Winery on Crete, Lyrarakis, Greek wine
Food,  Greece,  Wine

Lyrarakis Winery on Crete: How 1 Greek Family Saved 3 Grapes from Extinction

Lyrarakis Winery on Crete has been making wine since the 1960’s—and protecting vulnerable fruits of the vine since the 1990’s. While touring the vineyard, we learned the inspirational story of the Lyrarakis family, their dedication to sustainable winemaking, and how they’ve single-handedly saved 3 local species of grapes from the brink of extinction.

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Many associate Greece with ouzo, raki and other high-gravity digestifs that sometimes singe the hairs from the surface of your tongue. Yet, despite its ideal climate for viticulture (→ grape cultivation), Greece has historically fallen short when it comes to viniculture (→ grape cultivation, specific to wine).

In recent years, however, the pendulum has begun to swing. Now, Crete—nominated by Wine Enthusiast in 2016 for Wine Region of the Year—is the heart and soul of Greece’s up-and-coming wine scene.

Today, Crete has upwards of 50 wineries growing dozens of varietals—both endemic and imported. But there’s one winery that stands out; one whose emerging global reputation is outshined only by its local recognition.

Winery on Crete, Lyrarakis, Greek wine

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A personal approach to an ancient art

Lyrarakis Winery on Crete opened their doors in 1966. But for their first 30 years of operation, they sold exclusively to local bars, restaurants & neighbors who had a taste for their product.

The family members hand-filled bottles from casks & barrels, and often delivered them to their customers personally. Otherwise, customers came to the vineyard to pick up the goods.

There’s something calming about the notion of a casual stroll down to the local ‘wine guy’ to re-fill a few bottles of whatever’s on tap. Just enough to get us through the next couple nights. The simplicity of it all. A fresh, local supply chain…with only 2 links.

“The ethical relationship with local society and local economy has been the target of our family business since 1966. These intangible values, nowadays updated, lead us even today, 50 years later.” (Lyrarakis Sustainability Report, 2016)

– George E. Lyrarakis, Chairman of the Board, Lyrarakis Wines

Winery on Crete, Lyrarakis, Greek wine
An ancient wine press at Lyrarakis Winery on Crete.

In many ways, modern mass production has overshadowed the art behind winemaking. Inhabitants of Crete have been making wine for 3500 years. And there is something to be said for the way things used to be, whether it’s a good old-fashioned grape stomp, or a personally-delivered bottle of the good stuff.

Lyrarakis family winery certainly paid tribute to the days of old. And they did so, entirely on a local level, all the way through the early-1990’s. It wasn’t until 1994 that Lyrarakis delivered its first international shipment. The lucky recipient: Belgium.

But around the same time, back at home on Crete, the Lyrarakis family had their hands full.

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Grapes | Wrath

Just before the turn of the 21st century, a plant louse that preys on vines—Phylloxera—struck Crete. Two local grapes endemic to the island—Plyto & Dafni—soon found themselves on the verge of extinction.

Undeterred, the Lyrarakis family dedicated itself to the preservation and revival of these species. This fight began in 1992. Four years later, the first single-variety wines made from these grapes were bottled and released. Now, the family is credited throughout the region as the savior of these two important grapes.

Today, Plyto & Dafni are strong contributors to Crete’s overall wine production. Plyto produces a smooth, light-bodied wine. A glass of Dafni features hints of rosemary and bay leaf. Both are white, delicate & delicious.

“We have been, and still are, engaged to rescuing our native varieties. This is a painful process; with a complex and evolving nature. Our aim is to preserve the genetic heritage; the rest of the priorities is an issue of applied viticultural science.” (Lyrarakis Sustainability Report, 2016)

– Manolis Lyrarakis, Co-founder, Lyrarakis Wines

Through their relentless commitment to sustainability, the Lyrarakis family has been able to make a powerful environmental impact. Further, they’ve carved a name for themselves on the global winemaking stage and garnered attention & brand recognition from industry authorities.

Finally, and notably, they’ve earned the respect & support of their grape-growing neighbors on Crete—many of whom are direct competitors.

Winery on Crete, Lyrarakis, Greek wine

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Listen to nature

Preserving the past to ensure the legacy of the future is a core principle of the winery’s value proposition. But there’s more to the Lyrarakis story, and we were excited to walk away with a couple of sustainability pearls.

During our 45-minute guided group tour of the vineyard, we learned some of the unique ways they tune into the environment to drive decision making. Specifically, how they keep their vines safe and hydrated.

