THE ROMANCE OF THE VINE: |
REINVENTING WINE MAKING IN CRETE
Articles on Greece by AURELIA
All the best that represents Crete and the Cretan people comes together at a crossroads of sorts in Chania where certain mortals have fallen under a seductive spell because they share common passions. They love the ancient land - a landscape of rugged, rocky, defiant hills. They love the new vineyards they helped create - ten acres of vines planted against all odds on arid, unforgiving soil. They love challenges - this one is to produce the best wine ever made in Chania, and perhaps all of Crete.
The man at the center of the crossroads is Ted Manousakis and these mortals are under his spell. He shares their passions, but he has one that surpasses all others. Most of all, he loves Crete, calling her a beautiful, sensuous woman who should be cherished. He believes that to get the best from Crete, this venerable, mysterious land, she must be given the best mortals can offer. So he painstakingly assembled his group of faithful followers to do just that.
Their challenge is to change the way wine has been produced in Chania by introducing superior methods to every step involved in cultivating, harvesting, and fermenting the grape. It appears they have done just that.
Born in Chania, Ted Manousakis left as a child and spent most of his life in the United States, primarily in Washington, D.C. There, he established various businesses, enjoying one success after another, but was continually compelled through the years to return to his homeland. 'It was a type of spiritual bond that Crete and I had even before I left her at the age of twelve,' he says. 'Every time I returned to the home my grandparents built I fell more in love with Crete. I was seduced by the aroma of thyme and rosemary caressing me as I drove from the airport to this house, I was in awe of the rugged strength of the land and of the people, and I was mesmerized by Crete's history. Whenever I left, I had this deep longing to return and it grew more compelling through the years.'
Mr. Manousakis did return to rebuild and restore his family home, and he also built Creta Paradise, a beautiful beach resort. Shortly thereafter he set out to plant his vineyard, and that was when the pilgrims began assembling at the crossroads.
There is Bobby Kiriakakis, a robust Cretan who made his living as an orange merchant, but is best known in Chania as a stalwart resistance fighter in the struggle against the junta dictators; Kostis Galanis, also from Chania, a respected chemist and an oenologist with an advanced degree from the University of Montpelier, France, and Alexandra and Tamara, two of Mr. Manousakis' daughters, who work the fields from pruning to harvesting and help prepare the table for the harvest celebration. They say they have learned 'to prune by eye,'' explaining that Bobby taught them how a properly pruned vine is supposed to look.
From the United States there is Lucy Morton, a world class authority on root stocks, who knows precisely which of the hundreds of root stocks available is perfect for the chosen varietals. Then there is Lorenzo Naini of Bologne, Italy, an acknowledged authority on trellis systems and vine pruning. From France, perhaps the greatest wine producing country in the world, there are two well-known experts, one in wine-making and the other in geology.
Pascal Marchand, of Monthelie, France, is one of Burgundy's most respected wine makers. He and is in charge of the Grand Cru Wines for the Burgundy Wine Negotiants, the Boisset Group. He first came to Chania because he was intrigued by the idea of the vineyard and also by Chania's famous Samaria Gorge. Cyrill Bongiraud is the geologist and terroia specialist. His analysis of the vineyard rock conditions sheds light on the wine's subtle character, so reflective of the hills of Crete.
But at the center is Mr. Manousakis himself, a quiet thoughtful man whose modesty belies his success. Tall and trim, he has the all-around discipline of a marathon runner, and has trained for and completed a number of these feats. His strong Greek features are a contrast to his soft and pleasant manner. He is the perennial host - to his workers and his guests - and whether working or celebrating he wants to ensure that everyone enjoys the experience as much as he does.
Mr. Manousakis' accomplishments are many, yet it is difficult to get him to talk about them. He says simply that he had a security services business in Washington, D.C., but a friend adds privately that by the time he had sold it after twenty-eight years, it had become one of the largest privately held security firms in the country. He says he is now in the bakery business, but further questioning reveals that he founded a number of Greek restaurants and a string of very popular café bakeries.
