Cyprus winery tours – February 2004
© Nicos Neocleous

Cyprus is the land of my parents and therefore my ancestral homeland. As a native Londoner, I enjoy visiting the island to catch up with friends and relatives, as well as exploring new areas. For me, there is always so much to do in seemingly so little time and each trip leaves me with fond memories.

I took the opportunity to visit three wineries during a recent holiday and here are my impressions. My other aim has been to provide a glimpse into the wine industry of Cyprus.  I would like to thank my cousin George Araouzos for his time and effort in helping me visit these pockets of vinous happenings on the "island of paradise."

Nicos Neocleous in the Troodos Mountains
Nicos Neocleous in the Troodos Mountains

Introduction to the Island of Cyprus

Cyprus is a parliamentary republic in the northeastern Mediterranean, situated close to the continents of Europe, Asia and Africa. With an area of 9,251 square kilometres (3,572 square miles) it is the third largest island in the Mediterranean, after Sicily and Sardinia.  It gained independence from Britain in 1960.  The Turkish invasion of 1974 resulted in the occupation of 38% of the island and the displacement of 200,000 from their homes.  The country was then forcibly divided into two parts by a line stretching from occupied Famagusta on the east coast to the northwest coast above Pomos, cutting through the capital Nicosia.  This is the so-called "Green Line."  The United Nations continue to house soldiers along the Green Line.

The coastline is rugged and mostly rocky, but with several long, sandy beaches.  The Troodos Mountains in the southwest are denominated by Mount Olympus, which reaches a height of 1,951 metres (6,401 feet).  The capital Nicosia is the banking and financial centre of Cyprus. The tourist resort of Limassol is also the island's main port and houses the main activities of international business companies.  The overall population of the southern Greek Cypriot side is approximately 670,000 (estimated at 31 December 2000).  The English language is widely spoken.  The main towns and populations are Nicosia (capital – 271,000), Limassol (193,000), Larnaca (111,000) and Paphos (58,000). 

Brief historical survey

A brief history of wine in Cyprus

The tradition in Cyprus of turning grapes into wine is one that goes back thousands of years.  An important point to note is that Phylloxera has never affected Cyprus. Historically, the most famous wine of the island has been Commandaria, a sweet dessert wine similar in style to sweet sherry. Matured using a solera system, most modern examples cost no more than £10 (US$18, Euro14) in the UK, although more expensive special cuvees do exist. 

Most of the wines produced in recent times were basic table wines of variable quality, from rustic wines that held some charm to bottles that were not enjoyable to drink.  Flawed examples would often taste thin, unclean and oxidised due to one or more of the following:

The last two decades have seen changes in the world market for Cypriot wines.  Firstly, large volumes of basic table wine that used to be shipped to the former Eastern Bloc countries struggle to find a market.  Since the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, this external demand has reduced as the Eastern European countries can buy wine from any country they want to.  Secondly, the 1970's hey day of export sales of Cyprus sherry to countries such as the UK (brands like Emva Cream) has declined.  Thirdly, international competition in the wine world has never been so fierce. Quality has risen on all fronts, and more wine producing countries have been exporting to foreign markets. Witness the incredible ascendancy of New World wines and you can see that the Cypriot wine industry had many threats to deal with.

A map of Cyprus showing the wine growing areas

Map of Cyprus
© Reproduced from "Wines of Cyprus" – Cyprus High Commission Trade Centre

Approximately 95% of wine production in Cyprus is carried out by four main wineries, namely Etko Ltd (founded in 1844), Keo Ltd (founded in 1927), Loel Ltd (founded in 1943) and Sodap Ltd (founded in 1947). They produce a range of red and white wines from a mixture of indigenous and international grape varieties.  They saw the various threats upon them and have reacted in several ways. 

