Cyprus – sun, sea and altitude

Around 1.5 million Brits visit Cyprus every year, and undoubtedly drink the odd bottle or three while enjoying the sun, sand and dramatic mountain scenery. Yet few of us link Cyprus with the world of wine. Joining the EU in 2004 brought an end to the wine industry’s subsistence business of selling heavily subsidised, low quality bulk wine to Europe, and dramatic changes have followed. Today there are around 50 wineries on the island, with the best producing increasingly exciting and individual wines from both local and international grapes.

Commanding history

Cyprus actually has one of the longest wine histories in Europe, with traces of wine residues in pottery dating back to 3,500 BC. Cyprus also lays claim to the world’s oldest named wine still in continuous production in its lusciously sticky Commandaria. This is still made in the traditional manner from sun-shrivelled local grapes (black-skinned Mavro and white Xynisteri in varying proportions), then fortified and aged in barrel for a minimum of two years – though the best wines (such as Keo’s St John and SODAP’s St Barnabas) are aged much longer.

Commandaria gets its name from links with the Knights Templar who arrived on the island in 12th century and its religious connections continue today through its use as communion wine. Enjoyable as Commandaria can be, such fortified wines (along with the “sherry” look-alikes that used to be bedrocks of the industry) are falling out of fashion and it’s the new generation of dry table wines that are increasing gaining the limelight.

The Great Divide

Wine production on Aphrodite’s Island is divided between the big four and the burgeoning number of small boutique wineries, usually family-owned, and passionately committed to what they are doing. It’s here that some of the most exciting and dynamic producers are to be found. Sophocles Vlassides has taken over his family winery, as well as consulting to Vasa and Tsiakkas (right).

Vlassides put his training at UC Davis in California to good use and produces some the island’s best wines, especially his own reserve Shiraz and Cabernet. Always modest though, he reckons it will take another 15 years before producers really understand how to get the best out of Cyprus’s soils and growing conditions.

Another winemaker with overseas experience is Minas Mina, oenologist at the island’s highest winery Kyperounda, a brand new winery perched at 1100m above sea level. He has a winemaking degree from Greece and a Masters from Glasgow (that well-known hot-spot of wine expertise) and makes beautifully crafted wines.

Reds are very well made but it’s the whites that are the stars – one of the best Chardonnays on the island and a superb pure Xynisteri called Petritis. It’s partially barrel-fermented to add texture and complexity, and belies the grape’s reputation as only fit for uncomplex early drinking.It’s the big four wineries of Keo, Etko, Loel and SODAP that have been hit hardest by the EU’s ban on direct subsidies. They crushed 19,000 tonnes (out of the island’s total of just under 24,000 tonnes) in 2006, but this is tiny fraction of past volumes (nearly 100,000 tonnes a decade ago) Perhaps they should have gazed into their crystal balls earlier, but all four have now recognised the need to make smaller quantities of much better wines. They are investing in vineyards, controlling fruit quality and building wineries up in the hills near the vines and away from the brutal summer temperatures on the coast. In the UK, only wines from one of the big four that have widespread distribution are the Co-op’s Island Vines Red & White. This is the result of a 10 year partnership between the Co-op and SODAP, guided by New World winemaking consultancy. The wines have improved considerably in the last two harvests with the completion of SODAP’s spotless, state of the art Kamanterena winery at Stroumbi.

Scaling the Heights

xgive grapevines a fighting chance in the move towards higher quality. Vineyards are some of the highest in Europe, ranging up to 1,480m at Kyperounda. High mountain viticulture is expensive and there are no economies of scale when everything has to be done by hand on tiny steep plots.However, the island is still Phylloxera free, so there are plenty of genuinely ancient bush vines that benefit from high levels of UV light at altitude, giving colour and flavour ddevelopment. The cooling mountain breezes and temperature drops at night also help retain vital acidity and fruit freshness.

International varieties have been on Cyprus for at least 50 years; southern French varieties particularly seem to suit the climate. Promising Shiraz has appeared recently while there are also some successful Mediterranean blends based around Grenache, Mataro (Mourvedre) and Carignan (such as Vasa St Timon, Domaine Nicolaides and Vardalis). Higher up there are decent Cabernets and Merlots too, while Ayia Mavri make a delicious Grenache rosé.

These international varieties perhaps help to make Cyprus wine accessible, but it’s the local reds that create a point of difference. The commonest, Mavro, is uninspiring at best, but Costas Tsiakkas (left), who gave up a well-paid career in banking to follow his wine dream, reckons that Maratheftiko is the grape with potential to become Cyprus’s Carmenère. The similarities continue in that Maratheftiko tends to be inter-planted with Mavro, but ripens much later, and is prone to uneven yields. Tsiakkas admits to paying a hefty premium to growers to get the grape picked separately, and is planting his own vineyard. Several other producers like Vlassides, Fikardos, Zambartas and Vasa are also investing in plots of Maratheftiko and reckon this will give higher quality.

Another local red attracting attention is Lefkada. Opinions are split, with some like Vlassides hating it, while others reckon it gives a real sense of place and structure in blends like Kthma Keo’s Cabernet/Lefkada and Vasilikon’s Ayios Onoufrios.

As for whites, it’s local Xynisteri that dominates production and it has a reputation for simple, young drinking whites that can lack acidity. There are two solutions to this problem. One is to grow at altitude where it can produce fragrant, fresh mineral wines, ideal for in the Cyprus climate.

Kyperounda’s Petritis has already been mentioned and other good examples come from Vasilikon, Vlassides, Kolios and Kamanterena (appears in Island Vines at the Co-op). The other approach is to blend, and Semillon seems to fill this role especially well – Aes Ambelis and Fikardos make good examples. Of the international whites, there are some decent Chardonnays, from Kyperounda, Tsiakkas, Vasa, SODAP and Fikardos and a very good 2005 Sauvignon Blanc from high vineyards made by Tsiakkas.

Muscat, perhaps not surprising given the climate, turns up in a couple of stunning examples from wife and husband team at Ayia Mavri.

All in all, Cyprus’s producers are making giant strides in transforming their vinous landscape from industrial towards high quality. The island still lacks a sense of pride in its wines, perhaps justified in the past but no longer true today. Many of the wineries don’t export, but most are open to visitors and well worth seeking out for anyone visiting the island.