Lyrarakis: visiting this leading winery in Crete

Greece has become a very interesting country for wine of late. So in September 2019, during vintage, I was delighted to get the chance to pay a quick visit to the island of Crete to visit Lyrarakis, one of the leading producers in the region. [This article has since been updated with notes on new releases (November 2020).]

In the high-altitude Pirovolikes vineyard

Lyrarakis was established in 1966 by two brothers, Manolis and Sotiris Lyrarakis. But it wasn’t until 1992 that they first bottled their own wine using the Lyrarakis name. They are based in the Peza appellation, in the village of Alagni, close to Heraklion. For the last 12 years the second generation of the family have been running things, and this is now one of the most progressive wineries on the island. They fill that important wine space: they are making interesting, characterful wines; they package them well and are commercially savvy; and they are also affordable.

Viticulture in Crete endured a rough ride in the 1970s and 80s. There are a lot of vineyards here – it’s Greece’s third largest wine region – but there was a large-scale replanting with table grapes, and then international varieties. The long history of winegrowing, dating back some 4000 years (there’s a Minoan wine press on the island that’s 3500 years old), was endangered, and local grapes were at risk.

This is not the first time Cretan wine faced trouble. Invasion by the Ottomans in 1669, an occupation that was to last two centuries, severely affected wine consumption and production. But now wine producers on the island have realised that their strength lies in working largely with indigenous varieties, well adapted to local conditions.

Indeed, one of Manolis Lyrarakis’ significant contributions has been to champion local varieties and ensure their continued survival. In 1996 Lyrarakis produced varietal wines from Dafni and Plyto, two old varieties that they had rescued. And in 2010 they planted Melissaki, another traditional grape that had all but disappeared. Their current range is based on varietal wines from local grapes, with the only impostor being Assyrtiko, an immigrant from Santorini.

They have 15 hectares of vines, with another 15 contracted. We began our visit by trecking up to the high altitude Pirovolikes vineyard, which is owned by Vassilis and Anna Topsis. They grow Vilana for Lyrarakis, at an altitude of 650 metres. Altitude is key to viticulture on Crete, which is located very far south, and would be too warm for good quality grapes without the heat-modifying effects of a bit of height. We tasted the Lyrarakis Vilana in situ, matched with some nice snacks.

An old press from the 14th century, hewn into the rock

The second stop was a visit to an old wine press. This dated back to the Venetian area, and was built during the 14th century. There are quite a few of these around the island, hewn into the rock.

Psarades vineyard

The final stop was the home base, the Psarades vineyard. Soils here are gravels over limestone, and it’s at 480m altitude, with the Lassithi mountains in the background. Farming here is thoughtful: they don’t use herbicides, and they practice biodynamics in some plots. We tasted the Lyrarakis wines in the vineyard.

Dealing with trunk disease, old school style – split the trunk and put a stone it the gap
Soils: some limestone here

A short film of the visit:

There are three ranges. The entry level is the introduction to Cretan Vineyards range. The second tier is blended wines. Then we have the single variety, single vineyard wines.

Lyrarakis Vidiano 2019 Crete, Greece
12.5% alcohol. This is bright and lively with a crisp citrus fruit base and some notes of white peach and a touch of spice. Has a grapefruit flourish on the end. Nice precision to this wine. Crisp, dry and satisfying. 89/100 (06/20)

Lyrarakis Vóila Assyrtiko 2019 Crete, Greece
13.5% alcohol. This is fresh and linear with lovely chiselled citrus fruit with some nice spicy intensity and a vital, saline finish. This has real personality: so bright and intense. 92/100 (06/20)

Lyrarakis Gero-Deti Melissaki 2019 Crete, Greece
13% alcohol. Melissaki is a variety that was almost forgotten, found growing in the foothills of Mount Psiloritis. Lyrarakis worked with it, liked it, and planted some in their Gero-Deti vineyard in 2010. This is quite lovely. It’s a full yellow in colour, and it’s structured and savoury, with some nut and herb notes, as well as a hint of mint. There’s a real grip to this: it reminds me of a skin-ferment wine. But it also has some lovely Mediterranean mountain oily aromatic herb notes. 93/100 (06/20)

Lyrarakis Psarades Plytó 2019 Crete, Greece
13% alcohol. This is a grape variety saved from extinction, and Lyrarakis planted it in their Psarades vineyard at 480 m. This is a lively, fresh, citrussy wine with bright mineral-streaked lemon fruit. There’s a nice texture with some freshness and lovely purity to the fruit. So crystalline. 90/100 (06/20)

