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Plans to rebuild after wildfire damages rare vines in Crete

Growers in Crete who saw old, pre-phylloxera vines severely damaged by wildfire are determined to rebuild and have been offered support from an international winemaker group created to champion ungrafted vines.

Growers in the village of Melambes in Crete saw devastating wildfires cause ‘complete damage to 300 acres (121.4 hectares) of old pre-phylloxera vines’ in July, according to an online crowdfunding page created to support viticulture in the area and help those affected.

Although fire burned 90% of the vineyard, it’s hoped some damaged vines can be rescued, said winemaker Iliana Malihin, of her namesake winery and who has spearheaded a community project to revive the site in recent years.

Yet it will take several years to rebuild the vineyard and growers affected have lost their source of income, she said.

Nobody was hurt in the wildfire, but Malihin said the scene was ‘like a nightmare’ as growers and the community battled to save houses, as well as vineyards.

Wildfire burns old vines in Crete in July 2022

The scene after the fire. Photo courtesy of Iliana Malihin, and from the growers’ Give & Fund page.

Despite the fire’s impact, it appeared vine roots may have survived: ‘Because most of the vineyards in Melambes are pre-phylloxera vineyards, not grafted, their roots are very deep in the soil,’ Malihin told Decanter.

‘Normally we don’t irrigate, but [now] we irrigate every few days and we have already seen some new leaves, some green leaves, opening from the bottom of the trunk,’ she said, adding that her winery remains intact.

Yiannis Karakasis MW and Christos Fatouros were among those to help publicise the incident, and this month the president of a European winemaker-led group created to promote and protect ungrafted vines has said it will try to help.

Loïc Pasquet, owner of Liber Pater vineyard in Bordeaux and who earlier this year joined with other producers to officially create the ‘Francs de Pied’ association in Monaco, said he planned to fly to Crete.

‘I [will] go to Greece to support our friends in Crete, to see the vineyard and to try with the scientist community we have inside the association [to see] what we can do to help them,’ he told Decanter last week, although he was subsequently forced to delay his flight due to concerns about a new forest fire in the Bordeaux area.

‘I go to take a picture, to take a sample of the soil [and] to try to understand what we can do together to save the vineyard. We will see,’ he said.

Pasquet said he would like to involve the growers in a wider campaign for ‘world heritage’ recognition for ungrafted vines at the United Nations’ Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

He said this would help to improve resources available to protect vines. ‘If they have UNESCO protection, they have more money to protect the vineyard,’ he said.

The Francs de Pied group is compiling a list of vineyards in preparation for a UNESCO application. It can be a long process, but Pasquet added, ‘If we don’t start, we [will] never have it.’

Malihin, who has created five wine labels from vineyards in Melambes, Fourfouras and Meronas, said she previously enquired about UNESCO status in Greece but has made little progress with authorities so far.

‘I would like to see the vineyards be part of UNESCO. For Crete it’s a very important place that should be protected,’ she said, adding that it’s rare to find so many old vineyards all in one area.

Malihin said she has been touched by the level of support from winemakers, friends and importers. ‘All of this support is very impressive,’ she said, adding that she wanted to improve fire protection measures in the area alongside efforts to restore the vineyard.

Read more about the situation in Crete on the growers’ Give & Fund page.

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