WINES & ALCOHOLIC DRINKS
The history of winemaking in Cyprus is very old, one of the oldest in the world. Recent excavations by Italian archaeologists have revealed the sensational truth that in this small island the production of wine dates back some 6000 years. At the village of Pyrgos in Lemesos district, two jugs were found which had been used for wine – even grape pips were traced! At the village of Erimi eighteen pots were unearthed, twelve of which had been used for wine at some period between 3500 and 3000 BC. This cultural heritage is the oldest in the whole Mediterranean basin and leads to the assumption that Cyprus triggered the spread of winemaking to Greece, Italy, France and other regions.
There is an abundance of archaeological findings which provide ample evidence that viticultural activities in Cyprus date back to the depths of time. There are unique ancient mosaics portraying god Dionysus (Bacchus), very old wine-presses at the villages of Omodos, Lania and elsewhere and amphorae and other wine-related pots crowding the island’s archaeological museums. They are all tangible proof of Cyprus’ viticultural history through the centuries, testaments of an awe-inspiring heritage in winemaking.
Cyprus still boasts some of the oldest wine grape varieties, unaffected by phylloxera at the beginning of the 20th century, many of which have colourful histories of their own. None more-so than the renowned and several times award winning Commandaria.
The last 10 years have seen dramatic changes in the Cypriot winemaking landscape. Following the country’s entry into the EU in 2004, the winemakers of Cyprus have taken the best of what Europe offers from wine production through to marketing and branding and combined it with their own personality and history to offer UK consumers something unique.
Since 2004 Cyprus has maintained upheld a classification system based on the right given to four viticultural regions on the island (Akamas Laona, Vouni Panayias – Ambelitis, Pitsilia and the villages of Limassol) to produce wines denoted as ‘Wines of Controlled Appellation of Origin’ and a fifth region where Commandaria Wine (Protected Geographical Indication) is produced.
Over the past generation the four key traditional wineries – ETKO, KEO, SODAP and LOEL – have been joined by over 60 smaller regional wineries which gave birth to a new era in Cyprus viniculture and wine production. Cyprus’ wine makers are continuously expanding production by planting new vineyards, buying and restoring old wineries and investing in human expertise to develop new techniques and blends in wine making which have led to many international distinctions.
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The monastic Hospitaller Orders, which undertook both religious duties and the protection and care of travellers, became very influential. The Knights of St. John of Jerusalem were founded as early as 1048 and as their name “Hospitallers” indicates, they provided medical care and hospitality to pilgrims.
The King of Cyprus Hugh I conferred on the Hospitallers special privileges, such as the right to acquire land, exemption from customs dues on their exports and imports, free milling, estates and houses and, above all, Kolossi which became their Grand Commandery. Kolossi was considered the richest of the Commanderies and extended over a wide area that included 40 villages. On the fruitful land of the Grand Commandery, the Hospitallers cultivated wheat, cotton, sugar cane, olive trees and vines.
Since ancient times the Cypriots produced a sweet wine from sun-dried grapes, observing traditional methods. This wine acquired great renown in the west through the Crusaders themselves, while Cyprus was still under Byzantine rule. The vineyards of Kolossi produced wines which had already become famous as “nectar” and “strong and thick”. They were resistant to the hazards of being transported in casks to other markets which put them at the risk of exposure to air. The wines inspired by the special Cyprus yeasts were capable of remaining in good condition long after ordinary table wines of lower strength would have faded and become virtual vinegar.
The Hospitallers were connoisseurs of good wine and experts in production techniques. To this day, the label on wines from the Bordeaux region is adorned with the motto “Ancient Domaine des Hospitaliers”, for they originate from estates which once belonged to the Knights Hospitallers of Saint John.
