Wines in Cyprus: A taste of things to come
Follow the wine routes around Cyprus and you'll discover small producers united in their desire to change perceptions about the island's viticulture
Friday 06 July 2012
In my experience, wine routes can be hit-and-miss affairs. In my last encounter with one, near Sauternes, I spent hours pulling over at vineyards promising vente-dégustation, only to find they were always fermé. At the one domaine I found to be open I was afforded a cursory sip of two wines and enough tacit pressure to ensure that I left with one rather expensive premier cru.
In Cyprus, however, I'd been persuaded that things were otherwise – and that the old idea had a new impetus. Rather than being imposed on established wineries, the island's six wine routes have evolved alongside 40 boutique wineries that are attempting to resurrect almost-forgotten indigenous grape varieties. Production at each winery is between 35,000 and 100,000 bottles a year, so they are not yet commonplace on UK supermarket shelves. Perhaps the wine routes will be the first step along that road.
I selected four award-winning wineries: two from Route Four, which explores the villages to the north-west of Limassol, and two from the Pitsilia region on Route Six that would take me high into the Troodos mountains that occupy the south central part of the island.
Recent archaeological digs suggest that viticulture on Cyprus may be more than 5,000 years old; the island could even be the site of the earliest vine harvests in Europe. Until 70 years ago not much had changed. Wine production was still a household enterprise and almost every home produced at least one large terracotta amphora. The wine was transferred to animal-skin wine bags and carried off by donkeys. Then wine began to be produced in serious quantities, and for the next 30 years Cyprus became a bulk wine producer selling vin ordinaire to British tourists.
My first stop was to visit a man determined to change that perception of Cypriot wine. Costas Tsiakkas gave up his job as a banker to emulate the wine producers of his grandfather's generation and produce authentic Cypriot wines in the vineyards that surround Pelendri.
Situated at an altitude of 1,000m and less than one hour north of Limassol by road, the Tsiakkas face north; even at this altitude the summer sun can be too hot for vines. Costas explained the merits of the indigenous varieties; some young vines have not yet produced a wine that can be bottled but initial results are encouraging.
"These wines can endure prolonged spells of hot dry weather and are thin skinned so they produce a refreshing light-bodied red that is better suited to the Cypriot climate than a full-bodied cabernet sauvignon," he said. He already produces a dry white made from the xinisteri grape that is fruity and refreshing, but the local maratheftiko grapes are proving a rather capricious variety. He has no room for sentiment. "These wines are unique to Cyprus but uniqueness itself is not enough here. There has to be quality too."
To be included in the routes, every winery is obliged to have regular opening hours, an adequate tasting room and someone on hand to meet the public. At my next port of call, Sophocles Vlasidis was building a new winery. When I saw it, it was still a concrete shell but the partially subterranean building will eventually be an architectural statement in itself. Low down in the valley of the river Kryos, the picture windows allow visitors to take in a view that shows both past and future of Cypriot winemaking.
The now empty terraces on the rocky hillside opposite illustrate just how extensive the industry once was. Falling prices and plummeting quality prompted people to abandon their vines and move to the coastal cities. Yet around the winery the future has already arrived. Neat rows of trained vines that can be watered, harvested and pruned efficiently are rapidly replacing the rather more individually appealing bush vines.
In keeping with his name, Sophocles is philosophical. "Promoting wine is a serious business," he said. "You need the correct tasting environment to market the wines – and effective marketing can add at least €2 to the price of a bottle."
My next stop was on the way out of the pretty hill town of Koilani. Here Ioannis Ioannides and his wife Yiannoula Ioannidou – both in their seventies – make their Ayia Mavri mosxatos which won the grand gold at the Muscats du Monde in 2010. The couple insisted their meticulously kept winery is no more than a hobby. However, it was clear that the emotional investment is high. Pouring a glass of sweet, oak-matured xinisteri, Yiannoula explained that the wine is named Nostimon Imar. A quote from Homer, it means "sweet day of the return" and it will be a bottle of this, she said, that they will crack open should the two parts of the divided island be reunited.
My final winery at Kyperounda, 50km inland from Limassol in the Pitsilia region, was a real treat, perched high in the Troodos mountains. Here I was presented with an amber-coloured commandaria – a smooth toffee-flavoured wine with a 2,000-year history that Cypriots hope will one day rival port. Served with haloumi cheese the commandaria had the sweetness of honey and overtones of dried fruit and walnuts.
The wine producers of Cyprus know that it is only through thoughtful production and marketing that their wines will reach a wider market. But from what I have seen, their wine routes are more than just signposts to a brighter future.
Paphos airport is served by British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) from Gatwick; easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com) from Bristol, Edinburgh, Gatwick, Luton, Manchester; Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com) from East Midlands, Glasgow, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle; Monarch (08719 40 50 40; flymonarch.com) from Birmingham and Gatwick.
Ambelikos Agrohotel, Potamitissa 4879, Limassol (00 357 25 52 22 11; ambelikos.com) offers doubles from €70, including breakfast.
Stou Kir Yianni Guest House and Restaurant, Linou 15, Omodos (00 357 25 42 21 00; omodosvilla gecottage.com) has doubles from €90, including breakfast.
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