Cyprus Wine

 

Articles on this page about the wines of Cyprus are;

  1. INTRODUCING CYPRUS WINE
  2. THE WINES OF CYPRUS -- A LITTLE BIT OF HISTORY
  3. TOWARDS THE MILLENNIUM
  4. The GREEK CONNECTION

 

 INTRODUCING -- CYPRUS WINE



What do a Customs officer, a lawyer, an airline pilot, an electricity board official, a police inspector and a former welder have in common?
The answer, of course, is that they are all wine-makers.
Members of a new "club" of small to medium producers who supplement the four huge Limassol wine-making plants, to enhance and broaden the range of table wines available in Cyprus.

The world of wine is as diverse as people themselves and Cyprus is no exception.
Steeped in history, upon which it perhaps dwells too much, the Cyprus industry has long been a provider of large quantities of vinified and distilled products to countries as far apart as Japan and Sweden.
As fashions have changed, so Cyprus has adapted its industry. In many ways the island is unusual. The cursed Philloxera beetle, which, after arriving on vine samples shipped from the USA, decimated European vineyards in the 1860's and 1870's, has never reached here -- the only place in Europe it hasn't. This means that the indigenous vines grow undisturbed on their own rootstocks, often for a hundred or even a hundred and fifty years. The majority of vine varieties are old, too. The black unique-to-Cyprus "Mavro", makes up the bulk of most red wines, whilst the more pungent, higher acidity varieties like Maratheftiko and Ofthalmo have been re-discovered and encouraged, helping to make improving and interesting reds. The Xynisteri is the main wine grape, which makes a fresh, light-tasting and pleasing white wine and the majority of whites are made mainly from it.

"Foreign" varieties, like Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, Carignan Noir, Mataro, Chardonnay, even Semillon, have been successfully introduced in the past 20 years and are used for blending with Mavro or Xynisteri, as well as producing small quantities of "varietal" wines. Some of these clearly show their provenance, but in the main if you drink Cyprus wine, you have the taste of Cyprus in your glass.

Get to know it and it will reward you. Unfortunately, Cyprus has been the victim of criticism by international wine-writers, lots of it erroneous and libellous. Yes, as with all countries, you can find wine here that is not very good. On the other hand, there is plenty that is and it is these wines I hope to help you find (if you haven't found them already!).

But first, a quick look at some positive developments. Cyprus has long had the problem of having wine-making plants a long way from the vineyards, meaning that all too often grapes have not arrived at the winery in the best condition. Apart from taking positive measures to speed up this process, the big companies KEO, ETKO, SODAP and LOEL) are making much of their premium quality wines near the grapes. ETKO have built a plant in the wine hills at Omodhos, with a million-bottle a year capacity, and KEO have bought the Laona winery at Arsos, with similar capability, and have spent millions of pounds on re-developing and re-equipping wineries at Pera Pedi and Mallia, where they have also cleared and re-planted hundreds of hectares of vineyards.

Recent years have seen government encouragement of small companies to start regional wineries, bringing employment and income to the villages. There are around twenty of these, with capacities ranging from 10,000 to 100,000+ bottles a year. Several expect to be producing quarter to half a million bottles in a few years. These developments are producing more diversified and characterful wines.

Of great help to vine - growers and wine - makers alike is the recently re - named Vines and Wines Institute of Limassol, founded in 1971 and run by highly qualified personnel, who among many advisory and practical activities make small quantities of wines from virtually every area and every grape variety grown in Cyprus. These show which varieties can make good everyday wines, as well as potentially great ones. According to some authorities, like Hugh Johnson, the great wine of Cyprus is the very sweet dessert wine "Commandaria", which is well worth exploring. But for me, and many others, "wine" means the lovely gold or ruby liquid that we drink before or during a meal. Today, there are plenty of good and very good wines to choose from.As yet there are no great ones -- Cyprus still awaits it first internationally great wine-maker -- but from what I have seen and tasted, I believe that he or she will arrive on the scene in the not too distant future.

