This scenic Mediterranean island has such an epic history with wine that it could easily form a story line for the next Netflix hit. Think Aphrodite, Richard the Lionheart, the Crusaders, the Templars, the royal feasts and the French troubadours. Modern story of Cypriot wine is no less exciting. With independent wineries rediscovering the true identity of this Mediterranean island, Cyprus is one of the most promising wine regions of Europe.
Cypriot wine culture dates as far back as 5,000 years ago. Moreover, archaeological discoveries testify that Cyprus may well be the cradle of wine development in the entire Mediterranean basin, from Greece, to Italy and France. Today Cyprus is reinventing itself as a winemaking nation, gradually drifting away from the age-old traditions of sweet wines towards fresh, fruit-forward, terroir-driven dry styles. One of the unique features of Cyprus’ winemaking is the abundance of old bush vines. The phylloxera louse which ones devastated vineyards in mainland Europe never made it to the island. Therefore, the majority of vines here grow on their own original rootstocks. With rare indigenous grapes and ancient winemaking traditions. Cyprus has all it takes to make great wines.
Cypriot Wine In The Ancient Times
According to the legend, Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty, was born on the shores of Paphos. In the ancient times, pilgrims from Greece came to Cyprus to worship the goddess. It is known that they celebrated Aphrodite with quaffs of Cypriot wine which was quite famous in the ancient world.
The island winemaking flourished further under the Roman rule. For example, the famous Paphos mosaics, dating back to 3rd-5th Century AD, depict both winemakers and wine drinkers. In the “House of Dionysos”, a mosaic shows King Ikarios holding the reins of two oxen that are drawing a cart loaded with wine. Interestingly, Cypriots believe that Ikarios, encouraged by Dionysos, was the first human wine-maker.
However, Cyprus’ wine culture dates way further back than the ancient times. In fact, wine has been produced here for almost 5,000 years.
In the 1930s, near Limassol, archaeologists discovered fragments of 18 ceramic wine amphorae dating back to 3,500-3,000 BC.
This find was declared the oldest evidence of early winemaking in the entire Mediterranean basin, including Greece, Italy and France.
But not only ancient Cyprus produced wine, it had established itself as a firm member of the international wine trade.
In 1999, a shipwreck was discovered off the coast of Cyprus. Supposedly, the boat had sunk in the 23rd Century BC during a storm. It had been transporting over 2,5000 amphorae of wine to Egypt from Cyprus.
This and several other discoveries led to a number of scientists suggesting that the first Mediterranean wines were made in Cyprus.
“The Wine Of Kings And The King Of Wines”
In 1191, Cyprus was conquered by King Richard I of England – a historical curiosity, as the conquest was not planned and happened due to an accident. King Richard’s fleet was in the middle of a Crusade, en route to the siege of Acre. However three of his ships were scattered by a storm and driven to the shores of Cyprus. The ships were wrecked and sank in sight of the port of Limassol.
The shipwrecked survivors were taken prisoners by Komnenos, the feisty local governor. Moreover, when a ship bearing King Richard’s sister, Joan, and bride, Berengaria, entered the port, Komnenos refused their request to disembark for fresh water. Shortly after this, King Richard and the rest of his fleet arrived to meet Komnenos in battle. The Cypriots were defeated and King Richard became the new ruler of the island
The English king was so charmed by the scenic island that he even decided to hold his royal wedding on Cyprus, in the town of Limassol. Needless to say that guests of the royal feast were treated to abundant local delicacies and, of course, to local sweet wine, Commandaria. It was during the wedding that King Richard declared the Cypriot wine “the wine of kings and the king of wines”.
Cypriot Wine Wins The Battle Of Wines
Towards the end of the century Richard sold the island to the Knights Templar, who, in turn sold it to the French knight Guy of Lusignan. And this is how Cypriot wine became really famous in the Old World.
In 1224, the so-called Battle of the Wines was held in France. This royal feast was organised by the French king Philip II Augustus. The feast involved an extensive wine-tasting in order to choose the best wine. To everyone’s surprise, the attendees chose Cypriot wine, Commandaria, to more prominent wines from France, Spain and Mosel region. The poem called “Bataille des Vins” written by the French troubadour Henri d’Andeli describes how King Philipp II himself crowned the Cypriot wine “Pope,” the highest honour.
However, the Cypriot wine glory was not meant to last. In 1571, the island was conquered by the Ottomans and wine production went into decline.
Truth to be told, some may say that Ottoman Sultan Selim II (“Selim the Drunk”) conquered Cyprus just to get unlimited access to local sweet wine.
Nevertheless, muslim rule did not favour winemaking and Cypriot vineyards fell into disrepair.
Cypriot Wine Under The British Rule
1878 marked the handover of the island from Ottoman rule to the British Empire. This lit a spark in the winemaking industry. Several big wineries were founded – and right on time! In the end of the 19th century, the phylloxera epidemic ravaged European vineyards and left Europe in need of wine. Cyprus, an island with strict quarantine controls, managed to remain unaffected. Consequently, demand for Cyprus grapes and wines resulted in a mini boom for the industry.
