In the Icarian Sea, near the crystal blue Aegean lies the small island of Ikaria, where the life expectancy among its 8,000 or so inhabitants is one of the highest in the world. One in three live into their 90s. Good genetics, easy lifestyle and a healthy diet are the culprits – a diet that includes a rich, deep red wine famous for its healing properties in the ancient world.
Wine is a staple here, consumed daily as part of the traditional Ikarian fare. It is ingrained in every aspect of the Aegean life. This stunning and diverse archipelago was the ancient gateway for the spread of viniculture to the Greek mainland and onto the rest of Europe. Wine brought with it a sophisticated and innovative culture. Ancient Greek historian Thucydides is supposed to have professed that the Mediterranean peoples “emerged from barbarism when they learned to cultivate the … vine”. Dionysus, the Greek god of grape-harvest, winemaking and wine – aka the party god – was thought to have been born in Ikaria.
Ikarian wine is an ancient wine. It has been renowned since Homer included his tasting notes in the Odyssey on Pramneios Oinos, an “Ikarian red wine” that was highly acclaimed. So much so that the Iliad heroes would imbibe its magical powers in preparation for battle during the Trojan War.
The island’s special terroir and wines have received plaudits from a plethora of ancient Greek historians, doctors and philosophers – Plato, Hippocrates and Hesiod among its fan base. The Ikarian Pramnian Wine is the first recorded Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) wine in the world.
The wine here has a surprisingly high average alcohol content, about 14%, and trends up to 18%. It’s a rare fungi in the local wild yeast that keeps the fermentation going beyond normal levels, having adapted over millennia to survive in such an environment. That’s why the locals prefer to water down their wine, but only, mind you, during the four summery months that don’t end in “r”. Moderation is best in all things. Thanks for the tip Hesiod.
Nikos Afianes and his wife Maria founded Afianes Wines (
afianeswines.gr/en/) more than 20 years ago, with the goal of preserving the ancient winemaking techniques while taking advantage of the special soils in Ikaria. “The unique terrain here is acidic, no active calcium, lots of potassium, boron, magnesium, iron, phosphorus and radon that exist in granitic stones. It creates very rich wines with high minerality that have no equal,” Nikos says. “Especially the wines made in the stone press. It is no longer just a wine; it becomes something more.”
Ikaria is mainly mountainous, contrasting between lush green slopes and steep barren cliffs. The vineyards are dotted in between, in small parcels, like a game of vinicultural Tetris.
“We are like a long rock in the sea with many canyons,” he says of the island. “The biggest challenge – and beauty – is the mesoclimate variations of the vineyards, from 150m to 850m, facing in all different directions.” Grapes can fall prey to the vagaries of the harsh climate, whether gale force winds, high humidity or fungal infections. “We don’t harvest every vineyard every year,” he says, leaving it in the lap of the Greek gods, as it were.
Afianes vinifies two local varieties: the bright ruby fokiano, with its rich aroma and lingering flavour; and the intensely aromatic white begleri, which recently has only been cultivated on Ikaria and the nearby island of Chios. Afianes’s grapes are grown on granitic and sandy soils and undergo wild yeast fermentation.
Just a short (preferably night) flight from Icarus heading north across the Aegean lies the volcanic island of Lemnos (or Limnos). According to Homer’s Iliad, the island’s red wine slaked the Greek army’s thirst during their siege of the ancient coastal city of Troy. Known as ‘kalambaki’ to the locals, the limnio grape grown today is a possible descendant of the ancient variety limnia, commended by Aristotle and the Greek poet and historian Hesiod. It is regarded as one of the oldest surviving grape species in the world.
Limnos Wines Co-op (
limnoswines.gr/en/), a large co-operative founded in 1958, produces a range of wines for all tastes, including the local limnio variety, as well as the Eurasian-ubiquitous Muscat of Alexandria, which was brought by the Lemnian immigrants from Egypt after World War I. The grape originated in Anatolia, Turkey, during the ancient Mesopotamian trading era, which extended as far south as the Upper Nile.