PATRICK SKINNER

Patrick Skinner writes about wine and food for a variety of Cyprus and international newspapers and magazines. He has his own features every week in "The Cyprus Mail on Sunday".


THE WINES OF CYPRUS -- A LITTLE BIT OF HISTORY



The Grape in History and its coming to Cyprus

It is probably true that there has been a commercial wine industry in Cyprus longer than anywhere else in the world. Whilst this may give rise to romantic promotional gambits like "Four thousand years of Tradition", it is no guarantee of good wine today. Thankfully, though, there is plenty of good wine to drink in Cyprus at the present time, but this is due to the skill of modern wine-makers and their equipment rather than inherited traditions.

The wild vine from which our modern grape varieties descended (a very long time ago) undoubtedly grew in Cyprus and the bitter small fruits were probably collected and dried by man. The cultivation of vines for dessert fruit and wine is relatively recent. In fact it seems that the grape was first brought near man's home and cultivated in the Black Sea area around 8,000 years ago. From there it spread slowly south-eastwards to Mesopotamia, Syria and Egypt, from whence it travelled across the Mediterranean to Greece, on to Italy, and so on.

There is much evidence to suggest that the country which had the greatest wine industry for the longest period was Syria, from around 3,000 BC or before, until about 1000 AD, when Islam held sway and banned the production of alcohol. It is known that in that early period, 5,000 years ago Syrian farmers came to Cyprus and, although there is no evidence to prove it, I am personally convinced they would have brought their wine-producing grapes with them.

And so, when the Greeks and Romans came to Cyprus several millennia later, I think they would have found wine already here, but probably of a very different style to the wines they were accustomed to.

Because of problems with sealing vessels to protect the wine from oxidisation from the air, most early wines would have been sweet and the tradition of such wines in Cyprus was born. Sweet wines not only oxidise more slowly, but they travel better then dry wines. So callers to the Cyprus of old would have stocked their boats with the sweet wines of Cyprus.

Not a lot of historical evidence exists to describe the wines of Cyprus between the Greco-Roman periods and the Middle ages, when Cyprus endured drought, pestilence and regular wars, invasions and incursions. In the 11th century, when the Crusades commenced, Cyprus wines became recorded and praised. The most noted proponent, at least insofar as legend and wine promotion have it, was Richard the Lion Heart. From his sojourn here and those of the various Orders of Knights, came the generic description of the sweet wines of Cyprus: "Commandaria"

Commandaria, by law, today has certification of origin, which stipulates types, of grapes, regions of production and methods. For such a delicious sweet wine it is a remarkable bargain.

As the centuries passed, writers, priests, explorers, soldiers and rulers praised the sweet wines of Cyprus, bought them, shipped them, drank them. Invasion followed invasion. Four hundred years of Lusignan rule, ending in 1489, was followed by the Venetians (1489-1571), who found the place bankrupt. The Ottomans invaded in 1571 and stayed until 1878, when they ceded the island to Britain. In all this period there was not a lot done for the vine-grower, especially under the Turks, who extracted iniquitous triple taxes from vine-growers and wine-makers.

Apart from taxes, one aspect of the Turkish period was that they allocated the better land to people of their faith, leaving the Cypriots of the Orthodox Church the higher, less fertile ground, whose only useful cropper was the hardy vine.


The Middle Ages to the 19th. Century -- and the Foundations of the Modern Industry

During the Dark Ages, the Defenders of the Faith, the Monasteries, all over Europe were also "Defenders of the Grape", protecting the heritage if the vine left by the Roman Empire, and ensuring that the making of good wines, spirits and liqueurs carried on. There is no doubt that this tradition held true in Cyprus. There are records of a winery at Chrysorioyiatissa Monastery in the 18th. Century and, no doubt, wines and liqueurs have been made elsewhere over the centuries.

