For 5,000 years, the sun-baked Mediterranean island of Cyprus has been inextricably linked to the culture of wine.
Ancient Babylonian texts and the Jerusalem Talmud speak of using Cypriot wine in religious rituals, and revelers in the time of ancient Greece flocked there to celebrate Aphrodite, reputedly born on the shores of Paphos, with quaffs of the local sweet wine, now called Commandaria. The Greek poets Hesiod and Euripides also extolled the virtue of the island’s vinous gifts, detailing pilgrimages of the time reflecting the wine’s popularity among the ancients. And the list goes on.
Today, Cyprus’ wine culture is experiencing a renaissance as a new guard of domestic winemakers rediscover indigenous grapes, experiment in indigenous and foreign grape varietal blends and employ modern techniques to produce world-class wines that still retain Cypriot character. Vines in the island’s viticultural regions designated as Controlled Appellation of Origin sites—Vouni Panayias, Akamas Laona, the Wine Villages of Lemesos, Commandaria and Pitsili—already represent 10% of the total agricultural land of Cyprus, and during harvest, one third of the island’s population participates in wine production. Cyprus produces 37,500 tons of wine yearly.
Breaking away from bulk
Though the island grows 15 indigenous varieties widely cultivated are the red Mavro, Ofthlamo and Maratheftiko grapes and the white Xynisteri grape. All of the vines are phylloxera-free—among the few in the world that descend directly from the European Vitis Vinifera. In the past, these indigenous grapes were primarily responsible for the bulk wine produced for international markets such as Britain and the former Soviet Union. Value-oriented but generally considered of poor quality, these wines dominated the Cypriot wine industry for most of the 20th century, but over the last decade, government incentives have promoted varietal and terroir-driven wines from both small and large producers capable of competing in the international market.
As winemakers travel internationally and experiment with new, modern approaches, the interest in international varieties on the island has grown. At least 60 international varieties are currently being cultivated and bottled in single variety and blend offerings, including Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah, which has shown to be an excellent match with Cyprus’ climate and terroir. While winemakers have grappled with the pressure to plant popular international varieties in place of lesser-known indigenous varieties, a commitment to perfecting local varieties in single-variety bottlings or in blends prevails.
Though Cyprus comprises 40-plus wineries, 86% of all wine production on the island comes from the traditional “Big Four” wineries of ETKO, KEO, SODAP and LOEL. Production from the Big Four is several million bottles a year, while smaller Cypriot vintners produce fewer than 100,000 bottles annually. Despite the disparity and the obvious pull between creating commercial and artisanal wines, winemakers here are united in producing uniquely Cypriot wines that have a place in the global market.
The “Wine of Kings”
The most widely recognized Cypriot wine, the sweet dessert wine Commandaria, is the main player in Cyprus’ play for global recognition. An amber-colored dessert wine comprised of Mavro and Xynisteri grapes, it is made today essentially as it was thousands of years ago—grapes are sundried a week after harvesting to concentrate sugars, and taken down to Limassol for a minimum of two years of oak barrel aging.
With its lush honeyed, dried fruit and toasted toffee flavors, Commandaria is a logical hit internationally, but its dramatic history does as much to sell Cyprus and its winemaking culture as the quality of the wine. In addition to its popularity in ancient Greek and Roman times, Commandaria was served at the 12th century wedding of Richard the Lionheart to Berengaria of Navarre, in the town of Limassol. The Knights Templar, whose headquarters in the Kolossi castle were surrounded by vineyards, became involved with commercially producing the sweet wine, giving it and the region in which it was grown the name Commandaria (named after their command post and environs), and were responsible for kickstarting its global recognition. Commandaria production was up 137% from 2008 to 2009, a sign of its modern appeal.
Mavro, named so because of its black color, is the most widely planted variety in Cyprus and is used in most of Cyprus’ red blends and table wines. Though found throughout the island, Mavro’s best results come from the high-altitude regions of Afames, Maona (in the Lemesos region) and Pitsilia. Balanced but not terribly elegant, Mavro once accounted for 86% of all plantings in Cyprus; that number is decreasing as new varieties are imported.
Grown most successfully in the Agros and Ayios Theodoros in Pitisila, and the Wine Villages of Lemesos, Ofthalmo is a red local variety offering concentrated aromas and a higher acid character that contributes well to blends with more robust grapes like Cabernet or Maratheftiko.
Beyond Commandaria, the ageable, complex red variety of Maratheftiko is probably Cyprus’ best indigenous hope for greatness. Planted throughout the island but most densely in the mountainous regions of Paphos and in Pitsilia, the rare red can produce everything from light reds and rosés to more structured, layered red wines. Its intense color, full body and flavors of blackberries, cherries and spice lend themselves to serious, cellar-worthy wines. Increased attention to this variety is already resulting in wines that effectively marry rustic spiciness with a smooth, fruity wave of flavor.
Xynisteri is a dry, crisp white used in the blending of brandy, Commandaria and white blends, in addition to single variety bottlings. Its low alcohol and clean citrus, pear and apple aromas and flavors make for a refreshing, warm-weather sip that also pairs well with lighter fare such as seafood, salad and fruit.
Zivania is a Cypriot apéritif made from pomace mixed with white Cypriot varieties and is served with nuts and dried fruit. Traditionally, guests were welcomed into Cypriot homes with a cold glass of Zivania along with dried nuts and small appetizers such as loukaniko (Cypriot sausage).
The 13th century poet-troubadour Andeli wrote of the first recorded wine competition held in 1224 at the request of King Phillip Augusts of France. The mostly French “Battle of the Wines” broke contestants into the categories “Celebrated” (think 90–plus for score) and “Excommunicated” (below 80). To be dubbed “The Apostle” was a great honor akin to a 100–point score. Cyprus upset the apple cart that year, winning the “Apostle” award for Commandaria. Today, the Cypriot category as a whole is well on its way to glory again.