In Chania, Mr. Manousakis' new business venture is somewhat different from his enterprises in the U.S. capitol. In the United States he is 'in business;' here in Chania, he is enjoying a romance-- ---the romance of the vine - and others who have been similarly seduced have joined him. Their challenge is to get the best from land that is like no other.
Each person who has joined him has his or her own reasons. For Pascal, Chania is an unlikely point of destination because his fame is rising in the renowned Burgundy region, considered by many to be the best wine producing area in the world. Pascal himself is a man of contradictions. In college, he was an English Literature major, but then went onto a career requiring the skills of a scientist.
Physically, Pascal is broad and solid, but moves with quickness and agility. When he talks about wine, examines the vineyard, or performs tests at the vats, he is very focused, but when he moves, his energy fills the room. His deep-set eyes shine when he explains why he was drawn to this vineyard, and his voice rises perceptibly: 'In Burgundy, wine is always produced in a certain way. There is no deviation. We follow set rules. Here, there is such a challenge, such a challenge, because we must experiment, take chances, learn from the process, do careful planning. Above all, we must learn from the land.'
Each person is eloquent about becoming part of the adventure, but perhaps Bobby says it best. 'There is a job to do and it is here. I do it because I need to, because I love the land. I know each and every vine individually. They are like my children. I have watched them grow and I am taking care of them.'
In a sense, Mr. Manousakis is on the cutting edge of viticulture in Crete and Greece. He is among a small group of wine producers who are re-inventing how grapevines are grown and cultivated and how wine is produced in their homeland. But to appreciate the significance of this statement, it is important to know a bit about the history of wine production in Greece and more specifically in Crete where wine making has been going on for over 4,000 years.
From the time of Homer, wine-making played a very important role in the life of the Greek people. It is thought they drank wine with every meal, but diluted the sweet, almost syrupy liquid with water. There is abundant evidence of wine being used in ceremonial functions.
During the Venetian occupation of Crete, wine produced on the island from the malvasia grape was considered the best in the world. It was the official wine of the Vatican and was consumed by the Venetian royalty.
With the conquest of Crete by the Ottoman Empire in 1639, virtually all viticulture on the island, as well as in the rest of Greece, ceased to exist. Since alcohol consumption was considered anti-religious by the Moslem Turks, all vineyards were destroyed. Heavy penalties, including death, were imposed on those who planted vines in violation of Ottoman rule. Conditions remained thus for nearly 250 years. The art of wine-making in Greece was totally forgotten and had to be learned from the beginning.
The planting of grapevines and wine-making started again early this century following the Ottomans' departure. During the better part of the century, however, due to the lack of education and expertise in wine-making combined with the lack of capital investment for equipment and technological advances, Greece was unable to produce fine wines. Grapes were grown on small parcels of land and sold to local wine cooperatives which were obligated to purchase their members' grapes regardless of quality or consistency. In fact, quality standards for vineyard management did not exist. The only objective of grape farmers was to maximize the crop yield.
Not until fifteen or twenty years ago did a small number of young, educated wine enthusiasts engage in proper viticulture and wine-making. Fortunately, this move represents the current trend in the Greek wine industry. Although much wine in Greece is still produced by cooperatives, the movement is overwhelming toward small, family-owned and operated vineyards and boutique wineries characterized by love of the land, passion for quality, and abundance of professionalism.
In creating his vineyard, Mr. Manousakis has introduced high quality in every step of the process by educating himself and by gathering specialists from around the world to advise on preparing the soil; planting the vines; creating trellises; mastering pruning methods; harvesting the fruit; and finally making the wine and aging it. These experts in their respective fields work as teams with the local people he has assembled.
In Chania, Ted Manousakis is considered a pioneer in viticulture and is being watched by others in his field. He considers wine-making both a science and an art. 'Wine-making, perhaps more than any other occupation, epitomizes the perfect harmony between science and art,' Mr. Manousakis says. 'It is a science because it involves the chemistry of wine making; it is an art because the wine maker is free to create his own special style of wine which can be unlike any other. My objective is to perfect this harmony of viticulture and vinification and produce the best possible wine. In doing so, I feel that the types of grapes we choose, combined with the climate and soil conditions of Western Crete, can produce very important wine.'