Vin de la Commanderie
It is therefore not surprising that the Knights of St. John adopted and perfected the production of the sweet Cyprus wine. The Venetians and Genoese who dominated sea trade routes, attached to the wine the designation Commandaria, not merely because it was produced in the Commandery of the Hospitallers, but also because of the esteem the knighthood had acquired among the pilgrims, who anchored off the ports of Cyprus on their way to the Holy Land.
Thus, reports began to circulate by word of mouth about this rich and powerful wine, produced in vineyards associated with a highly respected, even revered, religious order. In Venice Commandaria was even exempt from import tax because it was considered a tonic drink.
The Dutch traveller Cornelis van Bruyn who visited the island in 1683, was particularly impressed by the wines of Cyprus.
Among the products of Cyprus are first its wines. They are excellent and when drunk on the spot are very different from the same wines after export to other countries. For though they come straight from the island, and they bear transport well, yet on the journey they acquire a certain taste of pitch which partly helps to preserve them. I have drunk wine here over thirty years old: It had a very pleasant taste and a beautiful colour.
Archbishop Constantius of Sinai referred in 1819 to the great fame of Commandaria in Europe.
One product of the island has been up to this time fostered with great zeal and care and is still one of the chief articles of export – this is its delicious wine. This fragrant nectar of Zeus, expressed and flowing from the vines which are abound in this shrine of his beloved son Bacchus, is drawn from a part of the island called Comanderia, for here was the lot and inheritance of the Commandery, the order of the Templars and Knights of Malta which lies between Mount Olympus and the town of Nemesos and Paphos. This excellent wine is one of the things greatly in request in Europe.
Reverend Edward Clarke, fellow of Jesus College, who visited Cyprus in 1800 considered Commandaria to have therapeutic properties.
Limassol produces the best Muscat of Cyprus, however Commandaria wine is definitely the most important product for the inhabitants. This wine is famous in the entire Latin world, and it is said that it has the power to bring back youth in aged people and offer regeneration to those nearing death. We tried a 40-year-old wine that indeed was like balsam, and it was rightly kept – because of its therapeutic properties – for the sick and those coming to the end of their life.
The Feast of the Five Kings
In 1363 in the City of London there took place the now famous Feast of the Five Kings. This was the occasion when Alderman Sir Henry Picard, at that time Master of the Vintners’ Company, hosted a dinner to a highly distinguished group of guests. According to tradition, the Mayor of London sumptuously feasted King Edward III of England, King John II of France, King David II of Scotland, King Valdemar IV of Denmark and King Peter I of Cyprus and many other noblemen. It was the time when Peter Lusignan was travelling around Europe in an attempt to assemble an army for a new crusade.
There is no record of the fare that the wine trader Picard offered to his guests, but legend maintains that Commandaria which would withstand the hazard of rough handling and changes of temperature during transport, actually flowed in rivers.
The Vintners’ Company to this day drink their traditional toast with five cheers to commemorate what was a memorable occasion. A painting by Charles Taylor in the Royal Exchange of London depicts vividly the magnificence and grandeur of the Feast of the Five Kings.
Up until 2004 all Cyprus wines were basically considered as table wines. Accession to the European Union, however, has necessitated new legislation that would classify the wines produced on the island. Four viticultural regions have been identified which are designated to produce Wines of Controlled Appellation of Origin. The four regions are:
- Akamas Laona
This region lies near the north-west coast of Cyprus and comprises the six village communities of Drousia, Inia, Kathikas, Kritou Terra, Pano Arodes and Kato Arodes which are allowed to produce both red and white wines. In the case of red wines at least 85% of the blend should be derived from one of the two local varieties of Maratheftiko and Ofthalmo and for white wines 85% of the blend should come from the local variety Xynisteri.
- Vouni Panayias – Ambelitis
This region is in the western part of the island at an altitude of over 800 metres and comprises the villages of Ambelitis, Galataria, Kilinia and Panayia. Both white and red wines may be produced. White wines must use Xynisteri as the basic constituent (at least 85%). Red wines may be produced in two ways: The basic constituent must be either one of the two indigenous varieties of Maratheftiko or Ofthalmo to a level of at least 85%, or the local Mavro variety (at least 60%) supplemented by over 30% of one of specified foreign varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Merlot etc.).
