Text: Matthew Stowell
Legend has it that wine first came to Cyprus when the Greek love goddess, Aphrodite, was taught by her besotted lover Dionysus how to cultivate and vinify grapes. It was in Cyprus where wine was paired with the goddess of beauty and love. However, the truth that supersedes this legend is that the island holds a tradition in winemaking that travels thousands of years in the past, strongly supported by the existence of sweet Commandaria, the oldest wine in the world, which is actually still in production. Its story dates back to the Crusades of the 12th century, led by Richard Lionheart and St. John’s Knights, from which its name derives: the “Grande Commanderie” was the area where the knights were settled and where the wine was initially produced. Commandaria won the world's first recorded wine competition back in 1224, thus King Philip Augustus of France dubbed it "The Apostle of Wines" and commissioned the poet of his court to compose a hymn as a tribute to its exceptional qualities.
Recent archaeological findings near the village of Erimi suggest that Cyprus was actually the first winemaking country in Europe, subsequently spreading the art of winemaking to several other Mediterranean cultures. European literature, from ancient Greek poetry to 19th century novels, is replete with references indicating that Cypriot wine was the premier choice when it came to celebrations for special occasions. For hundreds of years Cypriot wine was exported all over Europe and the Middle East. However, during the 300 years of Ottoman occupation, due to high taxation on wines and religious restrictions, production dropped considerably.
In 1844, with the Ottomans moving out and the British moving in, the first private winery of substantial size was established by the Hadjipavlou family (ETKO), whereas a few years later three more large companies were founded, all of them soon becoming known collectively as the Big Four. Initially these companies produced table wine, brandy and sherry which was exported in bulk to the UK and other European countries as well as to Russia in tanker ships! Suffice to say that the latter practice did not serve Cypriot winemaking reputation well.
Photo: Cyprus Wine Museum
The renaissance of Cypriot wine
It was in the 1980s when the Cypriot government started encouraging vine growers (sometimes with subsidies) to build smaller, family-run wineries that would focus on producing high quality wines. Some of those first attempts succeeded and have since expanded, while others didn’t make the cut. The Big Four had no choice but to follow suit, imitate the “little ones” and concentrate on quality over quantity, which in turn led to the gradual improvement of Cypriot wine in general. Today, the global wine scene is focusing on indigenous grapes, and Cyprus, the third largest island of the Mediterranean, seems eager to play an important role in this development.
Gold, silver and bronze medals in international competitions seem to mark the renaissance of Cypriot wines, paired with high ratings from prestigious publications, such as Decanter and Wine Enthusiast, and exports to the UK, USA, Switzerland, Germany and Poland. The consistently mild climate and nutrient-rich soil of Cyprus have always been conducive for producing grapes with the proper elements for fine winemaking. Most of the best vineyards are located in high altitudes as this lends more acidity to the grapes, while some of the microclimates of Cypriot vineyards proved to be ideal for classic European varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Syrah (also called Shiraz), Sauvignon Blanc, Mourvèdre (Mataro), Assyritiko and Grenache, as well as Muscat of Alexandria, the go-to grape for dessert wines. The recent trend among Cypriot winemakers is to concentrate more on the indigenous varieties: the reds Maratheftiko, Yiannoudi, Mavro and Ofthalmo; and the whites Xinisteri (so refreshing in the summer), Spourtiko, Morokanella, Promara and Kanella. The consumption of such wines is by far the best and most enjoyable way for someone to discover Cyprus’ true character.
Should you find yourself in Cyprus don’t forget to either try a chilled homegrown Xinisteri with your salad or fish, or a rich Maratheftiko with your lamb or steak. An even better idea would be to actually visit some of the local modern wineries and gather first-hand information about these wines from the experts themselves. Most wineries in Cyprus are situated in picturesque, cobblestoned mountain villages where you have the chance to taste traditional dishes under the shade provided by the trees.
The Cyprus Wine Museum is situated west of Limassol at the village of Erimi and offers you a great opportunity to “travel” through the vast winemaking tradition of the island.
You owe it to yourself to taste Aphrodite's favorite thirst quencher and raise your glass toasting like a true Cypriot her spirit the Cypriot “Pine krasi, nashis zoi!” (Drink wine, may you be full of life!)