Garalis Winery (
oinopoieio-garalis.gr) is another Lemnos producer of the oldest Greek variety, garalis limnio, as well as a natural Muscat of Alexandria. Made as an orange wine, Terra Ambera involves eight days of skin contact that undergoes spontaneous fermentation resulting in, as third-generation winemaker Manolis Garalis proudly notes, a “mesmerising spicy mineral and yeasty floral flavour”.
Next island hop is to Lesvos (Lesbos), the home of poetry and music, notably poet Sappho, whose brother was a wine merchant. Lesvos wines were highly prized and were some of the most expensive in then downtown Athens. The wine was a favourite of poet – and wine buff – Archestratus, moving him to eulogise that he “could praise the wines in many places… but no wine can compare to the wine of Lesvos”.
In the early 1980s, the Lambrou family who founded the Methymnaeos Winery (
methymnaeos.com) discovered the last remaining chidiriotiko vines, an old grape variety, near the forgotten village of Chidira.
They planted vineyards in the crater of a nearby extinct volcano. Their inaugural vintage in 1999 was the first bottled wine in Lesvos history. Interestingly, they produce organic white, orange and red wines from the same chidiriotiko grape. The white has a dry, sherry-like sweetness, with a minerality that speaks of the volcanic soils and its ancient past. Archestratus described Lesvos wines at the time as having “liquid locks thickly overgrown with white flower”, seemingly a reference to the flor yeast cover.
Not far due south of Lesvos lies the crescent-shaped island of Chios. Greek mythology tells us that Dionysus personally blessed the island and the Chians were taught by Dionysus’ son, King Oenopion, how to cultivate vines and make Chian “black wine”, the very first red wine. Ancient poets lauded the sweet, red Chian wine as the “nectar of the gods”. In its day, Chios wines were extolled, and traded far and wide. Its distinctive amphorae – typically stamped with a sphinx facing an amphora topped with a bunch of grapes – have recently been discovered throughout Greece’s ancient trading partners, from France in the west, to Tuscany, to Upper Egypt, and Crimea in the east.
Chian vineyards are dominated by arid limestone rock landscapes – there are no rivers on the island. High up in the mountains in the famous Ariousios region in northern Chios is Kefalas Estate (ktima-kefala.gr), which has been making Chian varieties since the 1960s. Their low-yielding wines include a range of dry, demi-sec and sweet wines made from agiorgitiko, fokiano and mandilaria in the reds, and assyrtiko and athiri in the whites.
For the sweet wines, co-owner Maria Kefala says the grapes are sun-parched for 10 days, producing wines “scented of honey, nuts and fruits condensed”.
At the southern extremity of the Aegean, Crete, the “Island of the Gods”, is the largest and most populous of the Greek islands – and a cultural and hedonistic wonderland. Two of its beaches are rated in the top 25 in the world, Balos and Elafonissi, both in the western Chania winery region: a surf and swirl adventure awaits.
The Minoans who ruled Crete and other Aegean islands were Europe’s first advanced civilisation, with a sophisticated wine culture dating back more than 5,000 years. One of the earliest European wines, from around 1,500 BC, was found here in the Archanes vineyards, as was a 4,000-year-old vineyard – Europe’s oldest – at the Minoan Palace of Zakros, now a pretty fishing village on Crete’s south-east coast. King Minos’ Royal Palace of Knossos was home to colossal underground wine cellars full of amphorae and other vinous paraphernalia, which is still viewable today.
Crete’s favourable climate and long viticultural history has resulted in an impressive range of suited varieties, many indigenous, including liatiko, kotsifali and mandilaria in the reds, and in the whites, vilana, vidiano, and the rarer plytó and dafni.