This region comprises no less than 32 villages all situated on the slopes of Madari, Papoutsa and Maheras mountains. For the production of white wines, Xynisteri must constitute at least 85% of the blend and for red wines either Maratheftiko or Ofthalmo must constitute at least 85% of the blend, or the blend may be made up of 60% Mavro and 30% of one of the specified foreign varieties.
- The Wine Villages of Limassol
On the southern slopes of the Troodos mountains lie 20 villages known as the Wine Villages which constitute the fourth region of Appellation of Origin. Prominent in the Wine Villages region are two subregions – Afames and Laona. The production of both white and red wine in the Wine Villages region is based on the same grape varieties as in the Pitsilia region.
Regional Wines (Vin de Pays)
Table wines may also have a regional designation if they originate in one of the four districts; Nicosia, Limassol, Paphos or Larnaca. Essentially these categories correspond to the French “Vin de Pays” wines.
The Cyprus Tourism Organisation has organised and designated seven wine routes along which visitors can get to know the island’s wineries which are mostly small and enchanting.
Visible on many roads in the Limassol and Paphos districts are brown road signs bearing the name of the wine route. Following these routes, you can pass through some fascinating scenery, visit picturesque villages and sample wine at the regional wineries.
The Wine Festival of Cyprus is held in the coastal town of Limassol and has been established as an annual event to celebrate Cyprus’ rich history of viniculture. The Wine Festival is considered to be a revival of ancient feasts for the worship of Dionysus or Bacchus, the god of wine.
In late August to early September of each year, Limassol becomes the centre of attraction for thousands of locals and tourists who gather at the grounds of the municipal gardens to enjoy the traditional music and dancing along with Cypriot gastronomic delicacies and of course the free wine which flows in abundance.
The Wine Museum is housed in an old stone building situated in the outskirts of Erimi village, not far from Limassol. Under the same roof the visitor will discover the long history of Cyprus’ viniculture, the art of wine making and the diversity of the island’s wine culture. The building itself had once been an inn where wine merchants would stay overnight on the way to town to sell their wine.
A year after the opening of the Museum in 2005, it came to light that the deposit remains traced at the bottom of jars excavated in a settlement near Erimi that date back to the Chalcolithic Period, contained tartaric acid which is the characteristic acid of wine. This evidence is testimony to the fact that wine had been produced on the island for at least 5500 years, making Cyprus the home of the oldest wine in Europe.
The vineyards of Cyprus are among the very few in the world that were not affected by the vine louse, known as phylloxera. The catastrophic consequences of phylloxera led European vine-growers engrafting scions of well-known European varieties onto American vine stocks which are resistant to the disease. This resulted in vine plants resistant to phylloxera which produce grapes whose organoleptic or sense-related characteristics – ie colour, aroma and flavour – are not quite identical to those of the original European vine known as Vitis Vinifera.
In very few parts of the world, apart from Cyprus, the European vine is still cultivated. These are Chile, the Greek island of Santorini and some regions of Portugal and South Australia.
INDIGENOUS WHITE GRAPE VARIETES
With 2200 hectares under cultivation, Xynisteri is the most widespread white grape variety in the Cypriot vineyard. Vinification at low temperatures (16º C) of grapes from select regions produces fresh, light-coloured, light wines with low alcohol content (11-11.5% vol.) which are not amenable to ageing and must be drunk when young and robust, one year at most after production.
The name Spourtiko means “bursting”, a reference to its berries whose fragile skin splits easily. It is a variety with a short vegetative cycle with medium-sized, loosely-packed cluster with big berries of golden-yellow colour. It is known to produce light wines with herbaceous and citrus character and an alcohol content that rarely exceeds 11%.