He describes the climatic conditions for vines on Chania as 'perfect' and points out that the region has many varieties of crops and numerous herbs. 'These herbs have been here since ancient times,' he says.
He calls his wine 'Nostos,' root of the ancient Greek word for 'nostalgia,' meaning a longing to return to one's homeland. The name was carefully chosen to reflect the spiritual nature of the journey that, as his wine label denotes, took him to back to his roots.
The vineyards have created employment for thirty local people and Mr. Manousakis happily works the land with them, enjoying the peace of being in harmony with nature and completing specific tasks that correspond to the seasons. He appreciates the skills and knowledge of the local men and women who prune and tend the vines. 'They have a philosophical wisdom passed on through the centuries from generation to generation,' he says. 'In my wine making, I try to balance this with the advice I get from the experts.'
Mr. Manousakis' chance to create a vineyard came about a few years ago when residents of his village were permitted to bid on land in the foothills of the Lefka Ori, otherwise known as the 'White Mountains.' He assembled thirty acres, turning ten of them into his vineyard, one parcel at 900 feet and the other at 1,200 feet above sea level.
As a perfectionist, he knew he had a lot to learn and began educating himself by reading and travelling. On a bicycle tour of vineyards in France with his lovely wife, Rema, he met Pascal.
Pascal was recruited to come to Crete to advise on how the soil should be balanced so that the grape would grow in optimum conditions. He stressed the importance of careful planning and developed a five-year farming plan for the vineyard. Next came experts in pruning, root stocks, trellising, irrigation, harvesting, and wine making itself.
Many difficulties were overcome in creating the vineyard, especially the problem of travelling up the steep mountains where man had most likely never been before. Four-wheel drives could not navigate over the boulders, which were removed by brute force. Slowly, very slowly, rugged paths were created, but problems of erosion were always present. Another problem was the lack of water. Since there is no water on the mountainous forestland where the vines grow, the only alternative in the beginning was to hand-water the vines daily. Eventually, a well was created. For the first three years it was essential to treat the vines tenderly or they would never produce properly, so the plants were watered, but not drenched. Another concern was the amount of acidity in the soil and this was tested at every level in trenches more than six feet deep. Creating the vineyard was a painstaking process that tested everyone's patience.
The completed vineyards are almost works of art. A four-wire system keeps the vines in the correct, vertical position to receive the sunlight and never touch the ground. Each row is a precise distance from its neighbor. There is a rose bush in front of each row and a pink ribbon atop the rows and these are not decorative. If an epidemic occurs, the rose bush will suffer first, allowing preventive treatment of the vineyard. The pink ribbons scare away the birds before they can peck at the fruit.
The winery itself, adjacent to the family house, was built in 1997 in the midst of a 1,000 year-old olive grove. It is a lovely, picturesque setting and a renowned photographer, Bruce Dale of 'National Geographic,' was engaged to capture the scene of the ancient tree and the new winery. This symbolic picture became the 'logo' for the wine and it appears on the label with the name 'Nostos' above the winery.
The first harvest for Nostos was in late August of 1997 and it was a Night Harvest. When the picking begins, the grapes must be cool, so the harvest did not start until around 9 p.m. and continued until the early morning hours. Then the grapes were crushed and allowed to ferment before being placed in French Oak barrels. Four varieties of wine--Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre and Roussane are produced.
When it was time to taste his maiden vintage, Mr. Manousakis came to Chania with wine expert and importer Dan Kravitz, owner of Hand-Picked Selections. Although the first yield was relatively small, after careful and thoughtful sipping and tasting, Mr. Kravitz decided to purchase the entire stock for distribution in the United States. Robert H. Parker, the world-renowned authority and wine critic, gave the '97 Nostos an impressive 87 rating and placed it on his 'Hundred Best Buys of the Year' list.
