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Historic vineyards of Crete

Many consider the historic vineyards of Crete to be the world’s most traditional, as they have been steadily cultivated and thriving since prehistoric times.
The golden age of Cretan wine reached its peak during the Roman era when exports to the rest of Europe were truly massive. Yet, there isn’t a single historical period when the historic vineyards of Crete did not flourish. The famed Malvasias oenos was the most prominent wine, mainly  produced on Crete during the Byzantine era and Venetian rule times. In recent years, the historic vineyards of Cretehave risen to new heights of prominence and are regarded as one of the most active and promising vineyards of contemporary Greece.

Historic vineyards of the Aegean Islands

Starting north, our journey around the historic vineyards of the Aegean Islands takes us to Lemnos. Lemnos’s wine commerce in antiquity was so brisk as to earn for the island mentions in the Homeric epics. The island’s Lemnio cultivar, the Lemnia of antiquity, is still planted today on the island as well as in the vineyards of northern Greece. From the times of Ottoman rule on, the island became inextricably linked to the cultivation of Muscat of Alexandria, whose yields still go towards the production of the island’s dessert wines. On the eastern Aegean island of Lesvos, or Mytilini, the fragrant, black, sweet wine which bore the same name as the island vied for quality and fame with the wine from neighboring Chios. It remained commercially successful for many centuries on end. Today, compared to the thriving production of the island’s famous ouzo, the island’s wine production appears meager.
On Chios, the Ariousios oenos was produced in antiquity, a wine whose fame and quality, according to most connoisseurs of the times, surpassed those of any other for many centuries. However, winegrowing was “extinguished” after the Ottomans burned the island from end to end in 1822 and slaughtered or took many of its inhabitants into slavery. However, quite recently, efforts have been exerted to plant new vineyards around the island.
Another vineyard, among the most important and renowned in Greece, was once located on the Thessalian island of Skopelos (ancient Peparithos). It flourished from antiquity to the 19th century and during that time, the pace of wine export on the island was brisk. The wine the vineyard on Samos produced in antiquity was equally famous but Samos’s winegrowing and winemaking activities did not rise to prominence until the Byzantine era. Ever since, winegrowing on Samos continues to flourish. Samos’s superb sweet wine, produced from the white Muscat variety, has always been highly acclaimed among Greek wines, making a marked presence abroad even at hard times for Greek vineyards. The vineyards of Samos are living proof of the ancient terroirs of the Aegean Sea: Using unique winegrowing practices, Samos vintners still cultivate their vines on the stone terraces (pezoules). On the neighboring island of Ikaria another famous wine was produced in antiquity: Pramnios oenos, a dry red mentioned by Homer as a favorite with Greeks who had not only carried that wine with them to Troy during their exploits, but they had also sold it throughout the northern Aegean. For many a century, Pramnios oenosremained vastly popular. Over time, the name came to characterize a wine type and the wine itself was produced in other areas as well, although its name continued to be associated with an Ikaria appellation.

Heading south, we encounter the historic vineyards on the Aegean Islands practically everywhere on the Cyclades. The vineyards of Paros as well as of Naxos, Amorgos, Kea (or Tzia) and Syros were all famous in ancient times. There were even certain periods in history, such as the centuries of Venetian rule, when the vineyards on the Aegean Islands became particularly prominent. However, in one particular island, Santorini, archaeological evidence points to the existence of winegrowing activities even before the devastating eruption of the island’s volcano in prehistoric times. The island’s extensive wine production in tandem with the cordial relations it maintained with outsiders resulted in the fame of Santorini’s winegrowing activities remaining unabated, reaching its peak under Venetian and Ottoman rule as well as during the 19th century when Santorini wines would record the largest exports among all other Greek wines. Santorini’s arid volcanic soil which is hostile to the blight of phylloxera, the unique way of pruning vines into the wreath-like kouloura, its rare native cultivars (with Assyrtiko reigning supreme among them) and the landscape of its coastal terroirs are all advocates of the need to protect Santorini’s vineyard and elevate its status to that of a world heritage monument.
Further south, the historic vineyards of the Aegean islands take us to the Dodecanese. In the vineyards of Rhodes and Cos, the winegrowing tradition, together with winemaking and wine commerce, has been deeply entrenched since antiquity. Demand for the wines produced on those two islands reached a peak during Hellenistic and Roman times and, in the case of Rhodes, that high demand has remained unchanged.

Historic vineyards of the Peloponnese and the Ionian Islands

The historic vineyards of the Peloponnese and the Ionian Islands begin in the northeastern part of the peninsula with the vineyard at Nemea, where excavations have revealed ancient vineyards planted in deep trenches in the same location as the sanctuary of Zeus. Nemea was where, in antiquity, Fliasios oenos was vinified. In more recent centuries, Nemea became prominent again through its dark-colored, dry wine produced from the Agiorgitiko variety. In the west we find the vineyards of Achaia, where archaeological excavations have brought to light ancient vineyards. Of equal historical significance were the vineyards of Kalavryta, destroyed after WWII. In the 19th century, Patras, Achaia’s port, became a major hub of Greek winemaking and a major export center of wines made of the Mavrodaphne variety. Patras was also known for the considerable volume of raisins it produced and exported. In the central part of the Peloponnese, in the vineyards of Mantinia, winegrowing has been steadily going on since antiquity, with both Aristotle and Theophrastus making mention of the wines of Arkadia (Arcadia). The wine Mantinia produced was well-known during Ottoman rule and was supplied to Athens during the 19thcentury. The first Greek sparkling wine was produced in this very area from the aromatic Moschofilero variety. Situated in the southeastern part of the Peloponnese, historic Monemvassia bestowed its name to many a cultivar, with the white Monemvassia variety being predominant among them, and to Malvasias oenos, one of the most historical wines in the annals of wine’s history worldwide.