On the production side, there have been a number of positive steps taken.  One has been better vineyard management, with selective grubbing up and replanting. A second tactic was to build wineries closer to the vineyards to ensure picked bunches of grapes are processed as soon as is practical.  Thirdly, new winemaking talent including foreign winemakers and improved production processes have raised the quality of the final product. 

Approximately thirty-five to forty boutique wineries have also sprung up on the island in the last fifteen years and have been responsible for some of the renewed interest in Cypriot wines. They tend to be financed privately and owned by wine enthusiasts. 

With respect to sales, a greater emphasis has been made on promoting Cypriot wines in markets like the UK.  This has taken the form of greater public exposure, like supermarket listings.  Also, the labelling of bottles has been revised to make them cleaner and more modern looking to reflect the improved wine. 

Grape varieties

Most of the wine is produced from indigenous local grape varieties such as Mavro (literally translated it means 'black'), Opthalmo (red), Maratheftiko (red) and Xynisteri (white).  International varieties have also been planted such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache and Chardonnay. 

Vines are often bush trained to help deal with the high average temperatures and are planted a few feet apart.  Different types of trellising have become more widely used by the larger producers, especially where this is possible given the gradient of the vineyards. 

Climate

Average summer temperatures range between 21C to 37C (70F – 100F) in the central plain, and from 15C to 27C (59F – 81F) in the Troodos Mountains.  From April to September there are usually around eleven hours of bright sunshine per day, and the island generally has around three hundred and forty days of sunshine each year. Winters are mild by northern European standards, and temperatures range from 5C to 17C (41F – 62F) in the central plain and from 0C to 9C (32F – 48F) in the mountains. Between December and March the night-time temperatures in the mountain range are often below freezing. There is snow on the mountain ranges between December and April, and skiing is a popular sport.  The hottest months are July and August, and the coolest are January and February.


Marion Winery (Omodhos Village)

Tel: 00 357 254 22296
Fax: 00 357 25421660

Nicos Neocleous talks to Mr Marios Ioannides
Nicos Neocleous talks to Mr Marios Ioannides, owner of Marion Winery.  Note the vineyards and the village of Omodhos in the background.

This was my first port of call on a cold morning.  The owner Mr Marios Ioannides greeted us and described in outline the vineyards and the winemaking processes.  He first made wine at the winery in the 1992 vintage and it is now equipped to process 42,000 cases of wine every vintage. Although he owns some vineyards, Mr Ioannides also buys in grapes from local producers.  Yields on the steep slopes are low due to the age of the vines and the tough conditions.  The winery itself is located in the village and is about 1,000 metres (approximately 3,200 feet) above sea level.  

There are five red wines produced, which are:

  1. 100% Cabernet Sauvignon;
  2. 100% Grenache
  3. 100% Maratheftiko
  4. A blend of Grenache, Maratheftiko and Opthalmo
  5. A blend or approximately 70% Opthalmo and 30% Maratheftiko.

There is also a white wine made from local indigenous varieties.   Although I was not able to taste any wines at the winery, here are two notes of wines that I tried a few days later.

1) 2000 Marion Winery – Maratheftiko (Omodhos Village, Cyprus)
A 12.5% alcohol wine, this was made from the indigenous Maratheftiko grape.  Dark strawberry red, the nose showed wet earth, sweet raspberries and a touch of jam. On the palate it was simple, rustic and at best a pizza wine.  Acceptable but with a slightly acidic finish.  Tasted slightly better with the food.  80/100.

2) 1999 Marion Winery – Cabernet Sauvignon (Omodhos Village, Cyprus)
Medium plum red and weighing in at 12.5% alcohol.  Made from 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from the wineries vineyards and also bought in grapes. The nose shows some wild indigenous herbs interplaying with a rustic earthiness.  A simple grapey texture that finishes a touch short for my liking. 80/100. 