Lyrarakis Winery (
lyrarakis.com), founded in 1966, has been instrumental in resurrecting these latter two ancient Cretan white varieties. Second-generation Bart Lyrarakis recounts his father and uncle eagerly “scouring old vineyards for scatterings of these vines here and there”. Then they got planting. That was 30 years ago. Now they are the largest producers of these two varieties in the world. Their vineyards, too, are connected to antiquity: remnants of 4,000-year-old wine presses have been found carved into limestone on a few of their plots.
Nikos Douloufakis is a third-generation winemaker. He can’t remember how it all began for him because he says he’s lived in the world of wine from a very young age. He’s proud of the long and unique heritage of Greek and Cretan wine. “We are part of the premier European wine league,” he says, the bridge between ancient and modern European grapes and wines. Douloufakis Winery (
douloufakis.wine/en/), in the village of Dafnes, produces a range of wines made from local varieties, such as the red liatiko and the white vidiano. His wines taste of warmth and joy; they’re hospitable even, just like Nikos and the people of Crete.
With its unique island terroir taking in mountains, volcanoes and maritime influences, the Aegean boasts an ancient vineyard history and continues to forge an exciting playbook for wine. Nikos Afianes feels this excitement in his veins: “Sometimes when you put love and patience above all obstacles, there is nothing you can’t do.” As an Ikarian, Nikos should know, as the odds are on his side that he will outlive us all.
2017 Afianes Wines Icarus Dry Red is made from 100% fokiano grapes (only 800 bottles and not available in Australia). A natural, unfined and unfiltered dry red which reveals a sweet forest-floor funk and spiced mulberry flavours, with a dried anise note. Lovely softly gripped tannic finish. Alc. 13.0%. Pair with roasted lamb shoulder topped with lemon and rosemary, and a black-eyed pea salad. (
2017 Limnos Wines Krama, A$26, is a well-balanced limnio-merlot blend that releases spiced, leafy aromas and a delicate pithy Kirsch flavour with a pleasant lingering bitter note: invites you to almost spit the pit out. Alc. 12.5%. Pair with rabbit stifado (stew) or Flomaria pasta with olive and tomato coulis.
2019 Limnos Wines Muscat de Limnos, A$16, is a dessert wine made from Muscat of Alexandria grapes. Bright golden hue, bitter orange-citrus on the nose, offering lingering, sweet apricot-marmalade flavours. Dinner party favourite, serve with baked cheesecake, or kalathaki (tangy, white brine cheese) or even a crumbly blue cheese. Alc. 15.0%.
2019 Lyrarakis Psarades Plyto, A$39, has a bouquet of spices and citrus. Floral, slightly unctuous on the palate, it finishes with a touch of minerality. Alc. 13.0%. Match with dakos (Cretan bruschetta) or sarikopitakia (cheese pastries).
2019 Lyrarakis Psarades Dafni, A$37, is a salty-citrus, intensely flavoured white wine, with distinctive mint-rosemary notes. A touch sleeker than the Plyto. Alc. 12.0%. Pair with chochlioi boumpouristoi (the very popular Cretan dish of fried snails with rosemary and vinegar) or cuttlefish with fennel and olives.
2017 Douloufakis Dafnios Liatiko, A$27, is the first wine that Nikos Douloufakis would grab on fleeing his burning cellar. This ruby-robed wine has delicate floral and herbal aromas, leading to a fresh red-fruit palate with soft tannins. A sumptuous drop. Alc.13.8%. Drink until 2026. Pair with tsigariasto, a Cretan-style, slow-roasted lamb or goat.
2019 Douloufakis Dafnios Vidiano, A$29, has a pale golden hue with aromas of dried herbs and light spices. A full-bodied, rich stone fruit palate with a touch of pomegranate, coupled with a luscious, creamy texture and long clean acid finish. Delight in a bottle. Cork closure. Alc.14.3%. Drink until 2024. Suits apáki (wine-vinegar marinated pork), with braised leeks and a chickpea salad.