Europe and the evolution of wine quality

Afshin Molavi and his wife make a strikingly cosmopolitan couple in the world of Cretan wine.  She is the American-born daughter of a Cretan who now lives in the USA; he has Iranian heritage (hence the name) and was a Swedish sommelier.  Together they now run the estate owned by her father back in Crete: the Manousakis winery.

I remember, when I was studying for the Wine & Spirits Education Trust diploma a long time ago learning about Rueda.  The main grape variety there is (white) verdejo which tends to oxidise easily.  That didn’t matter when the taste in Spain was for oxidised wines – literally ‘fruitless’, maybe a bit of bruised apple if you lucky, but otherwise just cardboard and wood shavings and prematurely brown – probably turning to vinegar as well.  The problem was that this kind of wine was going out of fashion decades ago – and certainly doesn’t fit in with the way most people in western Europe want their wine today with clean flavours.  The saviour of producers in Rueda was the EEC (forerunner of the European Union) which Spain joined in 1986.  Suddenly there was money available for regional development in economically less well-off rural areas.  Producers in Rueda could invest in stainless steel tanks, equipment to cool fermentation, good pumps, and a whole range of new technology.  And when they applied this to their verdejo grapes they found that they actually had an interesting and distinctive wine style on their hands.  Fresh acidity, an attractive grassy and citrus nose and good texture.  (To be fair, this approach to making the wine also owed a lot to the Rioja based producer, Marqués de Riscal).

So, what has this got to do with Afshin and his wife, Alexandra?  As a sommelier he made regular trips to Rueda and enjoyed the wine.  But one day he was shown the older style (still made for some local consumption).  He realised then that the same approach could be taken with romeiko, a barely known white grape grown in his father-in-law’s native part of Crete.  The wines here were traditionally oxidised and – in his terms – undrinkable.  But use what modern technology offers and there is a wine with aromatic peach and leaf tones, attractive texture with a bit of grip and good length.  Which is what he did.  Nor was he the only one; there has been a revolution in the quality of Cretan wines since about 2006, and much is owed to investment from the European Union.  Some of this has been channelled into the technology needed to make cleaner, fresh, more carefully delineated styles of wine.  Some has also been used to develop a very clever and cohesive marketing campaign by Wines of Crete managed by the local producers and led by the dynamic and clear-sighted Nikos Miliarakis.  Nikos told me that every project that had enabled wine to develop and the local association to promote it had seen some European money.  Never 100% of what was needed, but 40% or 60% or 70% – which enabled better wine to be made and the association to survive.

There is still a great deal of traditional wine made with romeiko around Chania, in the west of Crete.  Most is made by families with a small plot of vines for their own consumption.  This small-scale production is how most wine has been made for millennia – certainly around the Mediterranean.  In the case of romeiko there is an interesting specific technique.  Wine is made and put in barrels where it sits for a year being tapped as people want to drink it, and oxidising fast.  At the following harvest the old wine is added into the new juice, and then it is all (re)fermented for the family to drink over the coming year.  You develop a form of solera system of wine – though to our taste probably not so pleasant.  A few slightly larger producers also make wine this way but Afshin says they struggle to sell it as no one else really likes the wines.

The winery is still owned by Alexandra’s father.  But he has given them a free hand and accepts that the style has changed the direction of the winery.  In that time it has grown by 500% in volume and is making a range of good wines, so he ought to be satisfied.

The impact of Europe isn’t limited to Rueda and Crete.  Most of southern Europe’s wine regions have benefited. I’ve heard of a number of other producers and regions in Greece where it has had an impact.  Sicily is another place which 30 years ago was making a series of very ordinary table wines and is now one of the most dynamic and exciting wine regions in Italy, completely reinventing its wines and its image.  For UK readers this is probably not the most appropriate time to be noting an EU success – but it is one of the main reasons why there is some much more cleanly-made, interesting wine from European nations available to British than was the case a few decades ago.  They deserve a toast for that.

In the interests of impartiality I should also point out that 29 other estates also belong to Wines of Crete and each in its own way is trying to make good quality wines from a range of grapes.

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