Lyrarakis Armi Thrapsathiri 2019 Crete, Greece
14% alcohol. From 500 m, this is a bold white with a touch of oak. It has some richness to the pear and peach fruit with a finely spiced finish and a touch of warmth. Potentially ageworthy. 89/100 (06/20)

Lyrarakis Ippodromo Vidiano 2019 Crete, Greece
13.5% alcohol. This is quite delicate, with some white peach and citrus fruit, as well as some hints of nuts and wax. Really expressive with fine spices on the finish. There’s an appealing texture to this wine, which shows detail and finesse. 90/100 (06/20)

Lyrarakis Psarades Dafni 2019 Crete, Greece
12% alcohol. This is really distinctive with some mint and herb notes: it’s exotic and smells like a Mediterranean hillside in the summer. Very fresh and linear with lovely fruit, and a fine, tapering finish. Quite lovely. 91/100 (06/20)

Lyrarakis Aggelis Vineyard Liatiko 2018 Crete, Greece
14% alcohol. This is made from ungrafted Liatiko vines, low yielding, and then fermented with lots of whole berries with no added yeast. It’s a really smooth, elegant wine that reminds me a bit of Nebbiolo or Xinomavro, with a pale-ish colour and good tannic structure, as well as silky, sweet strawberry and cherry fruit. There’s freshness and elegance here. Has some rose petal and iodine detail, showing great balance between the sweet red fruits and the grainy, tannic structure. Such an interesting wine that should develop nicely. 93/100 (06/20)

Lyrarakis Kedros Liatiko 2019 Crete, Greece
13.5% alcohol. This is really nice: it’s a pale coloured rosé with smoothly textured cherry and strawberry fruit with nice focus and depth. There are some gentle herby notes and some tangy, crystalline glace cherry hints. Supple and quite fine. 90/100 (06/20)

Lyrarakis Plakoura Mandilari 2017 Crete, Greece
13% alcohol. 500 m altitude with a sandy, stony soil. This is fresh and concentrated with lovely structure under the vivid black cherry and blackberry fruit, with some raspberry crunch. This is really structured and grippy with some minty hints and firm tannins: a bold, fresh, focused red wine of real intensity. Lovely purity here, and amazing potential for development. 93/100 (06/20)

Lyrarakis Karnari Kotsifali 2016 Crete, Greece
14.9% alcohol. Aged two years in used barrels. Pale red In colour. This is rich, mellow, warm and spicy with some alcoholic warmth and an oxidative character. It’s rich and spicy with herbs and cherries and a touch of earthiness. Has some sour cherry and wood spice on the finish. A really distinctive wine, a bit like a less alcoholic tawny Port! 90/100 (06/20)

Lyrarakis Minimus 2018 Crete, Greece
9.5% alcohol, dry. Crisp, tight and acidic with a pithy edge to the lemony fruit. Bone dry and very acidic. Challenging on its own, but potentially a good match with food. Lovely packaging. 88/100 (06/20)

Lyrarakis Melissaki Gero-Deti 2018 Crete, Greece
15 days on skins in large oak, no added sulphites. Deep-coloured, this is powerful and grippy with some green tea, baked apple, camomile and roast peach. Really interesting with lovely precision and depth. This is really distinctive and delicious. 93/100 (06/20)

Older notes from September 2019

Lyrarakis Assyrtiko Vóila 2018 Crete, Greece
13.5% alcohol. This was imported from Santorini in the 1970s. Bracing, fresh, with good acidity and a slight saltiness. This has fresh almonds, lemony acidity and great precision. Great concentration and depth here: such precision and focus, but also approachable with lovely fruit. 92/100

Lyrarakis Dafni Psarades 2018 Crete, Greece
Dafni is a variety named after the bayleaf. This has a nose of bayleaf and ginger with some dried herbs. There’s also a bit of mint here, too. The grape tastes like this on the vine: it’s so distinctive. Powerful, fresh and intense with lovely herbal notes. Very distinctive and savoury, and totally unique. 93/100

Lyrarakis Plyto Psarades 2018 Crete, Greece
A slightly tricky year because of the drought, which affected the Plyto. Fresh and linear with nice citrus and pear fruit, with a slight salinity on the palate and hints of nuts and wax. Fresh and with some subtle dried herb character. Juicy edge. 89/100

Lyrarakis Plyto Psarades 2017 Crete, Greece
Complex, bright, lively and intense with some citrus and some smoky notes. Powerful pear, lemon and melon notes with good acidity. Has some nut and toast in the background. Lively and vital. 91/100

