California Sales Only
|Country & Region||Crete, Greece|
|Producer||the Lyrarakis family|
Lyrarakis is widely acclaimed to have spearheaded the modern Cretan wine industry, garnering gongs from Jancis Robinson, Robert Parker, Decanter and sundry other arbiters of taste in the wine world.
–Kate Hawkings, The Buyer, November 2019
A family-owned winery on Crete with a passion for indigenous varieties and nuanced winemaking. –Julia Harding MW, July 2020
After Sicily and Sardinia, Crete is the largest of the Mediterranean’s innumerable islands. Rising out of the sea north of Egypt and south of mainland Greece, it has four mountain ranges and correspondingly distinct geological structures—UNESCO has designated two sites of geological significance—dominated by limestone. As befits the birthplace of Zeus, the island has a scorching sun and an endless wind. During the Bronze Age, it hosted the Minoan Civilization, noted for its city-states, architecture and administration, to say nothing of far-flung trade. For as long as wine has been made, it has been made here (even during occupations by tee-totaling Ottomans and Moors). Only in 1913 did Crete become part of Greece.
One may think of Crete in relation to Greece as one thinks of Sicily in relation to Italy; its island identity and historic influences are at least as important as its nationality.
In 1966 Bart Lyrarakis’ father and uncle founded their winery. Their timing wasn’t exactly fortuitous, given that in the next decade phylloxera finally found its way to the island. This necessitated wide-spread replanting, with many growers favoring French over local varietals, and ushered in a period of dominance by cooperatives. Lyrarakis (lear-a-rack-kies) itself didn’t begin to estate bottle its wine until 1992.
Bart, whose mother is Dutch, was a cellar rat as a kid, then worked in high-tech in Holland for a time before officially joining the winery in 2003, a year before Myriam Ambuzer. The daughter of a Palestinian and Cretan, Myriam worked with well-known Spanish winemaker Pepe Mendoza before becoming Lyrarakis’ winemaker. She’s smart, sure-footed, immensely intuitive, and her influence, along with a workforce that is just about half women, has inspired Lyrarakis to use Minoan images of queens on two of its labels. (Note also that the Lyrarakis labels use the Greek lambda, which looks like an A without the crossbar, for the English ‘L’ in ‘Lyrarakis’.) The third leg of this stool is Nikos Somarakis, their far-sighted viticulturalist and ampelographer who joined in 2007. Nikos is as intuitive and empathic as Myriam, and they are the spiritual duo to restless Bart, who holds the workforce and its many growers together. They work with each other in complete trust. Below are Bart, Myriam, and Nikos.
After working together for many years, these colleagues solidified their direction in 2016. Early on, the French varietals had their attention as much as Cretan grapes, although even then they were keen to preserve their local roots. In the years leading up to 2016, they began to focus almost entirely on vines native to Crete—and subsequently, taking it one step further, on sites best adapted to specific local varietals. Today, they have parcels all over the island, some growing at 200 meters and others as high as 950 meters. They expanded their network of growers and now buy grapes from over 100 independent small growers. They went organic in their own 37 acres of vineyards, and Nikos is leading the charge to convert their growers to do the same, with training programs and physical assistance. They revamped their labels.
The heart and soul of what Lyrarakis is doing is based on a series of vineyards, bottled in what they call their “single area” line of wines. These range from Kedros in the central western heights to the high-altitude Vóila Plain in the far east. There are currently eleven of these special sites, each labeled by the name of the grape followed by the name of the site, and each site is outlined on its label by colored topography.
Lyrarakis has rescued three varietals from obscurity and almost certain extinction from phylloxera: Dafni (DNA traces of which have been found in Minoan wine vessels), Plytó, and Melissaki. No one else on the island is currently making wine from these grapes.
Above is a view from the Lyrarakis winery looking at their Psarades vineyard, growing in limestone soils at 480 meters, with the Lassithi Mountains in the distance. Just beyond the Psarades Vineyard is where the winery composts its grape pomace and stems. These piles are turned regularly to aerate, and once the composting is complete and pathogens are naturally eliminated by heat and aeration, the compost is mixed with some soil and put on a porous platform. Worms are introduced, and these creatures digest and expel daily what they intake, creating an immensely rich nutrient base. A drip system is turned on at regular intervals to let water sieve through the mix, creating a tea from the compost that is collected under the platform. The tea can be recirculated through the compost as often as necessary for a desired strength, and the compost itself can be altered to make for higher levels of nitrogen or potassium, for example, if a given vineyard site is deficient in one or the other mineral. This tea is then applied to the site.