Very rare variety, with a big, compact cluster and big berries. It is first referred in bibliography in 1893 as Promara or Glykopromon. By using the appropriate winemaking techniques, Promara produces wines with exotic aromas, well-balanced acidity and the capacity to mature in oak barrels.
The white grape variety of Vasilissa, also known as “Aspri Fraoula”, is the newest addition in the island’s vinicultural scenery and is already making an impact in the Cypriot vineyards. It produces fresh and full-bodied wines with citrus notes and an intense minerality, derived from the high altitude in which the variety grows.
INDIGENOUS RED GRAPE VARIETIES
Maratheftiko or Bambakada
This variety makes for a very concentrated wine of which the tannin, fragrance, colour and structure are extremely close to those of a Cabernet. It is a very rare variety and it is estimated that only some 120 hectares are under cultivation in the whole of Cyprus.
Mavro, meaning black, is a very productive cultivar characterized by large juicy grapes that make it a superb table variety. Its potential, however, for red quality wine is limited as in most cases the wines produced from it are poor in colour, dull and simple in aroma and light in taste, are not amenable to ageing and should be drunk while still very young.
This variety accounts for a very small percentage scattered all over the Cypriot vineyards. In all there are about 170 hectares of Ofthalmo. When not irrigated, it can produce wines of a light colour, a distinctive intense aroma, thin body and very low acidity which are not amenable to ageing.
Yiannoudi is the recent prospect of the Cypriot oenology for the production of quality red wines of local character. It has aromas of bushes and wild berries of the Cypriot nature. A variety with the ability to produce both light and full-bodied wines, managing thus to cover the full range of preferences for the consumer.
FOREIGN WHITE GRAPE VARIETIES
Two types of Chardonnay wine have recently appeared in the market. The first type is made in stainless steel tanks and at a controlled temperature of 16º C. The result is a fresh, light-coloured wine with an intensely fruity aroma (reminiscent of peach, melon and exotic fruits) and a balanced refreshing and full flavour.
The second type of Chardonnay is made using oak casks. In the last five years Cypriot winemakers have started using these miracle-working wine vessels either for fermenting the Chardonnay must or for maturing the wine for 4 to 6 months.
There are about 110 hectares of Chardonnay in Cyprus. The variety has adapted beautifully to the Cypriot ecosystem and many of the island’s future white wines will be using Chardonnay, either as the basic constituent or as a blending element.
Muscat of Alexandria or Malaga
In Cyprus there are about 280 hectares of Muscat of Alexandria scattered all over the island. When ripened correctly it produces intensely aromatic wines, reminiscent of grape, with a distinctly sweet flavour which, in many cases, is not counter-balanced by the necessary degree of corresponding acidity. Winemakers often add a small proportion of Malaga to Xynisteri to give the wine a more intense aroma.
The variety was introduced into Cyprus both because of its high productivity but also because of its contribution in the making of what, until some years ago, was called “Cyprus sherry”. Today there are some 90 hectares of Palomino grapes.
In Cyprus the Riesling variety covers an area of no more than 30 hectares. Cypriot viticulturists have not shown much interest in the Riesling variety for it does not seem to adapt easily to the prevalent xerothermic landscape of the island. Riesling is known to thrive and yield best in rather cold climates.
Only 10 hectares of this variety are currently cultivated on the island. In the future the Sauvignon Blanc variety could probably play the role of an “améliorateur” in blends with more neutral white varieties of the Cypriot vineyard.
This excellent white grape variety has been grown in Cyprus for several years. Some 50 hectares of this variety are scattered throughout the island. The variety is very productive and easy to cultivate. The Cyprus Semillon may be a lower-performer than its counterparts in Bordeaux, but it gives full-bodied, balanced white wines. A number of wine-producers have recently been using a smaller or larger proportion of Semillon in their final Xynisteri blend, thus adding flavour and fragrance, mass and balance to the Xynisteri base as well as extending the “life-span” of the wine.
