Wine Talk: The essence of the Eastern Mediterranean

Cyprus is now a modern, dynamic, exciting wine region, in one of the oldest wine-growing regions on Earth.

BEAUTIFUL TSIAKKAS Winery vineyards. (photo credit: Courtesy)
BEAUTIFUL TSIAKKAS Winery vineyards.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Eastern Mediterranean gave wine culture to the world, yet made terrible wine for 2,000 years, but in the last 15-20 years has undergone an exciting quality revolution. It is now a modern, dynamic, exciting wine region, in one of the oldest wine-growing regions on Earth. The wines of Lebanon and Israel have been the ones leading the charge, and lately Turkey has had a great deal of attention for its indigenous varieties. Cyprus would seem to have been left behind in the noise stakes, but there, there have also been exciting changes, wine-wise.
What is unique to Cyprus is that it has high altitude vineyards up to 1,400 meters above sea level. These are amongst the very highest in Europe. They have indigenous varieties and many old-vine vineyards. Furthermore, as an island, Cyprus never suffered from phylloxera, unlike most of the world of wine. They also have Commandaria, a unique and historic dessert wine. Reference to it goes back to 800 BCE, which makes it by far the oldest wine brand.
I always say Israel is not an island and kosher is not a country. Our wines are part of the Eastern Mediterranean wine region, and no doubt the wines of the Eastern Mediterranean should be listed together on the wine list and displayed together on the same shelves. We are a little insular in Israel thinking everything revolves around us, so it is instructive to look around and see what we can learn from our neighbors.
There are contacts that go way back. Yayin Kafrisin was mentioned in the ancient sources. It has been alternatively translated as “Cyprus wine” or “caper wine,” and was most likely both. It was even an important ingredient in the incense used in the Holy Temple.
The paradox is that the wines of Cyprus were far more visible to the world 30 years ago. Then Cyprus, a tiny country that makes Israel look big, produced three times more wine than Israel. The mountains, slopes and valleys were covered in vines. Families grew grapes as a matter of course. This, more a way of life than a profession, was passed down through the generations from grandfather to father to son. The inaccessible, steeper vineyards were worked with the use of donkeys. Grapes were used to make wine, for eating, to make raisins or for some of the delicious, sweet by-products they make from grape syrup. The remainder was distilled to make Zivania, the national Cyprus spirit.
Wine sales were bloated because of the receptive markets for inexpensive wines including Sherry-style wines sent to the UK (remembering Emva Cream Sherry, a massive brand in its time), Sangria to France, Glühwein to Germany and cheap bulk wine to the former Soviet Union. Sales were massive but there was no desire, or need, for quality. Four monopoly-style wineries (like Carmel in Israel), dominated the domestic market. These were ETKO, KEO, LOEL, and SODAP. Together they had well over 90% of the market. Then the market was destroyed when use of the name Sherry was outlawed unless it came from Spain, the Soviet Union collapsed, and the bulk markets disappeared overnight.
When Cyprus joined the European Union, the country became open for imports from Europe, and the domestic market became exposed to competition of price, quality and volume. It had to change direction or be swallowed up.
What happened was that wineries moved to the mountains. KEO moved its production to Mallia, SODAP to the Kamanterena Winery at Stroumbi and ETKO to Olympus Winery at Omodus. A new generation of boutique wineries was born and the younger generation of winemakers started to study abroad. The young generation abandoned vineyards, and whole swaths of vineyard areas have been abandoned. A positive consequence of this is that wineries have become wine growers. Production dropped to less than a third of Israel’s, and today the big four account for less than 40% of the market.
I found a wine industry newly focused on quality and maximizing on its indigenous grapes, but also an industry that was lacking self-confidence, introverted, way behind its neighbors in marketing the brand called Cyprus wines.
The leading wineries have different policies. For instance, Vlassides and Kyperounda both focused on international varieties. Zambartas was founded on the idea of blending a local variety with an international one, while Vouni Panayia focuses on local varieties only. Tsiakkas was internationally focused but now is a big supporter of local varieties, and this seems to be the direction echoed elsewhere.
High altitude mountain vineyards belonging to Vouni Panayia Winery. High altitude mountain vineyards belonging to Vouni Panayia Winery.