Ayia Mavri Winery (Kilani Village)
http://www.ayiamavri.com

Perched up in the wine producing village of Kilani at about 1,000 metres (approximately 3,200 feet), Ayia Mavri Winery (founded in 1983) produces and sells about 4,000 cases of wine every year.  We were met by Mrs Yiannoulla Ioannidou whose family own the winery.  She toured us around the facilities, starting with a brief history of historic winemaking.

Nicos Neocleous and Mrs Yiannoulla Ioannidou
Nicos Neocleous listens as Mrs Yiannoulla Ioannidou explains how winemaking used to be carried out until recent times.  Note the grape crusher sitting on top of the clay wine vessel (c1889).

We then moved onto modern processes, with an impressive bank of temperature controlled stainless steel tanks taking pride of place in the winery.  A short walk through the cellars, and then we sat down to taste their range of wines.  Approximately fifty percent of their sales of wines are from the winery itself, mostly to tourists from abroad.  There are two ranges of wines, namely the Kilani Village and Ayia Mavri.  The Ayia Mavri is the more premium placed product, although the most expensive wine costs £7 (US$13, 10Euros, CY£6) at the winery. 

1) 2002 Ayia Mavri white (Kilani Village, Cyprus)
This is made from 100% Xynisteri.  A light straw colour, the nose reminds me of fresh lemon with a touch of sherbet.  A simple wine, with a light and fresh taste. 80/100.

2) 2002 Kilani Village white (Kilani Village, Cyprus)
Made from a blend of grape varieties, it appears light lemon with a touch of gold. A slight floral aroma leads to a clean wine that shows a hint of sweetness.  80/100. 

3) 2002 Kilani Village rose (Kilani Village, Cyprus)
Produced from 100% Grenache grapes that were cold macerated for between 12-24 hours. A light pink shade in the glass, I found soft raspberries on the nose.  The light strawberry palate was pleasant and the soft tannins kept the fruit well balanced. A clean and pleasant wine.  81/100.

4) 2001 Kilani Village red (Kilani Village, Cyprus) 
A blend of Grenache, Carignan, Mataro (Mourvedre), Cabernet Sauvignon and Mavro (listed in decreasing proportions).  This wine showed a dark strawberry red, the nose giving up hints of wet earth with slightly sweet plum fruits.  Crunchy light raspberry and cherry fruit with a decent length. 81/100. 

5) 2001 Ayia Mavri red (Kilani Village, Cyprus) 
This 12% wine is a blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon (aged in new oak) with the remainder made up of Grenache, Carignan and Mataro.  A medium plum red, I sensed a touch of cassis, black plum and vanilla. There is some black plum on the palate with some drying tannins and a decent finish.  82/100. 

6) 1999 Ayia Mavri - Cabernet Sauvignon (Kilani Village, Cyprus) 
  This wine spent six months in new oak barriques.  A dark strawberry red, I smelled black fruits with a little soft vanilla.  The mouthfeel was a seamless and slightly sweet plum fruit sensation with a respectable length.  I found it balanced and drinkable with no need to wait any longer to drink it.  85/100. 

Tasting the wines of Ayia Mavri
Nicos Neocleous tasting the wines of Ayia Mavri while Mrs Yiannoulla Ioannidou explains each one

7) NV Kilani Village - White medium dry wine (Kilani Village, Cyprus)
This was made from 100% Xynisteri and its appearance was a dull light yellow.  The nose was sweet and floral.  I tasted the simple semi-sweet style that was easy to drink.  82/100.

8) NV Kilani Village - Red medium sweet wine (Kilani Village, Cyprus)
This was made from Cypriot indigenous grapes varieties such as Mavro and Maratheftiko.  A light red plum colour, the nose showed some earthy aromas, as well as candyfloss and sweet cherries. Slightly sweet palate entry, then a dry red wine appears to leave a decent finish.  84/100.

9) NV Ayia Mavri – Muscat (Kilani Village, Cyprus)
This was produced from 100% Muscato Alexandrias.  A light and dull golden shade, I detected a sweet and slightly honeysuckle nose.  This medium bodied sweet wine shows a reasonable length and a moderately fresh tasting finish. 84/100.

