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Cyprus on a high, part I

text and photographs © 2009 Tom Cannavan

This is a two-part profile of Cyprus and its wine producers. Part II profiles seven more estates. There is another link to part II at the bottom of the page.

To describe Cyprus as a divided island is to state the obvious: the 'green line' divides Turkish Cypriots in the north from their Greek Cypriot neighbours in the south, and a passport is required to cross from one to the other. But this stunningly beautiful island, home to Aphrodite and Apollo, is divided in many other ways. The resorts of the south coast, home to Marks & Spencer, Debenhams and hordes of British tourists, are a far cry from the peaceful interior. Dotted with humble villages, herds of meandering goats and iconic orthodox churches, the hills were strewn with wild herbs and carpeted with flowers on my Spring visit.

Wine is also an industry - and indeed a philosophy - that is sharply divided on Cyprus. Just a decade ago 95% of production was in the hands of four enormous companies (per capita, Cyprus is one of the biggest wine producers on the planet). The companies - Keo, Etko, Loel and SODAP - still exist and produce enormous amounts of wine, but they have been joined by around 50 boutique wineries, based high in the hills amongst the vineyards, and not in semi-industrial zones close to the coast. The division here is stark.

Membership of the EU in 2005 heralded a new age for this ancient island, and the revolution in the wine industry since has been fast and far-reaching. The big four have reacted, building winery facilities in amongst the vineyards and concentrating on improving quality, so the wine scene on Cyprus is fast-moving and of interest for wine lovers looking for something just a little bit different.

As can be seen from the maps to the right, Cyprus has a geographical position that is as much Middle Eastern as it is European. Lying further east than Libya and Egypt, the culture - including food - fuses Greek, Turkish and Middle Eastern traditions. humus, feta, moussaka and souvlaki are present and correct, but the exotic tang of coriander and cumin runs through many dishes.

climate and geography

The shaded areas on the map of Cyprus's show the wine producing regions clustered around the Troodos mountains, which climb from the coast to the peak of Mount Olympus at almost 2,000 metres. These mountains are the linchpin to the modern breed of fine wine estates. Up here are some of Europe's highest vineyards, where the lower temperatures and high levels of UV light are capable of producing grapes of high quality. At Kypranous vineyards way up at 1500 metres, I struggled to keep my balance in the wind. Up here, the recorded temperature has exceeded 30c on only two days in the past two years, whilst on the coast, heatwaves of 45c are not uncommon. Drought was so bad in 2008 that tankers of fresh water plied back and forward from mainland Greece.
  

grapes and vines

So far, Cyprus remains Phyloxerra-free and ancient bush vines thrive on their own roots. Cyprus has 5,000 years of vine-growing tradition, but the bulk of the island's vineyards are still given over to the indigenous Mavro, the 'black' grape. Mavro is a fairly undistinguished variety, but was the bedrock of 'Cyprus Sherry' and the island's bulk wine production. Xinisteri (or Xynisteri), is the main white grape, and though again used historically in bulk production, it is also the base of the best Commanderia sweet wines, and, when grown at altitude particularly, some truly interesting dry whites. Another ancient, indigenous grape to note is Maratheftiko, which is seeing a great revival amongst the island's most quality-conscious producers for its decisive, cherry and herbal flavours.

There has been much planting of international varieties too, with Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache and Carignan to the fore, but it is Syrah that seems to be moving into centre stage amongst the most progressive boutique producers.

the producers and wines

My visit concentrated on some of the island's small, high-quality estate producers, though I did check out what two of the giant, the SODAP and Etko operations, were doing too. Profiles of the estates follow. Relatively few of these wineries have UK distribution as yet, but keep your eyes peeled and palates at the ready: there's some truly fascinating stuff beginning to emerge from the mountains of Cyprus.

Zambartas

Akis Zambartas trained in Montpellier, and until recently was oenologist and director of the giant Keo winery. Today, he bristles with quiet pride as he shows me around his immaculate little winery, newly built high in the vineyards above Limassol. Joining us is his son Marcos, recently qualified from the school of oenology in Adelaide, having gained his PhD at Imperial College in London. Team Zambartas clearly has a grasp of modern winemaking, but they also believe in the indigenous varieties of Cyprus which they harvest from old, Phyloxerra-free vines. Akis tells me " There has been a revolution in Cypriot wines - an explosion of interest in the past 10 years or so, as our "boutique" wineries sprang up."
  

Marcos believes that the conditions in Cyprus are much closer to the New World than Europe, and their modest 17,000-bottle total production is aimed at the top of the Cypriot market, as they push the envelope on price, asking 20 Euros retail for their wines. "Ten Euros or so is the upper limit for most locals for domestic wines, even though they will spend 100 on imported wines quite happily," says Akis with a shrug.

for tasting notes on 6 wines from Zambartas

Olympus Winery

UK Master of Wine and flying winemaker Angela Muir (inset, right) is consultant here, and was at the winery to greet me. Olympus is part of the giant Etko, one of the island's four larger operations, but one which is shifting from a history as a bulk producer of Cyprus Sherry and other sweet wines. For past few years they have been retracting, to create a more boutique winery up amongst the vineyards at Omodos, rather than trucking grapes to its old facility in Limassol - "Nowadays almost no grapes go there," says Angela. She also says she would like to move various varietals higher up the mountain: "Especially early ripening varieties like Merlot that develop a lot of alcohol and big tannins. Altitude is the key here." Everything we tasted at the winery was very recently bottled during Angela's visit, so it possibly was not showing at its best.
  

for tasting notes on 8 wines from Olympus

Domaine Vlasides

The name Sophocles Vlasides is spoken with a mixture of admiration and reverence by most of Cyprus's wine society. Trained in oenology at the University of California Davies, he is still in his thirties, but has carved a huge reputation for the quality of his red wines, lovingly crafted in his tiny winery, crammed into the narrow streets of the village of Kilani. From here he produces 40,000 bottles, 20,000 of them being Syrah. His own vineyards are the source of the fruit, and now average 30 years of age (his father started the project), though he buys some fruit from carefully selected vineyards that are up to 100 years old. "We manage some vineyards belonging to other people," he tells me. "They have lost interest in growing grapes for wine, so give me the fruit for free on the condition we look after their land."
  

Sophocles was the first to introduce ageing in oak barrels to the village wineries of Cyprus, and today makes wines from Syrah, as well as Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. He has also experimented with Cypriot variety Maratheftiko, but his focus seems to be on making the best wines he can from within his cramped but manageable facility, whilst consulting for other wineries as part of a concerted effort to put the wines of Cyprus on the world stage. Certainly his efforts are amongst the islands most impressive to date.

for tasting notes on 4 wines from Vlasides

Go to Part II, a profile of seven more estates