The Rise of Cypriot Wine

The Rise of Cypriot Wine

What is actually new these days? In some ways, the wine world seems to be advancing toward the past. Ancient processes and their associated wine styles, such as orange wine, resinated wine, and field blends, are being revitalized. Nearly abandoned techniques, such as foot treading and the use of amphorae, are gaining traction. New grapes and wine regions are “discovered” but have been in plain sight for centuries or longer.

All of this is relevant to Cyprus, that distant outpost of Europe, fixed in Homer’s wine-dark sea. Nearer to Asia than to its European neighbors, Cyprus is part of the region known as the Levant. For millennia, this was the center of the civilized world, but, after the Ottomans arrived, its association with wine weakened and nearly disappeared. After years of decline, the region’s modern story couldn’t be more different. Ancient indigenous grape varieties, high-altitude viticulture, and creative winemaking contribute to wines of great personality that recount a terrific tale.

History of Cypriot Wine 

Just as the germ of myth can be born of real history, so, too, can the earliest culture of wine on Cyprus be related to its resident goddess, Aphrodite, and her faltering attempts at growing vines and making wine, springing from her brief love affair with Dionysus. Wine was being made here by the early fourth millennium BCE, and clay jars with detectable wine deposits dating to about 3,500 BCE have been discovered on the island. Much of the proto-Cypriot wine culture was introduced by the Canaanites, the Phoenician merchants. Their know-how enabled Cypriot wines to be traded into pharaonic Egypt from the early dynastic period.

While references to wine on Cyprus during the later Bronze Age and classical period are rare, mentions of wine reappear during the Hellenistic and Roman periods, with perhaps the most vivid visual representation reflected in the magnificent mosaics at the House of Dionysus near Pafos. These second-century tesserae depict the life of the god, including his love of overimbibing.

At the end of the Byzantine period, in 1191, when Richard of England conquered the island’s usurping despot, Isaac Komnenos, and fell in love with Commandaria, Cypriot wine finally entered the limelight again. The altar wine Nama, first mentioned by Hesiod, is believed to be the originator of Commandaria, which is often referenced as the oldest continuously produced wine style on the planet. King Richard called Commandaria the Wine of Kings and the King of Wines and served it at his wedding to Berengaria of Navarre. Later, the estate of the Knights Hospitaller, La Grande Commanderie, gave its name to the wine. Delectably unctuous and made from the local Xynisteri and Mavro grapes, dried under the strong Cypriot sun, Commandaria was, until British rule (1878–1960), a naturally sweet wine. This is once more the predominant style, though there are also excellent fortified versions.

Throughout the Byzantine, Lusignan, and brief Venetian rule of Cyprus, the eastern Mediterranean served as an important source of top-quality wine for markets elsewhere in Europe. All this changed as the Ottoman Turks conquered Anatolia, Greece, and finally, in 1571, Cyprus. Though Greek Orthodox Christian citizens could still grow grapes and make wine, they did so mostly for home consumption. For Muslim Turks, the making and drinking of wine was haram—“forbidden.” As Cyprus itself gradually became a political and cultural backwater, so, too, did the wines become more rustic, eventually passing into anonymity.

When the British arrived in 1878, they attempted to reverse this misfortune. In the post–World War II period, particularly after Cyprus became independent, in 1960, the island’s trade shifted toward mass brands, often fortified, such as Emva Cream. Most grapes were destined for large-volume sales of indifferent-quality wine to the Iron Curtain countries, so vineyards were extensively planted in places inappropriate for the production of quality wine. With the rapid disintegration of the Soviet Union, in 1991, the big four wine producers—ETKO, LOEL, KEO, and SODAP—found themselves with a greatly diminished market and few other markets beckoning.

Cyprus’s inexpensive fortified wines fell from fashion, and its grape concentrate, often destined to be fermented into inexpensive sweet wines in the UK and Germany, no longer had a market. All the while, other wine-producing countries proved more resilient.