But it is in the 19th Century that the foundations of the modern industry were laid. The House of Haggipavlu was founded in 1844, when the company made the purchase of a second sailing vessel, the "Saint Peter" to add to the first, the "Alexander" bought in 1825. These vessels took exports of wine in barrels all over the eastern Mediterranean.

By the early 1870's, it seemed that exports could rocket to colossal levels, when the Phylloxera beetle struck and decimated every vine-growing area in Europe except Cyprus. The French, and others, demanded thousand of barrels from Cyprus to meet demand for wine and the Cypriots thought their bonanza days had come. But the French quickly passed laws restricting imp-imports, to force the local industry to re-built and Cyprus' boom time faded away.

In 1875 the British leased Cyprus from Turkey and it seemed better days would come. But there were still taxes, and little investment for this small part of the Great British Empire. In 1889 the Cypriots sent a delegation to London to lobby for a reduction in import duties on Cyprus wines, but without success. But the local industry proceeded undeterred. In 1893, the Haggipavlu family, by then making spirits as well as wines, built the first modern winery, in Sanaja in the Limassol district, with proper presses and fermentation tanks of stone.

Around the same time, an English family, the Chaplins, built a large wine-making plant at the village of Pera Pedi, just below Platres and starting make wine in fairly large quantities. Both these wineries would have made dry wines, from the local grapes, "Xynisteri" (white) and "Mavro" (red), which, as I suggest earlier, were from vines that had been in Cyprus for many hundreds if not thousands of years.

These were the years of the British Empire, with a strong presence in the Middle East, especially after World War I, from 1918 onwards. So the wine and spirits industry of Cyprus prospered, with exports to all the places where the British were present: Palestine, Egypt, Sudan, even to the Arabian Gulf, as well as to the French in Lebanon and Syria

The stage was set for expansion.

KEO arrives on the scene; Cyprus Sherry booms.

As the new century started (on January 1st 1901, in my opinion!) there were two up-to-date wine-making plants in Cyprus, the Chaplin family's at Per Pedhi and the Haggipavlu's at Sanaja, both in the Limassol district. However, Haggipavlu were developing a big distilling business, based on brandy and wine became rather secondary. But sales of products based on the grape grew steadily.

In 1927 a group of Cypriot business houses headed by Lanitis formed KEO, with the objective of expanding modern wine production and in 1928 they purchased the Chaplin family winery and shortly afterwards started the construction of a second at Mallia. As their wines came on to the market, a tacit agreement existed between KEO and Haggipavlu that one would concentrate on wine and the other on brandy. This came to an end in 1935 when KEO opened a brandy distillery in Limassol, and Haggipavlu countered by purchasing the largest privately owned winery in Limassol and developing it into ETKO.
The third of the "Big Four", LOEL was formed in 1943, through a break-away of trades union members from ETKO, following a strike. This was, and is, a co-operative company run on socialist principles which was to develop a big business with the countries of the Communist bloc. The fourth company, SODAP (The Vine Products Co-operative Marketing Union Ltd.) is also a co-operative, founded in 1947 by the vine-growers themselves, to "protect the rights of the growers".

Despite World War II the Cyprus industry prospered. Although not a lot was done for it by the British, markets were available because of the British and French presence in the Middle East, which created a demand for wines and spirits produced in Cyprus. Development resulted from the ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit of the Cypriots running the Big Four. Good cheap brandy and other distilled products could always command a market, as could good grape juice, either in its natural form or fermented.

So the sales executives of KEO, ETKO, LOEL and SODAP began to travel the world looking for opportunities.

Fortified wine, that is to say wine strengthened and stabilised by the addition of brandy or other spirit, was already popular in Northern markets and the Cypriots had started making 'Cyprus Sherry' in 1937. But it was in the late 1940's that it really started to take off. Incredibly cheap, EMVA Cream and many other brands started sweeping into the UK market -- not yet the wine-loving one it is today, but one that consumed millions of gallons of "sticky" port or sherry, or imitations thereof, at Christmas and other celebratory times.

