Romeiko, the sole red grape native to western Crete, is experiencing a renaissance. One of the oldest grape varietals of the world, yet it is not well-known. Romeiko was dismissed as a village wine. At its best, homemade Romeiko became Marouvas, a rustic sherry-like style. At its worst, and more commonly, it became oxidized and resembled vinegar more than wine. When visitors to Chania tasted Romeiko, it literally left a bad taste in their mouth. This contributed to the bad reputation of Cretan wine throughout the better half of the 20th century. Modern wineries shunned Romeiko in favor of international varietals like Syrah, Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot to produce quality wines with international appeal.
Romeiko can best be understood by considering the anatomy and behavior of the grape. “Romeiko is very resistant to rot because of its loose berries that allow the wind to pass through each bunch. It is very high yielding, meaning it produces a lot of fruit in a small amount of land. These first two factors are why it is so popular in the villages of Chania and has survived for centuries,” explains Antonis Dourakis, Vineyard Manager of Dourakis Winery. He continues, “Romeiko is also the last grape to ripen. It ripens after the scorching heat of the summer; the cool night breezes of September lock in the aromas but also push the alcoholic limits of the wine. Even fully ripe, Romeiko will have green, black, and pink berries on the same bunch.” This leads to high alcohol, high acid, light color, and low tannins; a generally undesirable combination for red wine.
But Romeiko is on the rise in the capable hands of the second generation of winemakers. Instead of expecting and forcing Romeiko, unsuccessfully, to be a full-bodied, robust, tannic red wine, they are thinking outside of the box. “Today, the young winemakers of the region are trying to produce modern versions of Romeiko keeping in mind tradition and to spotlight more appealing versions,” says Nikos Karavitakis, winemaker at Karavitakis Winery. “We can’t expect and we do not need another mainstream variety that looks like yet another Cabernet, Pinot Noir, or Syrah.”
Alexandra Manousakis, Winery Manager of Manousakis Winery, was one of the earliest believers in Romeiko. “Romeiko to me will always remind me of summers in Crete, our food, our culture, and it was a shame to turn our backs on the only native grape we have.” Alexandra instructed her staff to find ways to save Romeiko. After 12 years of experimenting and coming up short to make a quality red wine worthy of their Nostos label, they released their first 100% Romeiko, as a blanc de noir, a white wine of red grapes, to much surprise and praise in the wine industry. Stella Diomantaraki, Sommelier and owner of Nakara, a luxury private catering company, calls it a perfect match with pilafi. “I find it quite funny that we have such a culinary variety of traditional recipes and we try to match local wines with French cuisine,” says Stella.
Both Dourakis Winery and Karavitakis Winery have released a sweet liasto Romeiko. Liasto is the process of sun-drying the grapes and making wine from the raisins. The wines have incredible aromas of dried apricots, toffee, butterscotch, caramel apples, and strawberry jam. Stella suggests pairing the sweet styles of Romeiko with phyllo pastry like baklava or kataifi. Or for an indulgent experience, try it with aged graviera and other strong cheeses.
“Romeiko is a labyrinth of tastes and possibilities,” concludes Stella. It has a long way to go before it wins over all the non-believers but there is a path to greatness for this varietal if the wineries continue to push boundaries and take risks.