During the 1990s, the Cyprus vineyard receded, with most of the lower-altitude vineyards of marginal quality pulled out. Once Cyprus joined the European Union, in 2004, its subsidies to grapegrowers were no longer permitted, placing further pressure on the industry. The vineyard area for wine production dropped from over 16,000 hectares (40,000 acres) in the early 1990s to just over 7,000 hectares (17,000 acres) today. The annual crush fell from about 72,000 metric tons (79,000 US tons) in 2004 to just over 21,000 metric tons (23,000 US tons) in 2022, though with the associated benefit of reduced per-hectare yields.

In this period of flux, the big four producers struggled to adapt to market realities, though they did improve generic wine quality in the domestic market. As Cypriots and tourists alike turned their attention to better-known foreign brands, the more adaptable boutique wine producers saw an opportunity. Beginning in the late 1980s, viticulturists who had previously sold most of their grapes or wine, often for distillation, began establishing themselves as independent brands. This eager new generation of viticulturist-winemakers—including Minas Mina of Kyperounda, Sophocles Vlassides of Vlassides, Marcos Zambartas of Zambartas, Yiannis Kyriakidis of Vouni Panayia, and Orestis Tsiakkas of Tsiakkas—frequently trained or studied abroad. Today, there are about 50 independent wineries that collectively produce approximately 15% of Cypriot wine.

Gradually, these independent wineries and European Union–funded projects, along with a wine-thirsty tourism sector and a strong desire to promote the indigenous varieties of Cyprus, began to turn the tide of quality for the country’s wine industry.

Appellation Overview

The Cypriot Wine Products Council bases its country’s wine appellation system on European Union law. There are seven Protected Designations of Origin (PDOs) and four Protected Geographical Indications (PGIs). The PGIs reflect the greater wine-producing districts of Cyprus: Lefkosia (Nicosia), Lemesos (Limassol), Larnaka (Larnaca), and Pafos (Paphos). For wines to list the PGI, 85% of the grapes used must come from the geographical indication. The vines must be at least four years old, and yields must not exceed anywhere from 55 to 70 hectoliters per hectare, depending on grape variety. Red wines must be at least 11% ABV and whites 10% ABV.

The seven PDOs are Commandaria, Krasochoria Lemesou, Krasochoria Lemesou-Afames, Krasochoria Lemesou-Laona, Laona-Akama, Vouni Panayia-Ampelitis, and Pitsilia. Each PDO features strict elevation requirements that range from 400 to 1,400 meters (1,300 to 4,600 feet). Vines must be at least five years old; yields cannot exceed 36 to 45 hectoliters per hectare, depending on variety; and alcohol levels must surpass 12% ABV for reds and 11% ABV for whites.

In these PDOs, with the exception of Commandaria, which is exclusively for sweet wines, dry white wines must contain at least 85% Xynisteri, with the rest composed of other permitted native white varieties. For Pitsilia and Krasochoria Lemesou, specific international varieties can also be included. Two major styles of dry red wines are allowed. The first requires at least 85% Maratheftiko or Ofthalmo, with the remainder made up of the permitted native and international varieties. For the second style, a minimum of 60% Mavro can be used, with the rest composed of the permitted red native and international varieties. In Laona-Akama, only the former style is allowed. If the minority percentage exceeds 15%, the identity of the grapes must appear on the label.

Other important regulations are in place governing the delimitation of each region, particularly for Commandaria. Commandaria wines must come from the 14 villages within that zone. Sugar levels of both Xynisteri and Mavro must be above a given threshold, and wines must spend at least two years in oak barrels.

Native Cypriot Grapes

One of the most visible improvements in Cypriot wine has been a reinterpretation of the role of native grape varieties, which constitute about 90% of the Cypriot vineyard. Yet making high-quality wine from obscure indigenous varieties, often traditionally grown as field blends, requires years of research and experience, which are still ongoing. A striking feature of Cypriot vineyards is that they are phylloxera free, and the vines are invariably grown on their own roots. Many of the native vines are old and gnarly—reminiscent more of scrubby old trees than centenarian bush vines.

