Samui Wining & Dining
Cyprus Wines

Financial crisis or not, the future is bright for Cypriot wineries.

 

22In the wonderfully diverse world of wine, Cyprus, despite its relatively small size, should never be overlooked. Not only has it one of the oldest wine growing traditions in the world, it is one of the most developed and successful wine producing countries of the eastern Mediterranean.

      How? Well let’s tell you a story about love, respect and responsibility …

      In the past, the Soviet Union bought vast quantities of their Commandaria wines. And Cyprus sherry made the running for many years. So the fall of the USSR was initially a serious blow to the wine industry, but as a consequence of falling demand for the sweeter varieties, the island’s potential for good quality table wines emerged. And in the last 30 years, methodical innovations have opened doors to a thriving export market.

      In the past, the Soviet Union bought vast quantities of their Commandaria wines. And Cyprus sherry made the running for many years. So the fall of the USSR was initially a serious blow to the wine industry, but as a consequence of falling demand for the sweeter varieties, the island’s potential for good quality table wines emerged. And in the last 30 years, methodical innovations have opened doors to a thriving export market.

       Luckily for lovers of intriguing Mediterranean wines, Cyprus’s Troodos mountain range attracts plenty of rain, which makes viticulture possible on what would otherwise be too dry an island. The vineyards lie where the rain falls, in idyllic green valleys nearly 900 metres up into the hills. And as luck would have it, the whole south-facing Troodos area is suitable wine country. Limassol, the port on the adjacent south coast, is the base for the big four Cypriot wine companies: ETKO (the oldest winery on the island, dating back to 1844), KEO, Laona and Loel, and the cooperative SODAP.

      The most individual of Cyprus’s wines is the toffee-coloured Commandaria, made with dried grapes, both red and white, in fourteen villages, of which Kalokhorio, Zoopiyi and Yerasa are best known. Indeed, on the lower slopes of Troodos, Commandaria has been made at least since the crusading Knights Templar established themselves in their ‘Grand Commandaria’ on the island at the end of the 12th century. Its intense sweetness (it can have four times as much sugar as port) harks back further than records show. There are references in Greek literature to such wines, which were invariably drunk diluted with water. The sweetness is achieved by drying the grapes to raisins on sheets spread on the ground next to the vines.

         Today, Commandaria is made both as a straight commercial dessert wine, of moderate age and popular for the Sacrament in churches, and in very small quantities as the quite alarmingly concentrated wine of legend. The taste and texture of an old true Commandaria is deliciously treacle-like, and the best have a remarkable haunting fresh grapiness. It is perfect for accompanying powerful cheeses. In fact, Cypriot wine makers have high hopes that, with the right marketing, their iconic wine could become a serious rival (or alternative) to port wine.

         The range of grape varieties grown on Cyprus is much less eclectic than in most developing wine countries. The island has never had Phylloxera, and rather than risking it by importing new stock, growers until recently kept to the tradition local grapes: the black Mavro, the white Xynisteri, Opthalmo and the Muscat of Alexandria. The last decade though has seen a big increase in vineyard acreage, and the introduction of new varieties. The Palomino of Jerez is used in both sherry and for a very pleasant soft dry white wine. Grenache is now used to produce lighter red wines than the more heavyweight Mavro. And somewhat inevitably, there has been experimentation with the, in vogue Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Also, mainly because of its geography, Cyprus has found that kosher wine is a very lucrative niche market. (Which helps to make up for the fact that many of its other neighbours are Muslim countries, and hence buy no wine at all.)

         On the whole, Cyprus wines tend to offer very good value. Although of course, it does depend on where you are, and what import taxes are levied. Unfortunately, here in Thailand, they are not easy wines to find. But should you be lucky enough to visit Cyprus, prices are temptingly low. The modern face of Cypriot wine is similar to that found on Crete or Sardinia, with a ripe New World style creeping into the red wines as the vintages go by. To capitalize on Cyprus' hot, dry conditions, the island's wine companies have brought in winemakers from Australia and South Africa, who are used to making successful wines in this climate. Until the end of the last century, most local wine was made in the southern port cities, which meant the fruit had to travel long distances in the

         Mediterranean heat, and often in comparatively primitive transportation. Things are rapidly changing, however, with a new raft of Cyprus wineries growing their own grapes. Slowly, the island's modern table wines are developing their own idiosyncratic style, this will become more established over time, and earlier picking has raised standards generally. It is noteworthy that at the Decanter Annual Awards 2013, a Cypriot wine was awarded a silver medal. It was a 2002 vintage of St. Barnabas Commandaria from SODAP. And a very chic, and trendily packaged, oak-aged sweet wine, called Anama Concept, won a bronze medal for its 2010 vintage.

         Clearly, Cyprus is starting to move with the times. And with its rich wine tradition, we can expect to see new, more sophisticated and aromatic wines from this lovely island in the near future. For the moment diners at the best Greek restaurants (all of which seem to be run by Cypriots) are very content with plain, but appealing red wines as Othello and Semeli. These are wonderfully food-friendly wines, and are at their best when three or four years old. And the first choice for a refreshing white wine in the Cyprus sun is the lightly fizzy Bellapais, made by KEO, and quaintly named after the local abbey.

         

Peter James


 


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