as we reached the apricot and apple groves, the last turn reveals the wine bushes bathed in snippets of light emerging from the clouds.
Organization now remains minimal, and armoured with a kitchen knife and a boxes we set out to harvest the small 0.2 hectare vineyard, which consists of a south-west facing slope, planted with three different varietals. In this Archanes region vineyard, they have planted two reds in form of Kotsifali and Illiano, both producing fruity, ruby coloured wines with a slight oxidized nature, and lastly, for a hint of complexity, Vilana, an ancient white wine variety. It becomes apparent from the get go that this wine is produced solely for personal consumption and that the sole regulators stand within the family. From previous tastings, I can conclude that this wine is made primarily in the soils and the weather conditions are the dictators of character. The aging process or sulphite and/or temperature regulated is largely left alone. Hence, we are producing what in today’s trend is coined “nature wine”. Greece is actually presently developing a very healthy reputation for nature wine, through macerated orange wines produced in amphoras, to macedonian xinomavros with a hearty strength. It could be posited that this “village wine” type production that i am witnessing is the predecessor for this unrelenting trend within wine that is nature wine. The Greeks did it first, i think, with a bit of cheek. As i start to cut my way down the slopes, I am accompanied by the veritable Cretan Giorgos who enjoys teasing at every little misstep, a truly proud and brawny soul steadfast connected to the Cretan land.
Within 3 hours, the entire harvesting is finished and we stand back drained from energy. After indulging on some of Giagia’s delicious homemade crepes, we start to gather some of the other home grown products, aside from vines we pick apples, cretan wild mint and figs, never hesitating to take a sneak bite from these products that have never seen a hint of pesticide.
Next step is to bring the wine back to the village where the grandparents have their residence. We eventually enter the property and gather some of the tools from the wine production shelter and tools from the rooftop. The rooftop is planted with sweet succulent sultanas hanging like elaborate chandeliers from the wooden planks, whilst the lower part is planted by triplet kiwis.
Nature’s own little brilliant abnormalities. Giorgos pours everybody a shot of raki (a grappa-like brandy distilled from the grape-must of last years vintage), we cheers to health and good results. Underneath, on the veranda we set the press to start destemming the clusters into a larger container where the wine will start its fermentation magic overnight. Temperature controls and surveillance is done by Babu who must have completed at least 50 vintages.
Thus, i have finished my contributions to an exciting and heavy working experience. We sit down to have lunch with the family, on the menu is a Cretan chicken, raised again on site. Absolutely delicious.
I leave the house with a bottle of last years vintage and my pockets filled to the brim with herbs. The self-sustainability and foraging culture of the cretans is brilliant and would have René Redzepi nod in acknowledgement. Despite the crisis and the crippling economy, the Cretans, however, all seem to have natural produce in self-reach, either through personal production in the village, or through trading between friends and neighbours. It is truly inspirational to see how much they rear their land for all its uses.