Cyprus is about as far east as Europe gets, closer to Syria than the rest of the EU. This island, the third largest in the Mediterranean has been overrun and controlled by a myriad of peoples throughout its history, Phoenicians, Knights Templars, the Ottoman Empire and the British, which has left its mark on it and its culture.
One of those is of course wine. Indeed, Cyprus is touted as the second oldest wine culture in the world, with archaeological evidence, remnants of tartaric acid on the inside of amphorae, demonstrating that the island boasted a wine culture as early as 6000 BC. Moreover, Cyprus is famous for its naturally sweet Commandaria wine, the wine that has been produced for longest under the same name. This of course should not be confused with the world’s first demarcated wine region, the honour of which belongs to Hungary’s Tokaj, the home of the world’s mostly exquisite luscious dessert wine Aszú.
So, what took me to Cyprus? None other than the #winelover community’s fifth anniversary trip, which always takes place to coincide with Valentine’s Day. Knowing next to nothing about Cypriot wine, other than a scanty awareness of Commandaria and memories of seeing Cypriot ‘Sherry’ on supermarket shelves in the nineties, I jumped at the opportunity to take this leap into, for me, totally uncharted territory.
Better known perhaps for being a divided island with the northern part of this Greek-speaking island occupied by the Turks and Nicosia boasting the dubious repute of being Europe’s last divided capital. In terms of wine, Cyprus used to churn out vast quantities of plonk for the Soviet market and produced untold gallons of Cypriot ‘Sherry’ for the British market until this was put paid to by the European Union in 1996, ‘sherry’ being a protected term for fortified wine produced in the Jerez Triangle of Andalusia. Four main wineries, operating on a kind of cooperative basis produced wine down by the ports of Limassol, nowhere near the wineries, meaning the grapes had to travel some distance before they were processed into wine. Not entirely the best guarantee for quality wine.
Not sounding very appealing, is it? Well, things have changed since then. Numerous small, boutique wineries have sprung up, now numbering over sixty, many of which are now choosing to concentrate on indigenous varieties, as well as the ubiquitous international varieties, such as Syrah, which seems to do well in the island’s hot, arid climate, Sauvignon Blanc and, of course, the red Bordeaux varieties. High altitude, up to 1400 metres above sea level is a crucial factor in producing quality wines in a climate as hot as this, its wide diurnal range allows grapes to ripen without producing excessive amounts of sugar, thus potential alcohol, while maintaining sufficient acidity.
Another curiosity about Cyprus is the fact that it is free of phylloxera, meaning the vast majority of vines are planted on their own roots, enabling the propagation of new vines to be achieved by cuttings. Naturally, some rootstocks are also used to help the vines manage in the lime-rich soils or which are suited to the extremely dry conditions found on the island. Of course, any vines that are imported to the island have to be rigorously controlled, as, should phylloxera reach Cyprus, then the wine industry would be in real trouble, says Marios Kolios of Kolios Winery. Although, they are not sure whether phylloxera reached the island and didn’t survive or that it hasn’t yet made it ashore. However, better safe than sorry!
The names of some of the varieties could easily do battle with their Hungarian counterparts for pronounceability, or lack of it. Xynisteri, the most widely planted white variety and the mainstay white of the wineries we visited, generally produces a fresh, fruity, quaffable wine, often with a rather herbal note, albeit a little lacking in acidity. It is generally drunk young, although Yiannis Christoudia of Ktima Christoudia believes that in a few years we will see some Xynisteris being produced designed for ageing. He says that he’s been doing some experiments and it seems to age well. Amazingly, 20 to 25 years ago, it was classified as unwanted.
Another local variety, Maratheftiko, is also increasingly seen too. It can yield lovely juicy reds with good tannic structure, as well as attractive rosés. It had become unpopular as it produces uniformly ripe berries with great difficulty, despite being thick-skinned and thus resistant to much disease. It only has female flowers, so needs to be planted interspersed with another variety, in this case, white Spourtiko, which flowers at approximately the same time, to aid cross-pollination. Kolios winery, the island’s biggest producer of Maratheftiko, has developed its own system for this, with one Spourtiko vine planted for four Maratheftiko vines and trained across several to increase the cross-pollinating potential. Experiments are also being made in producing Spourtiko as a single varietal.
You can read more about Sue's adventure within a few days in the second part of this article.