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Women Winemakers in Crete Seek to Restore an Ancient Tradition

After 3,000 years, women are back in the winery

Lauren Mowery By March 17, 2022
Crete mural of women designed with photos of women winemakers
Photo illustration by Pix featuring Anna Kambourakis, Alexandra Manousakis, and Emmanuela and Nicky Paterianakis (left to right). Background photo of painting from Palace Knossos ruins by Galina Tolochko/iSock.

Images of women dominated the frescoes, jewelry, and pottery of Crete’s Minoan civilization. Some historians believe Minoans represented one of few, if any, women-centric cultures. The society also had an inextricable link to wine, both socially and economically. Today, Cretan women are following in the footsteps of the island’s ancient predecessors, helping move Crete into a new wine era. 

John Younger, University of Kansas professor of classics, believes the culture on Crete around 1600 to 1500 B.C. “is the closest candidate for a matriarchy that we have,” he said in an article from 2017. “In this culture, at this time, we have an awful lot of representations of what are obviously powerful women, single-seated women flanked by a bunch of guys. We don’t have a single representation of a seated man,” he added. 

As with most groups that evolved from agrarian societies, the island’s subsequent societies were patriarchies, starting with the mainland Mycenaeans, then the Romans, Byzantines, Venetians, Ottomans, and finally, the modern state of Greece. Five thousand years after the Minoans disappeared, women are back helping to restore the fame of Cretan wine. 

Meet the new women

Emmanuela Paterianakis, oenologist for her family winery Domaine Paterianakis, remains cognizant of the Minoan legacy lingering across the island. “Every single time I talk, read, or learn something about Minoan culture, I realize how sophisticated this era was and how separated it is from our modern world,” she says. “Minoans, as far as we have learned so far, were artistic, ingenious, and charismatic. Women were hugely prominent in this society, unlike other ancient civilizations where men had a central role. They participated in society life and had positions of authority.” 

Located in Peza, a protected designation of origin outside of Heraklion, Domaine Paterianakis was founded in 1988 by Giorgos Paterianakis. Today, third-generation granddaughters Emmanuela and Niki run the enterprise, the former as the winemaker and winery manager, the latter as director of marketing and sales. The women continue building on 25 years of organic farming, adding biodynamic practices and a line of natural wines called 3.14. Domaine Paterianakis specializes in indigenous varieties like Moschato Spinas, Plytó, Kotsifali, and Crete’s burgeoning flagship white, Vidiano. 

“I remember as a child when I first went to the vineyard with my grandfather, Emmanuel Paterianakis. He considered it his duty to teach his granddaughter the secrets of the entire life of a grape,” says Paterianakis. 

Until recently, families passed down wineries to a son, the perceived stronger sex, who historically worked in the fields. “Winemaking, in general, is a male-dominated science,” says Paterianakis who attributes that propensity to the requirements of long hours, physical endurance, and tasks that were considered appropriate for men. 

Nowadays, however, families have come around to viewing daughters as capable of running the property and business. Alexandra Manousakis, co-owner of Manousakis Winery in Chania, is the daughter of Theodore Manousakis. Born in 1943, Ted spent his childhood in Vatolakkos, a village in the Lefka Ori mountain range to where he would later return to start a winery in 1993. Alexandra was raised in the U.S., studying art in New York before moving to Crete to create a life connected to her heritage. 

“When I first moved to Greece, I had a lot of things going against me. I was very young at 23, I was American, and I was a girl,” Manousakis says. Manousakis says clients would insist on speaking to Mr. Manousakis and that often, this treatment came as much from women as from men. 

Manousakis has seen these attitudes change, especially as generational thinking toward inheritance and succession planning has evolved. 

“Every single time I talk, read, or learn something about Minoan culture, I realize how sophisticated this era was and how separated it is from our modern world.”

From father to daughter

Anna Kambourakis, co-owner of Chania Wine Tours with her husband Vasilis Kokologiannakis, has noticed the shift, too. “Because a lot of the wineries are family-owned, the winery is known by the father who started it. A lot of the daughters have taken over and improved things dramatically,” she says. “Daughters want to honor the roots of the winery, but it’s time for them to step into the spotlight,” says Kambourakis, rattling off a long list of female-led wineries as examples. 

For Manousakis, that spotlight meant revamping for a modern, competitive era. 

“Fifteen years ago, the wine industry was basically in an archaic state. Everything from the winemaking to the marketing was dated. Massive leaps have been made and I would say the wine industry has done a complete 180 in all aspects,” she says. 

Manousakis redesigned the brand’s labels and overall marketing platform with an eye toward the colorful and abstract and overhauled the winery’s restaurant and tasting room. Many on Crete consider the hospitality arm of Manousakis an early and leading example of the island’s tourism potential.

Kambourakis, who includes Manousakis on her tours, points to Alexandra as well as Maria Titakis at Titakis Winery as perfect examples of how women are leading the way in wine hospitality.

Indeed, the industry’s tourism sector has been booming as travelers hungry to sip wine that’s local and authentic discover the island’s 11 indigenous varieties. Couple that with the evolving wisdom of letting the grapes and land speak for themselves, and Crete stands poised for a female-driven renaissance. 