All over the world Cyprus sold its vine products -- concentrated grape juice, pure alcohol for translation into vodka and other spirits, Sangria and other fruit-juice laced wines, whilst developing its growing local market as the tourism industry began its upward surge.



TOWARDS THE MILLENNIUM


For more than thirty years, the Cyprus wine industry was "The Big Four": KEO, ETKO, SODAP and LOEL, who produced very similar lines of wines, spirits, liqueurs and other by-products of grape juice. They were, and are, essentially businesses, whose function is the utilisation of a basic raw material (grape juice) to make commercially viable products to he sold around the world in one form or another. The object is to produce profits or dividends for the shareholders, whether they were family members, grape growers or investors large or small.

In the 1950's and 1960's the world was demanding low-priced products and Cyprus supplied them -- dry, medium and sweet "Cyprus Sherry", table wines sold in bulk to Britain (where it turned up in bottles with brand names like "Hirondelle") and other countries, by the million litres. Wine, or "Plonk" to give its vernacular title, was the party drink and you took us much as you could buy for a Pound or two.

The came "wine lakes" and the drive by marketing men for "quality", wines bottled in the country of origin. Cyprus began to look at the nature of its industry -- small labour-intensive hillside vineyards producing indigenous grape varieties that didn't  match the demand for wines made from varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chadonnay; time and distance between the vines and the wineries which meant that grapes were "stale" by the time they got to the factory; and out-of-date marketing techniques.

In the early 1980's the Cyprus government, as part of its drive to create rural industries and away-from-the seaside tourist attractions, enabled small enterprises to apply for licences to operate wineries of 50,000 to 300,000 bottles-a-year capacity, in the hill villages of the grape growing regions. The first of these was at Chrysorioyiatissa Monastery in the Paphos District, whose Monte Roya winery was established with German technology and equipment, making a range of wines, of which the white, Ayios Andronicos is among the top five Cyprus white wines.

The late 1980's and early '90's saw a rush of small wineries starting up: at Ayios Amvrosios, Kilani, Platres, Monagri, Arsos and other places in the Limassol district and at Kathikas and Vouni-Panayia near Paphos. The Ministry of Agriculture formed a special Oenology department in Limassol, with a fully equipped laboratory and a team of experienced specialists. There, wines were made from every grape variety and every region of Cyprus, experimental plantings undertaken all over the country and training courses arranged for would-be winemakers. Most of the small wineries owe a great debt to the unit?s director, Dr. Rhumbas and oenologist Andreas Frangos.

The result of this development has been the appearance on the local market of more than 100 red, white and rosť wines -- some bad, some good and a few very good. The bad have largely vanished. What is remarkable is that in such a short time these intrepid young producers have started to make wines that are drinkable, enjoyable and getting better every year, with emerging and definite styles of their own.

Whilst this exciting development has been taking place the Big Four have also been very active. They have developed new vineyards, of their own and through purchase. They have planted hundreds of thousands of new vines of famous international varieties and re-discovered old Cyprus types. They have built new or restored wineries in the hills, as well as made valiant attempts to shorten the time between picking and pressing grapes in Limassol. Their laboratories have researched new production techniques and their oenologists have introduced new styles and new brands. Millions are being spent on all this.

All this is good for the consumer. We have today a good range to choose from at prices that still represent very good value. Competition between the big boys and the smaller local producers, as well as from an ever-growing range of imported wines from all over the world ensures this. The Cyprus industry has a battle on its hands, but in my view the turn of the century will see it in pretty good shape.