While the predominant native black grape, called Mavro (“black” in Greek), and its white counterpart, Xynisteri, are still the mainstays of the industry, other native grapes and well-adapted international grapes are making a mark. Here is a very brief introduction to some of the main native varieties being vinified today.

Black Grapes

Mavro (2,820 hectares / 6,970 acres)

There are a small number of Mavro clones, all of them quite large-berried, with limited pigmentation. Mavro can be prolific, produces a lot of sugar, and is drought and heat tolerant. Long the workhorse grape, and much derided for a lack of freshness and character in the markedly oxidized and dilute wines that were historically produced, Mavro is experiencing a renaissance. High-altitude old vine plantings are particularly promising. Mavro can make satisfying rosés, too. Though a significant amount of old vine Mavro was pulled, it is still the most widely planted black variety.

Maratheftiko (165 hectares / 408 acres)

More structured than Mavro because of its thicker skins, Maratheftiko, also known as Vamvakada, yields wines with fine-grained tannins, bright acidity, and deep color. Maratheftiko has a tart black cherry character, an affinity for wood, and notable cellaring potential. It is an old, dioecious variety, with loose bunches and a propensity for shatter.

Yiannoudi (30 hectares / 74 acres)

Yiannoudi, a high-quality grape that was until recently almost extinct, is making a comeback. It can flourish with used oak, producing wines with oxidative complexity, though it can also benefit from reductive handling, yielding fruity, raspberry-flavored wines. The best examples have well-tamed tannins, freshness, and ageability. Yiannoudi is dioecious and difficult to cultivate.

Ofthalmo (69 hectares / 171 acres)

Seldom grown, Ofthalmo is another light-colored black grape with notable freshness and the ability to make attractively fragrant rosés. The grape struggles to ripen at higher altitudes, but it seems to have the potential to produce quaffable light red wines and rosés—and possibly wines showing even more complexity.

Lefkada (83 hectares / 205 acres)

Lefkada, a black grape with deeply colored juice, is also worth noting, though it is not strictly Cypriot, as it hails from the Peloponnese and Lefkas in Greece’s Ionian Sea.

White Grapes

Xynisteri (1,960 hectares / 4,840 acres)

Xynisteri is the main white grape of Cyprus, with 27% of total plantings. Though it has modest acidity, Xynisteri can ripen at very high altitudes (the highest vineyards here top 1,500 meters, or 4,900 feet). It has several distinct clones and biotypes, is very drought tolerant, and, like most native vines in this harsh environment, performs well as a bush vine. It responds well to wood and even new oak, skin fermentation, and amphora maturation. When grown in areas where there is a large diurnal shift and yields are restricted, Xynisteri can produce characterful wines with marked extract and texture. The subject of ongoing experimentation, it is a grape to watch.

Promara (28 hectares / 69 acres)

Promara has experienced a resurgence in the last 15 years. It does well as a fresh, peach-scented, quaffable wine, but it can also show well with oxidation and prolonged skin contact. Promara hails from the cooler, wetter west of Cyprus, but plantings have also been successful in the high-altitude vineyards of the Troodos Mountains, in the south.

Vasilissa (11 hectares / 27 acres)

Though large berried and delicious to eat, Vasilissa—meaning “queen,” and also known as Aspri Fraoula and Tsaoussis—makes relatively delicate, fragrant wines of modest alcohol and significant potential. The wines are typically fruity, complex, and long on the palate.

Spourtiko (13 hectares / 32 acres)

Once consigned to pollinating Maratheftiko and Yiannoudi, Spourtiko (named for the propensity of its skin to split) has rapidly proved its individuality. Often producing wines below 10% ABV, it can deliver charm, fruit concentration, and nonfruit intensity. A Decanter World Wine Awards gold medal winner in 2021 and 2022, and championed by Theo Makarounas, Spourtiko shows great promise.