It would be remiss to exclude from a narrative involving the historic vineyards of the Peloponnese and the Ionian Islands the island of the Phaeacians (Corfu) and Ithaki, both of which have their place in the Homeric epics. During the time of Venetian rule, winegrowing on the islands of the Ionian Sea rose to prominence. The reason why numerous varieties are still cultivated on each and every one of the Ionian Islands is because the islands have never been blighted by phylloxera. Since the 19th century, Cephalonia with its Robola and Mavrodaphne varieties and Zakynthos with its Verdea have constituted the island cluster’s main winegrowing hubs.

Historic vineyards of central Greece

The northernmost historic vineyards of central Greece are found in Thessalia (Thessaly), whose inhabitants tended magnificent vineyards during the time of Ottoman rule on the slopes of such forbidding mountains as Agrafa, Pilio, Ossa and Olympus -the “Mountain of the Gods”, and around the towering cliffs of the Meteora monastic community. In the 19th century, many were the winegrowing villages in the area famed for their wines: Rapsani, Ambelakia, Messenikola and Tyrnavos, which is still renowned for its tsipouro distillate.

To the south, the historic vineyards of central Greece stretch to central Greece and, more specifically, to Viotia. It was there that Hesiod would drink his vivlinos oenos which came from the Vivlia cultivar also cultivated at Mount Pangeon in northern Greece. Even further south, where the vineyards of Attiki (Attica) and Evia are situated, winegrowing has been active since antiquity. The vineyards of Attiki would supply with their products Athens as well as other areas. In recent centuries, the vineyard there established a long tradition in the production of retsina.

Historic vineyards of northern Greece

It was in the historic vineyards of northern Greece and, more specifically, in Maronia, Thrace, that, the famed Ismarikos or Maronitis oenos was produced (the name given the wine depended on the season). In mentioning this dark-colored, near-black sweet wine, not only does Homer tell us that it was Ulysses’ favorite wine, he also cites it as being the wine Ulysses cunningly used in intoxicating the Cyclop Polyphemus who obviously had never heard of moderation, moderate wine consumption, and Greek wine culture. Maronia has always produced fine wines, with the exception of the Ottoman rule period when winegrowing became all but extinct until it was recently revived.

The next stop on our journey around the historic vineyards of northern Greece takes us to Macedonia. At Mount Pangeon (Vivlina Mountains), it was in the terroirs once located between Drama and Kavala that the renowned Vivlinos oenos was vinified from grapes of the Vivlia cultivar. Philippi, the Macedonian city, where winegrowing had enjoyed a long and flourishing tradition, was situated in that same area. A little further west, the vineyards of Halkidiki once produced Mendis, a highly acclaimed white wine. For centuries on end, Mendis was among the famous Greek wines which enjoyed high commercial success, together with equally popular wines from other areas of Halkidiki such as the wine of Toroni and the wine of Akanthos. In Byzantine times, winegrowing reached a flourishing peak. On the Mount Athos, or Holy Mountain, peninsula the monasteries established a long tradition in vinification and in the production of distillates that is still alive today. Further west, at Pella, the capital of the ancient Macedonians, the wine produced was much touted and remained popular through the Classical as well as Hellenistic times. The wine was produced from the Pellaea grape variety whose fame was such as to exert influence even over the area’s artistic activities. Our journey through the historic vineyards of northern Greece takes us still further west to Naoussa and its famous wines which were praised by many 19th-century travelers during Ottoman rule. The endowed vineyards of Naoussa, where Xinomavro is cultivated, used to yield aged red wines of such elegance that French travelers visiting the area could compare them to the famous wines of their own country. Continuing our soujourn south, we come to Siatista whose vineyards were prominent during the time of Ottoman rule and reached their peak during the 19th century. Sadly, after the onslaught of phylloxera in the area which was followed by mass immigration of the area’s inhabitants, the vineyards fell into neglect, although efforts are now being made to revive them. Siatista was well known for its straw wines (vin liastos) as well as its for air-dried ones which were produced from Moschomavro.

Last, in the region of Epirus, to the southwest of Macedonia, is the renowned mountain vineyard of Zitsa, also mentioned by 19th-century travelers as the place of production of fine sparkling wines vinified from the Debina variety.

Historic vineyards of Greece

Over time, the countless Greek terroirs of both continental and island Greece, the hundreds of native cultivars yielding wine grapes, and the country’s age-old practice of winegrowing have come to form the historic vineyards of Greece. These vineyards have found their way into the annals of history due to their renowned wines, which even in antiquity were produced under a protected designation of origin (PDO) and were famous and coveted. In many ways, the historic vineyards of Greece overlap with the contemporary vineyards of the country.

The vineyards of yore were cultivated on the same soil which, today, yields the grapes going towards the production of the new wines of Greece: in essence, these new wines come from the historic vineyards of Greece which, by and large, have been uninterruptedly cultivated for millennia.