Iliana Malihin, the Rethymnon-based winemaker behind her eponymous winery, didn’t grow up in a Cretan wine family. However, while studying agriculture at 18, memories of her grandfather’s love for his vineyard surfaced. Spurred by questions about wine and its production, she completed a postgraduate degree in oenology in Athens. She worked in wineries around Greece and Crete before starting her own label before turning 30. Malihin has already hit the radar of international wine critics and sommeliers, earning several nods as a winery to watch for her exploration of Vidiano.

“In 1979 the village of Melabes had 70 hectares (172 acres) of vineyards,” she says over a Zoom interview. “That’s an enormous number for a little village in Greece.” Unfortunately, three fires destroyed most of the vineyards, and by the third disaster, locals abandoned the laborious and costly rehabilitation efforts.

That’s where Malihin stepped in, taking a site-by-site approach to reviving these nearly lost 100-year-old vineyards that carry historic and cultural significance for the villages. “When a vine is burned, the root is still alive, and if you handle it right, it can grow a new trunk on the old root,” she explains.

She sources 90% of her fruit, paying far higher prices than is typical in Greece, so her growers will farm to organic standards. The remaining 10% comes from her own vineyards, part leased, part-owned, where she experiments with biodynamic techniques. 

She separates lots for vinification to tease out the nuances of these mountain-slope micro-terroirs, a relatively new approach to winemaking on the island. The craggy region between Heraklion and Chania once boasted 700 acres of vines, a number that’s dwindled to 200, though Malihin believes more will be discovered. 

For the unfamiliar, Vidiano compares to Chardonnay in its malleability; a winemaker can shape the style and texture with lees and aging vessels, whether she’s aiming for a crisp, floral, and saline expression or one that’s rich, textured, and fruity. Malihin chooses to work minimally in the cellar, letting ambient yeast take the lead in fermentation, using stainless steel or concrete eggs, then bottling the wine without fining or filtration. 

A new dynamism

Of course, it’s not only the women of Crete who are defining a new era for the island’s wine industry; young, educated, and restless winemakers enthusiastic about Cretan varieties have worked to pull the island’s industry out of stagnation. 

Up until recently, Cretan wine connoted cheap bulk wine. “With great care and hard work, we have managed to highlight the virtues of the Cretan vineyard, to remove the stigma that cost us our reputation, and to prove that our island was not accidentally one of the most coveted wine regions in the world by antiquity,” says Paterianakis. 

For Kambourakis, however, it’s the ladies doing the heavy lifting. “We are seeing some of the most exciting winemaking coming from women,” she says, calling out the work of Malihin, along with Myriam Ambouzer of Lyrarakis Winery, and Irini Daskalaki of Silva Daskalaki

The Lyrarakis family saved two grapes from extinction, Plytó, a lively ancient white variety, and Dafni, a white wine redolent of bay leaf. Ambouzer’s work in the cellar has boosted the recognition of these wines beyond the shores of Crete and into the glasses of Athenians and Londoners. 

Women turning to minimalist practices have started to introduce amphorae; Evangelina Agelakis even sources clay from Thrapsano, the site used by Minoans for similar aging vessels and perhaps their notorious disposable party cupsWhile wine-soaked celebrations at the Palace of Knossos have long vanished, the spirit of the land and ancient winemaking live on in the wines of Crete’s modern women. 

3 Cretan wines to try: 

bottle of Domaine Paterianakis Vidiano Organic Crete

Domaine Paterianakis Crete Organic Vidiano 2019 (~$18)

If you can’t make it to Greece this summer, a glass of Vidiano provides a modest substitute. One of the island’s earliest adopters of organic farming, Domaine Paterianakis shows off Vidiano’s softer delicate side with spring blossoms, lemon, star fruit, and an ephemeral kiss of salt-tinged breezes on the finish. Look for the brand’s trademark drop of honey, a gently sweet phenomenon imbued in all their wines. Sister owners attribute it to the property’s honeybees, hence the label which also pays homage to the bee-loving Minoans.

bottle of Manousakis Nostos Alexandra's

Manousakis Nostos Alexandra’s Crete Red Blend 2013 (~$34)

While indigenous varieties have gained momentum, Crete’s warm climate and rocky soil provide the perfect growing environment for Mediterranean red grapes. Manousakis initially cut its teeth on Syrah, considered one of Crete’s best. In Alexandra’s blend, 40% spicy structured Syrah, meets 40% earthy tannic Mourvèdre, with 20% juicy red fruits from Grenache Rouge completing the synergy.

bottle of Malihin-Chryssos Vidiano Old Vines Amygdalos

Malihin-Chryssos Vidiano Old Vines Amygdalos Vineyards Vidiano 2019 (~$57)

Malihin helped villagers restore several historic Vidiano sites around Rethymno, including the Amygdalos Vineyard. She treats the fruit with the care you’d expect for old vine fruit, shepherding it through fermentation with minimal intervention, then leaving it for 12 months on lees. Pure and bright with herbal notes and dried chamomile layered over powdered rocks, this bottle satisfies lovers of savory, mineral-flecked wines that taste of the cold sunny days of early spring.