Joining the EU in 2004 brought an end to the Cyprus 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.
Geography and 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. Enjoyable as Commandaria can be, such fortified wines are falling out of fashion and it’s the new generation of dry table wines that are increasing gaining the limelight.
It may be sun and sand that bring visitors to Cyprus, but it’s the Troodos Mountains that give 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. 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 Maratheftiko is thought by some to be 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. Another local red attracting attention is Lefkada.
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.
The Great Divide
Wine production on Aphrodite’s Island is divided between a handful of big producers 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.
It is the big four wineries – 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.
All in all, The wines of Cyprus and its 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.