10) NV Ayia Mavri - Sweet red wine (Kilani Village, Cyprus)
Red Muscat grapes were used for this second to last wine in the line-up.  A light plum red, the nose giving me hints of sweet plum fruit.  A balanced sweet entry, not cloying with acidity in the background.  This showed a pleasant length and was easy to drink. 84/100. 

11) 2002 Ayia Mavri – Riesling (Kilani Village, Cyprus)
Only eight hundred bottles are made from a tiny parcel of vines owned by the winery. Light yellow, I found light hints of green apple, pear and walnuts on the nose.  Slightly off dry and surprisingly full bodied, the palate opens up and lasts well for a good ten seconds.  The finish is dry and ever so slightly nutty.  This is certainly an interesting wine that stimulated conversation about worldwide Riesling styles.  84/100.


Kykkos Monastery

Founded in the 12th Century, this is the largest and most famous monastery on the island.  This has an impressive museum that houses many rare religious and historical artefacts. They also produce a range of red and white wines and Zivania (Cypriot spirit). They were one of the first producers to make red Zivania, which is made by dripping the spirit over cinnamon giving it a spicy taste.  It is about 1,300 metres (approximately 4,160 feet) above sea level. Unfortunately, as we were behind schedule and having enjoyed an extended lunch, we arrived just after the winery had shut for the day.  Here is a tasting note from a bottle I managed to purchase. 

NV Kikkotiko – red dry country wine (Cyprus) 
A 12% red wine made from Mavro, Alicante Bouchet and Grenache.  A medium strawberry red, the earthy and herb driven nose is tinged with a little sweet red plum.  Ripe with some mouth drying tannins, this medium bodied wine is pleasant and rustic, and is ready to drink.  82/100. 

At Kykko Monastery
Nicos Neocleous stands outside the extensive wine making facilities of Kykko Monastery


The future

Cyprus will become a member of the European Union on 1 May 2004.  This will have an affect on all areas of the country and indeed these are already being felt.  A UN backed political settlement to the thirty year old division of the island is currently being negotiated and an agreement seems imminent.

Tourism and financial services contribute at least 75% to the island's income, and this is set to grow with EU membership.  The downside of this is that it leaves the Cypriot economy more vulnerable to external economic and political shocks to these markets.  This was witnessed by the tragic events of 11 September 2001.

The demand from tourists for Cypriot wine comes in many forms.  There is local consumption in the numerous bars and restaurants across the island. The only issue here is that Cypriots do not have a popular culture of drinking any wines that they consider expensive.  This has meant that the home market has been restricted to wines that cost under £5 (US$9, 7 Euros) per bottle. Another source of sales have been airport outlets and local stores by tourists to take back to their respective countries.  Thirdly, demand stimulated in foreign markets for wine drinkers. One example that springs to mind is the 'Island Vines' and 'Mountain Vines' range made by Sodap Ltd that is currently listed in the UK by the Co-Op.

It is interesting to note that Cabernet Sauvignon is a recent feature in the vineyards in Cyprus, probably less than thirty years old.  I have noticed in Cyprus that there seems to be a recent trend of making wines from both well know varietals and indigenous vine fruit. This has taken the form of either solely international grape varietals, solely indigenous varietals or a blend of the two.  Italian winemakers have used this very effectively in the last twenty years to help raise the profile of their country's wines, especially with the so-called 'Super Tuscans'.  They are by no means the only country following this path as Greece has also gained limited success in international markets with this approach. 

I have tasted better Cypriot wines in the recent past than the ones detailed earlier. I know that the quality levels are rising all the time, and this is necessary as the world wine producers are making better and better wines across the board.   It remains to be seen how much success Cyprus will have in the various export markets.  One thing is for sure, the Greek Cypriots are doing their best, given the climate and their limited resources, to rise to the challenges put in front of them. 

March 2004

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