(c) Patrick Skinner 1998


The Greek Connection

 

"The World is full of wonders, but nothing
is more wonderful than man"
Sophocles (c.496 - c.405 BC)

The golden age of Greece saw some of the finest works of art, architecture and literature ever bestowed by one civilisation upon its successors. It also elevated man to freedom -- of thought and movement, no longer subservient to gods and despots, as had been Persians, Egyptians, Assyrians and Babylonians. No wonder classical Greece exercises modern man's imagination to a vast extent.

Wine was a part of this golden age, socially and economically. Whilst a considerable degree of mysticism was attached to the great wines of the Greek regions -- not unlike the mystique of "great" wine writing today -- Greece was the unrivalled leader of winemaking and production in the known world. Greek farmers produced the grapes that made the wine that Greek merchants sold around the Mediterranean and Black Seas, extending their business travels to places as far apart as France and Ireland in the west to the Crimea in the east.

There is no doubt that the Greek settlements in Cyprus would have received and consumed some of this imported wine from the mainland and other islands, but as far as I can tell, there is no evidence to suggest that the Greeks of that era brought their vines or wine-making to Cyprus.

The vine may well have arrived in Greece from several directions. Probably at peasant farmer level through Turkey from Syria, by land, producing very ordinary everyday wine, and certainly from Egypt, where wine-making had been an accepted and sophisticated social custom for many centuries, although some time had elapsed before it became a part of religious ceremonies. Wine and vines travelled by sea, through the islands. Cyprus seems not to have been involved, but Crete became an island conquered by the wine grape and it then proceeded to the other islands and the Greek mainland, where the first great organised wine industry began.

This is not to say that the Greeks brought wine to Cyprus. This defies logic, because the Syrians were making famous wines probably before 3000 BC, as the grape-vine travelled from its "birthplace" south of the Black Sea through Mesopotamia to Phoenicia and Egypt, a thousand years before it reached any part of Greece and although it is unproven conjecture, I believe it is a certainty that Syrian farmers came to Cyprus at least four thousand years ago, with their wine and their vines.

So it is probable that the Greeks and later the Romans found local wine being made here in Cyprus when they arrived. Whether it was to their sophisticated palates is another matter!

Since Greece's classical era, there has been very little input to Cyprus wine from Greece. Today, Cyprus wine labels, show some influence of Greek practice in their wording, whilst a few of the Cypriot wine-makers have spent time in Greek wineries studying methods. I know of no Greek winemakers who have been tempted to try making wine here, whilst the Cyprus industry turns to French wine professorial advice rather than Greek.

In recent years, of course, the Greek wine industry has been putting its own house in order, as part of its obligations to, and with the financial assistance from, the European Union. Modern methods have been universally adopted, old grape varieties have been protected and encouraged, as new ones have been planted alongside. A few large producers have emerged, with quantities sufficient for export and marketing skills and budgets to match, but in the main, the best Greek wines are jealously guarded by Greek wine lovers for home consumption. And herein lies one of the salient differences between the Greek and the Cypriot -- the Greek adores his wine and thousands of Greeks make their wines from their own vines.

The Cyprus industry is clearly watching its Greek counterpart, especially in regard to the benefits it has received from EU membership, in relation to grants, the institution of Appellation regulations and marketing opportunities. The Cyprus winemakers are increasing production of quality wines made from their own vineyards, whilst the Cypriot consumer is, at last, learning the lessons of classical Greece -- that wine is an integral part of social and economic life.

Neither Cyprus nor Greece have vast tracts of flat land that can be planted with the ubiquitous Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay to produce millions of litres of varietal wines for the world's supermarkets. And neither of them started to make wine in the eighteenth century, with no tradition or wine culture to concern them. Both countries are among the oldest wine producing areas in the world -- Cyprus may well be the oldest of any significance -- and have traditional grape varieties and a very long winemaking heritage. They also have small vineyards and highly individualistic growers, which points increasingly to a future in which a robust home market supports most of the production of small quantities of a large number of different wines, and the wine lovers of the world search them out in specialist shops. And that need not be a bad future.


Copyright (c) Patrick Skinner 1998

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