There are two main grape varieties that dominate everything in Cyprus: the white variety Xynisteri and the red variety Mavro. Xynisteri is the main Cypriot variety with marketing potential. It does not quite have the pulling power of the Greek Assyrtiko, but is the most authentic taste of Cyprus in a glass. After years of making insipid, characterless wines from this variety, wineries understood vineyards from altitude could produce refreshing, zesty wines which are certainly of interest to the wine-lover and connoisseur. The best of these is the Kyperounda Winery’s effort from vineyards at 1,400 meters above sea level. Its Petritis is arguably the showcase white wine of Cyprus.
One of the varieties with better quality potential is the Promara, which has the broad mouthfeel similar to Chardonnay. The Vouni Panayia version was the best I tasted. Another revived variety is the pleasantly aromatic Morokanella, which reminds me of Malagousia, the recently revived Greek variety. I tasted good examples at the Aes Ambelis Winery, the nearest winery to Nikosia, and the Vasilikon Winery, near Paphos. No doubt these two are the white varieties to watch in the next few years, but in the meantime Xynisteri remains the main ambassador of Cypriot wine.
The Mavro is a high cropping red without great potential, though treated right it can have a beautiful strawberry, raspberry aroma. As long as it is realized this not going to be a grand vin, then a nice summer red wine can be made. The best I tasted was made by Tsiakkas, and Zambartas has a Mavro made from nearly 100-year-old vines with a remarkably sensual nose, which is still in barrel. Mavro is part of the Cyprus wine DNA, and it is good to see wineries making these attempts. Overall though, the Holy Grail of Cyprus wine will not be found in the Mavro grape.
 A hundred year old vine from Zambartas Winery's Margelina vineyard. A hundred year old vine from Zambartas Winery's Margelina vineyard.
More interesting quality-wise is the Maratheftiko (a.k.a. Vamvakada), a red variety which has an ethereal flowery aroma, that lifts the berry fruit. However, it is notoriously difficult to grow, having a self-pollination problem that can leave bunches decimated, like a hand missing fingers. One of the solutions is to inter-plant another vine like Xynisteri every three vines. This solves the pollination problem, but creates others. The best examples are made by Ezousa, Zambartas and Tsiakkas. Newer still, and with more focused deep berry fruit is the Yiannoudi variety, which has similar growing problems. This is probably the one with the most potential in the long run. I liked the Vlassides experimental version, and the wines produced by Vouni Panayia and Tsiakkas also show the qualities of this variety. When I visited Cyprus in 2003, I came across the Lefkada, a tannic variety of Greek origin, which I thought was ideal for blending. I was pleased to see that Vasilikon Winery make a very good wine from this varietal.
Of course, international varieties are prevalent. The Vlassides Shiraz, Kyperounda Chardonnay and Vasilikon Cabernet Sauvignon are great wines. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to taste an Ezousa Maratheftiko 2009 and a Vasilikon Cabernet Sauvignon 2001. Both showed excellently. This illustrated to me that Cypriot wines can age successfully.
Commandaria is still there, like a time capsule representing the ancient world. There is the old style that has not changed in centuries (or millennia), and some wineries are now making a more approachable modern style. The fruit comes from villages in the Limassol region. The varieties are exclusively Mavro and Xynisteri. The grapes are late harvested and then dried on mats for a week or two. The wine is fortified, which is optional, and then aged for a minimum of two years, usually in old, used 500-liter barrels. The blends are made from an approach similar to the solera system in Sherry. The ETKO Centurion is rich and unctuous, made in the traditional way, while the Aes Ambelis is made in a more modern style. Both are outstanding. Tsiakkas also makes a relatively light, almost refreshing Commandaria, which is sensuous and enchanting.
As far as the regions are concerned, the official wine regions of Cyprus are confusing, as they don’t fit the reality any more. Basically the main wine growing areas center on the Troodos Mountains toward the central-southwestern part of the country.
Everywhere I was amazed by the most stunning views, leaving memories of thick gnarled old bush vines, usually of Mavro and Xynisteri, steep inaccessible vineyards and old stone-wall terraces. Cyprus is a country of mountain vineyards, authentic winemaking and wines which go perfectly with their island cuisine. The blend is intoxicating and it is the essence of the Eastern Mediterranean.
The writer has advanced Israeli wine for over 30 years and is referred to as the English voice of Israeli wines.