Our wonderful guide led us—row by row, section by section—through the vineyard, quenching our thirst for knowledge at every turn. Meanwhile, our thirst for the fruits of the vine only grew stronger. Deliberate or not, this was an effective marketing strategy!

We quickly realized that most of what we observed around Lyrarakis is—in fact—deliberate. Nearly everything serves a purpose, even the most unassuming elements of the landscape.

Winery on Crete, Lyrarakis, Greek wine

Pearl #1—roses: silent security guards of the vineyard

Take, for example, these rose bushes planted at the end of each vine row, like a supermarket end-cap. Though esthetics would seem to be the driving force behind their placement, their outward beauty is merely a secondary benefit. These roses are here for defense. They serve as a natural, visual alarm system with a reliable ability to warn of underground disease traveling through the vineyard’s root systems.

Our guide explains (and we paraphrase):

Rose bushes will exhibit visible signs of disease long before grape vines are exposed. Thus, if the winemakers notice these visual indicators, they’re able to react quickly and pick any fruit that can be harvested, before any vines are affected.

Winery on Crete, Lyrarakis, Greek wine
Roses: silent security guards of the Lyrarakis vineyard.

Pearl #2—let water come from the sky

While it’s not uncommon for grape growers to utilize sophisticated irrigation systems in their vineyards, the Lyrarakis family prefers to rely on the island’s natural rainfall. Manmade irrigation is only introduced in cases of extreme need. For example, times of drought or intense heat. Otherwise, they prefer to let nature run its course.

Our guide put it simply and perfectly:

“The less you interfere, the better.”

Winery on Crete, Lyrarakis, Greek wine

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Branching out: other grapes of the Lyrarakis vine

Now, it’s time to meet a few more grapes, and start tasting some wines.

Decades after saving Plyto and Dafni, the Lyrarakis family discovered another local grape in need. Melissaki was rescued in 2010. Today, she produces a light, enchanting white that offers tasters “a little bit of honey.”

Let’s break down the name:

  • Melissa is the Greek God of bees. Melissa → miel → Mel → honey
  • “Aki” in Greek is like “ito” en español: it takes a thing, and makes it small…or cute…or “just a little bit”
Winery on Crete, Lyrarakis, Greek wine
Melissaki: a light, enchanting white wine with “a little bit of honey.” Lyrarakis Family Winery.

Later, we met Mandilari, a strong, acidic grape known for its particularly high tannin content. Mandilari is never used for single varietals, only blended white wines. 

Vidiano—a single varietal from a lone vineyard of only 600 square meters (6500 square feet; 15% of an acre)—was described to us as the Chardonnay of Crete. We tasted it in blended form, during the final round.

For the grand finale, we popped a bottle of Lyrarakis’ celebrated ZaZaZu. Crete’s first sparkling wine is a refreshing blend of 3 local grapes: Vidiano, Vilana and Muscado Spino. ZaZaZu provided us with the perfect palate-perk to close out a memorable day of tasting. After our last sips, she sent us happily on our way.

Winery on Crete, Lyrarakis, Greek wine
ZaZaZu: Crete’s first sparkling wine. Lyrarakis Family Winery.

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It doesn’t take a village to save a few grapes

While the relationship between man and most living things on our planet is—too often—one of discord, the Lyrarakis story shines a bright light on the positive impact humans can make on even the most fragile of ecosystems.

It’s easy to destroy. Easier still, is to stand ignorantly behind a podium and deny that destruction is taking place. But defending the defenseless; guarding the vulnerable…these selfless acts require time, tremendous patience, and courage.

From a capitalist perspective, fighting for the survival of a threatened species may be seen as a drain on precious resources; a needless risk that ensures nothing but lost profits. And yet, on a higher level, altruism has the potential to pay far greater—even immeasurable—dividends.

Fruit forward & family first. Finances will follow.

—Anonymous Greek Wine Philosopher

Winery on Crete, Lyrarakis, Greek wine

Through purposeful dedication to sustainability, the Lyrarakis family has done a great service for the wine lovers of the world.

May we all learn from—and toast!—the fruits of their labor.

Yammas!

-DnA

PS — Unless you’re headed to Greece’s largest island for a dedicated wine tour, it’s unlikely you’ll have time to visit more than a few wineries. Make sure Lyrarakis is on your list! It’s only 30-40 minutes south of Heraklion, by car. And, it’s a perfect afternoon stop after a morning excursion to the Palace of Knossos.

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