Meeting the Challenges of a Harsh Marginal Climate

Cyprus is one of the hottest and driest parts of Europe, and, in this era of marked climate change, its weather patterns are becoming increasingly unpredictable. Average rainfall is only around 375 millimeters (15 inches), with the western highlands of the island receiving up to about 750 millimeters (30 inches) annually and the higher peaks of the central Troodos range receiving around 1,000 millimeters (39 inches). The very low average suggests some much drier regions, too.

While a dry climate can ameliorate disease pressure, figures such as these can be misleading: from May to October, barely a drop of rain falls on the vines. There are also very high levels of ultraviolet light here, and midsummer temperatures can top 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit).

Cyprus’s high elevations provide a natural advantage for the production of quality wine. In the cooler, wetter west of the island, many of the vineyards are as low as 400 meters (1,300 feet), though they rise to 1,200 meters (3,900 feet). The soils vary from gypsum to the predominant limestone and include volcanic seams. In the warmer, drier center of the island, most of the vineyards in the limestone (and occasionally clay) foothills before the main Troodos massif lie at approximately 600 to 1,000 meters (2,000 to 3,300 feet). In the Troodos range, the soil consists of granite wash with volcanic elements, and the vineyard elevations rise to 1,500 meters (4,900 feet).

While grapes can benefit during the growing season from being high and dry, viticulturists have observed that some varieties are more successful at lower elevation. Lefkada struggles to ripen above 700 meters (2,300 feet) and Ofthalmo above 800 meters (2,600 feet). But the higher-altitude vineyards, with their increased diurnal temperature range, provide winemakers with options, particularly in building aroma and flavor precursors, developing textural complexity, and retaining acidity and freshness—all while avoiding exaggerated alcohol levels.

The Role of Experimentation

As in other Old World regions, Cypriot winemakers have a newfound interest in ancient practices, with a number of producers reining in their use of new wood and returning to large-format clay pitharia (amphorae). The technology has advanced, with the clay possessing a fraction of the oxygen permeability of the traditional jars. These wineries, including Vouni Panayia, with its microvinification trials, are employing clay vessels to enhance the texture of their whites, tame the tannins of their reds, and reinvent the skin-fermented wines of yesteryear.

There has also been a return to tradition in the vineyard, as more growers are treasuring their own-rooted and somewhat rare old vine native varieties. These are often planted as field blends, as is the case with Zambartas’s Margelina vineyard, planted in 1921, and situated near the village of Agios Nikolaos, at an altitude of 900 meters (3,000 feet). Though Mavro leads the blend, the wine includes five other grapes, two of them white.

Minas Mina, the winemaker at Kyperounda, in the high-altitude village of the same name, in the Pitsilia region, has explored another avenue of experimentation in the form of single-site 100% Xynisteri wines. He employs the same approach on adjacent sites with opposing aspects, each vineyard around half a hectare (1.2 acres), at approximately 1,200 meters (3,900 feet) in elevation, and planted with mature bush vines between 57 and 73 years old. The vineyards have very different light levels, canopies, and soil temperatures. The wine known as East (translated from the Greek) is leaner and more textured, while West is plumper and more opulent. This exercise is common in many classic regions, but it’s a breakthrough in Cyprus and underlines the quality potential of Xynisteri.

Looking Ahead

Cyprus has come a long way even in the past 10 years, but how can the Cypriot winemaking scene of today be summarized? It seems to be a story about rehabilitation. Experimentation proceeds at pace as producers better understand their land and vines, and what they can influence in their attempts to optimize wine quality. Low-volume, high-quality wines fashioned from the well-adapted native grapes tell the long story of wine on Cyprus, with the native grapes demonstrating their ability to flourish in the island’s singular climate and mountainous terrain.

Cyprus’s wines have never been better and are winning the attention of consumers, including visitors to the country who are seeking expressive and authentic wines that pair with the varied and characterful local cuisine. Progress is being seen in export markets, too, where the wines are competing successfully, pairing well with a plethora of flavors. The future looks encouraging for this ancient wine culture at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, and at the crossroads of its own success.

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