Further demand in the early 20th century came from local consumption and from the regional forces of Britain and France in the Middle East. However, at that time Cyprus produced mainly cheap wine and spirits, particularly a sweet fortified wine known as ‘Cyprus sherry’. These cheap wines became extremely popular in Britain. By the 1960s, Britain was consuming 13.6 million litres of Cyprus wines, half the island’s production, mostly as sweet sherry.
Eventually, the fortified wine market began to shrink due to a change in consumer taste. As a result, Cyprus sherry sales in the UK fell from their peak in the early 1970s by some 65 percent by the mid 1980s. The final blow came when the EC ruled that only fortified wine from Jerez could assume the title of sherry.
The Cyprus’ wine revival began in the 1980s. Today, Cyprus’ wine culture is experiencing renaissance as a new generation of winemakers rediscover indigenous grapes and employ modern techniques to produce world-class wines that still retain Cypriot character.
Modern Cypriot wine is similar to that found on Crete or Sardinia, with a ripe New World style becoming more common. Large producers have brought in winemakers from Australia and South Africa who are used to making quality wine in a hot, dry climate.
Until the end of the 20th Century, most local wine was made in the southern port cities of Paphos and Limassol. This meant the fruit had to travel long distances in the Mediterranean heat and often in comparatively primitive transportation. Things are now changing, with a new raft of Cyprus wineries growing their own grapes.
Cypriot WINE REGIONS
Following the example of other European countries, a system of Appellation of Origins was introduced in Cyprus in 2007. Wines with this designation undergo a strict quality control. Grapes must originate from registered vineyards of an altitude above 600 or 750 meters depending on location. In addition, vines should be more than 5 years old and yields are restricted. Further regulations apply to the winemaking and wine ageing processes.
Akamas – Laona
This is a slightly cooler part of Cyprus found on the northwest coast of the island. Vineyards are grown on scenic hills, mostly on limestone soils. The majority of grape varieties cultivated in Akamas-Laona are white, mainly the indigenous Xynisteri, but also a few international grapes, such as Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Semillon, Chardonnay.
This western mountainous region reaches an altitude of 1,141 metres at its highest, with vineyards at an altitude of 800 metres above sea level. This naturally brings higher rainfall and milder climate. The soils are mostly clay to gypsum and there are no less than 27 different grape varieties to be found, both indigenous and international.
Another region on the slopes of Troodos range, Pitsili has cold, snowy winters and warm pleasant summers. The altitudes temper the heat and bring freshness to the wines. The soil is a combination of limestone and sand and vineyards co-exist with vast woodlands. White wines are made of predominantly Xynisteri and reds are made of mainly Marathefiko or Ofthalmo grapes.
The Wine Villages Of Lemesos
Thrust up by a huge volcanic eruption 90 million years ago, the island of Cyprus is dominated by its Troodos range, with its highest point Mount Olympos (1,952 m altitude). Below, sloping down to the southern coast, the terrain provides excellent conditions for the cultivation of the vine. Winters here can be cold and snowy, but sunshine is always plentiful. Summers are hot, but generally there is a breeze to provide a breath of cool air for the vines. Steep hilly vineyards are home to Mavro, the indigenous Maratheftiko, as well as Xynisteri and many international grapes.
Cyprus’s most famous wine appellation encompasses 14 villages, found north of Lemesos, at altitudes of between 500 and 900 metres. This region has a temperate climate. Winters can be quite frosty with regular rainfall and summers are generally dry and warm, with cooling breezes common for Troodos foothills. The region offers poor, shallow soil with comparatively high amounts of carbon and calcium. Consequently, the yields are quite low. The majority of vineyards are planted with the indigenous Mavro and Xynisteri, which are both used for Commandaria wine.
Cypriot climate allows for cultivation of numerous international and indigenous grapes. Out of 15 indigenous grape varieties grown in Cyprus, the most widely cultivated ones are Xynisteri, Mavro, Ofthlamo and Maratheftiko. All of the vines here are phylloxera-free and ungrafted— among the few in the world growing on their own root-stock.
One of the most widely cultivated Cyprus grapes, Xynisteri takes up to 20-30% of the island vineyards. The variety has been known since ancient times and was used as part of the blend to make the famous desert wine, Commandaria. Nowadays, Xynisteri is finally coming out of the shadows as a variety in its own right, capable of making elegant dry white wines. read more
This indigenous black grape offers concentrated aromas and a higher acid character that contributes well to blends with more robust grapes like Cabernet or Maratheftiko. Ofthalmo is widely grown in Pitsili and Lemesos regions.
This popular Cypriot grape was named so because of its black colour (Mavro means black in Greek). Mavro is one of the most popular grapes on the island and is used in many red blends. For centuries Mavro has been blended with Xynisteri to produce Commandaria wine. Mavro’s best results come from the high-altitude regions of Afames, Maona (in the Lemesos region) and Pitsilia.
Despite its scarce planting, Maratheftiko is named amongst the most promising Cypriot grapes. It makes for deeply coloured wines with soft, ripe tannins and slightly floral aromas. These wines perform well when aged in oak, developing rich notes of coffee and chocolate. There is growing interest for Maratheftiko with wineries like Zambartas actively promoting this rare indigenous grape.