This year's harvest was early - in mid-August - and the yield was bountiful. Because of the heat, it was again decided to harvest the grapes at night with Pascal, Bobby, Alexandra, Tamara, and scores of volunteers working side by side.
That night, Mr. Manousakis invited one and all to assemble again the next day and said that as a special celebration, Bobby would make tsikoudia on a still over a very hot fire. He would use skins from grapes picked several weeks earlier.
Tsikoudia is its Greek name, but in Italy it is called 'grappa' and in France 'marc.' Elsewhere, it has been called 'firewater.' It is a powerful drink that has sometimes been characterized as 'the tougher cousin of brandy.' Brandy itself is distilled wine.
Everyone was invited. It was not necessary to explain that there would be a big feast. A Cretan-style feast.
The next morning as dawn broke, Pascal awoke after a few hours sleep. He headed for Omalos, the main entrance or trailhead for the Samaria Gorge, the longest and most spectacular in Europe, with cliffs rising up to 1,640 feet. Hundreds of tourists descend daily into this rocky valley to hike through the gorge. Pascal planned to go through the passage alone and begin high up at Lefka Ori, going downhill, from north to south.
Some locals have been through the gorge dozens of times, travelling always in groups and making a game of setting records for speed or creative ways to do the hike. The trail is ten miles (sixteen kilometers) in length and the guidebooks say most groups make it through in four to seven hours.
Mr. Manousakis remained at home during the morning hours taking telephone calls and giving Bobby free reign to set up the still to his liking. Bobby's wife, Voula, and her helpers arrived early, firing up the grills and putting last minute touches on food prepared the night before. All morning long, Bobby was at the still, the fire was roaring and he was standing up high, loading the grape skins in the huge round container over the fire. The day was hot and cloudless and the majestic mountains, the Lefka Ori, were in full view.
The women were at the tables all morning, and when the feast was ready, glorious Cretan specialties were placed on long wooden tables and bottles of wine from last year's harvest passed around. It was time to feast.
Pascal arrived shortly after noon, looking exhilarated. He was asked about his journey through the gorge and said simply, 'I made it.' Since there are bragging rights in Chania about how fast and by what method people make it through this passage, Pascal was pressed to tell more. 'How long did it take you?' a Cretan who had gone through the gorge many times asked.
'Two hours and fifteen minutes,' Pascal announced. 'Impossible,' someone said, 'you would have had to race through those mountain paths.' 'I did,' Pascal said triumphantly, his eyes twinkling, 'I did. All it took was concentration. It was a challenge.'
At this point, Bobby announced that the tsikoudia - the firewater - was ready and men circled round the still to drink the liquid while it was still hot. The ritual signaled the end of their labor for this harvest and a giving of thanks for the fruit of that labor.
They gathered, also, to pay their respects to Mr. Manousakis and his vision, but he urged everyone to enjoy the feast. They turned to Bobby, whose love for the vine may have been the key to making the vineyard grow, and he said once more how he felt about the vineyard: 'Every vine is my child, I know and love each vine as I know and love each of my children.'
'Now,' Bobby said, 'we celebrate!!' 'Kalos orisete!! Kalos orisete!!' (welcome all).
Crouching by the still, Bobby poured for everybody and passed the glasses around. He raised his own glass, saying 'Aspro pato,' (down the hatch) downing the liquid in one gulp. 'Aspro pato,' the men responded, doing likewise.
Then, Bobby rose to his full height, raising his glass high and spreading his arms as wide as his grin. His sturdy frame was a sculpture against the sky, dwarfing the mighty mountains behind him and symbolically conquering them. 'Aspro Pato,' he shouted.
Characteristically, Mr. Manousakis stood a bit apart, allowing Bobby and the others to revel in their success. Watching the drama playing out before him, he reflected on his odyssey, the spiritual journey that took him to the crossroads of his life, and summed it up: 'I feel as though I have been given the greatest gift.'
But from the very beginning, Mr. Manousakis knew that if he gave his best to Crete, Crete would give her best to him.
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