Lyrarakis is expanding this program not only for its growers and their vines, but for their olive orchards as well.
In the cellar, the touch is light, and tailored to each varietal and site; Myriam de-stems grapes, or uses whole berry, or whole cluster, or combinations thereof. Her white wines finish with refreshingly low octanes, and they’re as much about texture and salinity as about overt fruit. They don’t typically undergo malo because the malic acid is low, and they make fabulous seafood wines. As for those wonderful descriptions on the labels, Myriam writes them.
Most of the vineyard parcels the family works with are non-irrigated and are hand-harvested. Many are head-pruned, especially those in windy sites where trellised systems can be risky (such zones often sport columns of modern wind turbines, each with a sensor that shuts them down when the wind exceeds safe speeds). In addition, often these parcels are inter-planted, as tradition mandated. These are old vines, and old vines on Crete means own-rooted pre-phylloxera vines planted at random in small–often very small–parcels that have supported vines for centuries.
Summers are hot; winters cold, especially at high altitudes, where snow is common.
There are around 60 independent producers on the island of various sizes—some quite small—and Crete accounts for roughly 20% of Greece’s total wine production.
Thanks to Wines of Crete for the chalkboard map.
|Lyrarakis Vidiano||Vidiano||This is a PGI (Protected Geographical Indication, or IGP in France) wine from several sites in central Crete. Vidiano is known as the Chardonnay of Crete, probably due more to its widespread planting and its versatility than to its actual resemblance. These vines grow at 450 meters in central Crete and are not irrigated. The label is a Minoan queen image.|
|Lyrarakis Plytó Psarades||Plytó||Psarades is Lyrarakis’ most important vineyard, and its 3.7 acres of Plytó (plee-toe) is the largest planting of the varietal in the world. The vine is susceptible to powdery mildew and requires good viticulture but is super resistant to drought conditions. Psarades isn’t irrigated, and unusually the Plytó was planted in the early 1990s in one block rather than inter-planted, thus going against the grain of what the island growers traditionally considered acceptable risk. The vineyard grows at 480 meters in the central part of Crete. With a nose reminiscent of Riesling with its piercing lift, this has a lemon purity and a salty twang.|
|Lyrarakis Dafni Psarades||Dafni||From the winery’s home vineyard of Psarades, Dafni takes its name from the laurel plant, or bay, for its distinctive herbal notes of bay leaf. Like most of Lyrarakis' whites, this is a wine that can evolve nicely for years in a good cellar. Lyrarakis planted this block in the early 1990s, thus saving the variety from extinction.
|Lyrarakis Assyrtiko Vóila||Assyrtiko||In 1998 the local co-op in the far eastern side of Crete brought over a truckload of Assyrtiko cuttings from Santorini. On the high, windswept valley of Vóila, most were planted directly into the sandy soils, while others were grafted onto local rootstock. All are susceptible to phylloxera, but the sand so far has kept the aphid at bay. The soils are based on limestone and are somewhat richer than Santorini's meager volcanic ash soils, and the vine does well here, with its fruit ripening more slowly than on its native island thanks to Vóila's 600-meter altitude. These are head-pruned vines, not irrigated, and hand-harved in the PDO (AOP in France) of Sitia, the name of the eastern providence, but not labeled as such because the grapes are made at the Lyrarakis winery outside of the appellation. It’s a wine with abundant character, and it’s pronounced a-cer-tee-ko.|
|Lyrarakis Liatiko Kedros Rosé||Liatiko||The Kedros vineyard is at 850 meters on Mt Kedros in the Psiloritis mountain range. Some of its bush vines are near 100-years-old, and their grapes are pressed directly for this characterful, driven mountain rosé.|
|Lyrarakis Liatiko Aggelis||Liatiko||The Aggelis (ah-gah-lease) vineyard is in the Vóila Valley in the far eastern Crete appellation of Sitia and grows at 580 meters. The vines were planted in the 1930s on their own roots, and give small, intense grapes and small yields. These grapes are fermented almost whole in an oak upright. Hand-harvested, spontaneous ferments, minimal filtration, and minimal SO2 additions. Best served with a slight chill.