Lyrarakis Thrapsathiri Armi 2018 Crete, Greece
500 m altitude. Linear, pithy and a bit saline with nice precision showing pure pear and apple fruit with a touch of honey and mint. Bright and quite intense with compact fruit and a lovely long herb-tinged finish. Lots of personality here, with a long, slightly minty finish. 93/100

Lyrarakis Kedros Rosé Liatiko 2018 Crete, Greece (magnum)
Pre-phylloxera ungrafted vines planted at 800 m. Taut, dry and quite delicate with good concentration to the lemon and tangerine notes, with some cherry. It has some richness of texture, and a lovely long finish. Subtle nutty notes from 50% barrel fermentation. So textural. 92/100

Lyrarakis Red Kotsifali Syrah 2016 Crete, Greece
Vivid and fresh with lovely bright fruit: cherries, plums and a twist of blackcurrant. Has nice freshness with a savoury twist on the finish. 15% barrel ageing adds interest. Has good structure and focus. Nice spicy, cedary bite. Freshness and tension and just a little of the Cretan heat, which fits in beautifully. 91/100

Lyrarakis Liatiko Aggelis 2017 Crete, Greece
14.5% alcohol. Barrel-fermented in open barrels with the tops off, with layers of whole bunch and crushed berries. After fermentation goes to tank. Ungrafted vines from 250 m. Lighter coloured but quite powerfully flavoured, showing sweet raspberry and cherry fruit with some warm spicy notes and hints of caramel, raisin, nutmeg and herbs. There’s a sweetness on the finish. Concentrated with some warm herbal notes and firm tannins. Distinctive. 91/100

Lyrarakis Kotsifali Karnaria 2016 Crete, Greece
Aged for two and a half years in old barrels: this is an attempt to make a slightly tamed version of Marouvas, a traditional oxidative wine. Pale in colour, this is spicy and complex with lovely savoury cedary elements and hints of toffee, raisin, almonds and some cherry and rose petal aromas. There’s a bit of plum crumble but it finishes dry and long, with a touch of warmth. Very distinctive and lovely, and clean and delicious. 92/100

Lyrarakis Vidiano Ippodromos 2018 Crete, Greece
610 m vineyard. 14% alcohol. Barrel fermented and then aged in barrel for two more months. Full yellow coloured, this is ripe, spicy and detailed with rich peach and yellow plum fruit, and a subtle toastiness. There’s a nice peach and apricot character. Rich and delicious with nice fruit drive. Bold flavour here. 91/100

UK agent is Thorman Hunt

Older notes from March 2017

Lyrarakis Vilana Pyrovolikes Vineyard 2016 Crete, Greece
100% Vilana. Fresh, lively and pure. A bit spicy and nutty with nice pear and melon richness. Good acid and focus. 89/100

Lyrarakis Plyto Psarades Vineyard 2016 Crete, Greece
100% Plyto. Distinctive, herbal and unusual with some waxy characters and slightly pithy, bitter notes. Nice fruit though. 87/100

Lyrarakis Vidiano Ippodromos Vineyard 2016 Crete, Greece
100% Vidiano. Nutty, waxy and detailed showing citrus fruit with some white peach. There’s a bit of mint, too. Lively stuff. 89/100

Lyrarakis Melissaki Gero-Deti Vineyard 2016 Crete, Greece
Slightly honeyed with lively citrus fruit. Stony and a bit waxy with lots of flavour. Unusual and delicious with some herby characters. 90/100

Lyrarakis Thrapsathiri Armi Vineyard 2015 Crete, Greece
Spicy and a bit nutty with lively citrus and pear fruit with some cedary oak. Maybe a bit too much oak? 88/100

Lyrarakis Dafni Psarades Vineyard 2015 Crete, Greece
Dafni is a white variety whose name translates as bayleaf in Greek, and Lyrarakis saved it from extinction in the 1970s. Distinctive mint and rosemary herb character to the lemony fruit. So fresh and distinctive. Herbal and interesting. 91/100

Lyrarakis Liatiko Kentros Vineyard Rosé 2016 Crete, Greece
Very pale in colour. Stony and savoury with nice cherries and plums, as well as some herbs. Has a creamy edge. 88/100

Lyrarakis Mantilari Plakoura Vineyard 2014 Crete, Greece
Cherries, plums, spice and a bit of chocolate here. Spicy and stony with some damson and herb characters. Tannic and interesting. 90/100

(wines tasted 03/17)

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