FOREIGN RED GRAPE VARIETIES
About 140 hectares of this variety are under cultivation on the island. Its role and importance have declined over the years, as Cypriot vine-growers show a clear preference for other more dynamic varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and also the indigenous Maratheftiko.
Over 470 hectares are grown in Cyprus with this French variety. Very few local wine-producers bottle wines exclusively made from Cabernet Franc. They prefer mainly to blend Cabernet Franc with smaller or larger quantities of Cabernet Sauvignon, believing that the inscription of the latter on the label of the bottle, makes for bigger sales.
Its remarkable adaptability to a variety of soils and climatic conditions has brought it to Cyprus as well, where there are today around 380 hectares of this variety, increasing year by year. The first attempts to produce wines from this variety some fifteen years ago, produced rather tart, inelegant wines, most of which had an intensely acrid and sour flavour due to harsh tannins and high acidity.
The situation has changed in the last few years and there have appeared on the local market wines of this variety which have been allowed to mature in French oak casks, aided also by the process of malolactic fermentation. As a result these wines are more refined, balanced and full-bodied and some of them can stand comparison with Cabernet Sauvignon wines from other countries.
Wines made from this variety can be light and soft and when very young, are more intensely aromatic and pleasant to the palate than most reds. Cinsaut can also give finesse and suppleness when added, in small quantities, to blends of harsh wines. Cyprus is host to 120 hectares of the Cinsaut variety
In Cyprus there are about 165 hectares of Grenache Noir. The variety has adapted beautifully to local conditions and although theoretically it is not a very dynamic grape, in actual practice it has turned out to be an exceptionally important variety when used correctly in various blends with other more dynamic varieties, for example the Syrah and Mataro. Where Grenache excels, however, is when used in the production of rosé wines. The result is really impressive, for Grenache makes attractively colourful wines with intense, singular and fine aroma and full, savoury and balanced flavour. Such wines can compare favourably with good rosés worldwide.
Many Cypriot vine-growers consider Lefkada as an indigenous variety but it is not. The wine it produces has a very intense colour, a strong distinctive aroma and a particularly acrid taste, due to the harsh tannins of the variety. There are altogether 110 hectares of Lefkada in Cyprus.
Mourvedre or Mataro
The Mourvedre has come to be known by the name Mataro. Despite its exceptional adaptability to the landscape of Cypriot vineyards and its obvious capacity to produce uncommonly good wines which are amenable to ageing, it is often• under-estimated by Cypriot wine-producers who continue to show a preference for more trumpety names such as Cabernet Sauvignon.
This variety covers an area of 220 hectares all over the island. Mataro has adapted very well to the Cypriot ecosystem and it would constitute a good investment for Cypriot vine-growers and winemakers, provided the grapes are gathered when completely ripe, as the variety cannot reach its full potential when early picked.
Syrah or Shiraz
The best red wines in Cyprus are generally made from Syrah as well as Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. The Syrah variety appears to have fully adapted to the terrain and climatic conditions of the island and produces dark-coloured, fragrant and intensely flavoured full-bodied red wines for maturing (very often in oak casks) for several months before bottling. There are now 170 hectares of vineyards planted with Syrah.
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Zivania is a traditional alcoholic beverage, which has been produced for centuries in Cyprus by distillation, and has played an important role in the everyday life of Cypriots. Zivania is a strong drink, high in alcoholic content which according to tradition (also adopted by the 1998 Regulations for the Control of zivania) it is a distillate produced only from grapes. Since 2004, Zivania has been protected under EU regulations as a product unique to Cyprus and as such cannot be produced in any other country or marketed under that name.
Zivania is characterized by its typical taste and aroma. It is colorless and it has a pleasant alcoholic content with light aroma of raisins. The typical alcohol content is 45% by volume. It is a pure drink that contains no sugars and has no acidity