A feast in the mountains! Celebrating the new year's wines

E ver since the ancient times, every stage of wine making has been a reason for celebration. From the harvest of vines to the first opening of the barrels of the new wine. And as with all other aspects of life, religion has always gone hand in hand, devising ways to attach a divine myth or sacred landmark to the celebration.

In ancient Greece, the opening of the barrels of the new year’s wines had always been a great celebration. The Athenians would gather outside the temple of Dionysus and they would spill some wine to the ground, thus returning back to the land a piece of its own making. A great feast of joy, dance and endless wine drinking would follow.

In more recent times, Christianity has associated the wine with the divine and the joy of life. Dionysus of course had to be replaced and Saint George become the saint that would make people drunk, thus keeping the sacred link between the wine and God. A celebration for the saint in November was thus linked with the tasting of the new year’s wines and people throughout Greece would mark the second or the third day of this month as the date for this event, this opportunity to get together to enjoy the outcome of their struggle.

In southern Crete, deep inside the White Mountains sierra, lies a small village long abandoned. It’s name is Mouri. Noone lives there anymore and only shepherds come to this place. Unsurprisingly, the only standing building is a small church. This is the place where every year, people gather up to celebrate Saint George and the new year’s wines.

To get to Mouri, it takes some effort and time… especially if the starting point is Chania. And since the celebration was early in the morning, we set off before sunrise. Not an easy thing to leave your warm bed before even the sun rises the only day of the week that you can sleep without putting an alarm to wake you up for work. But then, everything has a cost. And it wouldn’t take long before it started to pay off.

The sunrise with the morning mist in the Askyfou plateau was simply magical. And also a gleam of hope, as the appearance of the sun and the cease of the rainfall that was accompanying us since we left home, made us a little more optimistic that the whole celebration could be under sun rather than rain.

And indeed, the moment we first saw the southern sea, leaving the mountains behind us, a glorious sun welcomed us. A different God rules in the south.

From the mountains to the sea and then again to the mountains. To get to Mouri, one needs to get to Chora Sfakion at the sea and then take the road towards Anopoli high in the mountains. That was the easy part and where we left our car. We got on 4WDs to continue from that point on through dirt roads and towards the heart of the White Mountains sierra. It would take almost another hour to get there.

When we arrived, the priest had almost completed the small ceremony. The first fires were already lit and the preparation for the traditional pilafi (rice boiled in goat broth) and pasta had already started. The billy goat had been “sacrificed” the previous days and its meat was cooked and offered to everyone.

Apparently wine was being poured into glasses and it was already making us feel warmer.

Tables were set. Everyone had brought and prepared something. From traditional pies or kalitsounia as we cretans call them to home bread  – oh my God the home bread!

The official feast starts when the pilafi is done and served. It does not matter that the celebration is for the wine. You can’t have the wine with an empty stomach and you cannot feast without having eaten first!

Then the flow of wine becomes free and the songs start and the photos… stop 🙂 Just a last one!

The good thing with such morning feasts is that by the time you are done, the day still has a long way to go! And when you are in the south, no matter how in love you are with the mountain, the sea is calling. And no matter if it is winter cold in the mountain, at the sea level it is summer.

After diving, our heads were clear again. We got back to our car and started driving back home. As the road ascended and the sun was setting, the temperature started to fall again. By the time we were coming close to Askyfou, the first drops of rain were already falling. We knew that this called for a raki and stopped at Nektarios’ cafeneion. With the first shot of raki burning through my throat, I noticed everyone smiling. We gathered around the stove while waiting for the sfakian pies to be prepared. Noone was saying much. In a single day, we had done it all. Now it was time to ponder the time well-spent.

Cheers! Nektarios broke the silence. You guys are not drinking.

Nektarie I am driving and I already had my fair share today. I apologized. You have a good excuse my friend, the rest raise your glasses!

Winter and summer. Rain and sun. Mountains and the sea. Wine and raki. Today the weather, the island and the vines showed us all their faces. Only the people showed us just one. The good one!

Sfakia, 2016.

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