The Buyer hits the road again and this time it’s destination Cyprus as Geoffrey Dean returns to the island three years on to discover how Cypriot wine is becoming premiumised. The bad old days of bulk wine exports to the Soviet Bloc have long since gone and now a new breed of internationally-sussed winemakers are using a mix of international and indigenous grape varieties to make fabulous wines with great sommelier appeal.
Apart from the climate, Cypriot wine can rely on old varieties such as Maratheftiko to make exceptional wines.
Three years after my first visit to Cyprus’ vineyards in 2015, it was gratifying to discover on a return this autumn that the island’s wines continue to get better and better. If Commandaria, one of the world’s oldest sweet wines, remains Cyprus’ best known beverage, its still wines have much to offer, especially those made from indigenous varietals like Xynisteri and Maratheftiko. Others, like Morokonella and Yiannoudi, are produced in small quantities but have great potential. Excellent Cypriot wines from international varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Mourvedre and Viognier also feature strongly.
But it is the indigenous varietals, and their undoubted quality, that many of Cyprus’ winemakers believe will consolidate the island as a brand. The days of “execrable” bulk still wines, as Angela Muir MW once described Cypriot exports to the old Soviet Union, are long gone. The national crush is less than a tenth of what it was in 1990, and only 4% of Cypriot wine is exported. Table wine makes up 60% of production, but it is the mid-market and premium labels that are exported, mostly retailing for €15-20 at the cellar doors of Cyprus’ 65 producers. This offers really good value for money.
Long since the Greek poet, Hesiod, wrote in the ninth century of Cypriot sweet wine made from sun-dried grapes, the fundamentals for viticulture on the island have been strong. Enough sun-hours to ripen any grape, calcareous and volcanic soils, low rainfall and the highest vineyards – up to 1500m – in the European Union (bar the Canary Islands). Cyprus joined the EU in 2004, enabling winemakers to apply for a 40% grant for new equipment and buildings, which many have done. Throw in the fact that phylloxera has never found its way onto the island, allowing all vines to exist on own rootstock, and you have all the potential ingredients for successful winemaking.
The push towards indigenous varietals has been led by one leading winery, Vouni Panayia, which grows exclusively indigenous grapes: Morokonella, Spourtiko, Promara, Xynisteri (all white); Maratheftiko and Yiannoudi (both black). These are all made into single varietal wines, although a red blend of Maratheftiko, Ofthalmo and Mavro is also produced. The Morokonella 2017, an ABV 11.5% offering with fresh acidity, good length and attractive lemony notes, underlined the promise of this particular grape, while the Maratheftiko 2010, from 70-year old bush vines and aged in 100% new French oak, showed especially well.
Maratheftiko is not an easy grape to grow. First, all its flowers are female, which means it does not cross-pollinate and needs to be fertilised by other vines. Growers, therefore, have had to plant alternate rows of other varietals with it – for example, Shiraz. Secondly, it suffers from uneven ripening, with many of the berries still green at harvest time. This can make picking especially difficult and lead to inconsistent yields.
But there is no doubting the quality of the wines that Maratheftiko can produce. Other excellent examples include those from Zambartas, Vlassides, Ezousa, Vasilikon, Tsangarides, Nelion, Fikardos and Tsiakkas. The wines tend to be deep purple in colour, with gentler tannins than Cabernet Sauvignon, and appealing red cherry and black fruit with herbal notes. Some time in new oak helps give added structure, helping Maratheftiko to age well.
Vasilikon’s full range is exported to the UK, and includes a single varietal Lefkada, a grape that originated in neutral Greece but has now been adopted as one of Cyprus’ own. Vasilikon’s winemaker, Aphrodite Constandi, said that ‘no one wants to work’ with this tannic variety. “But it’s not as complicated as Maratheftiko,” she added. “For me, it smells of Cyprus – all violets and wild roses with herbal aromas like thyme. It’s like taking a stroll in the mountains.”
Marcos Zambartas, one of many talented young Cypriot producers who gained winemaking experience overseas, crafts a beguiling Shiraz-Lefkada blend (70:30), employing 60% new oak (as against 20% for his outstanding Maratheftiko). Zambartas Wineries‘ single vineyard Xynisteri, 40% of which was fermented in barrel, possesses extra body and roundness from five months of lees stirring. Zambartas is in talks with Amathus Drinks, which already imports Costas Tsiakkas’ excellent range.
Tsiakkas’ Yiannoudi 2016 is the best example of this varietal in Cyprus that I tasted. Glorious red fruit with sweet spice and damson notes, along with supple tannins, make this 13.5% offering highly drinkable. Their Promara, with roasted almond notes from five months on the lees, has more body than Xynisteri, being closer in character to Chardonnay or Chenin Blanc.
On the subject of international varieties, some fine Viognier is made by both Ezousa Winery and Argyrides Vineyards. The former’s red blend of Maratheftiko (40%), Syrah (30) and Mourvedre (30) works well, while the latter’s single varietal Mourvedre 2013, made from 43-year-old vines, exhibited some lovely red and black cherry fruit. Tsangarides Winery also makes a fine single varietal Mourvedre from low-yielding 40-year-old vines (although he labels it as Mataro). Tsangarides’ 2107 Xynisteri is a notable example of how appealing this grape can be, its flavour being enhanced by his use of four months on the lees as well as some batonnage. Eighteen hours of cold maceration adds body and structure.
Sophocles Vlassides, like Ezousa, produces an excellent Syrah, although the fact he labels it Shiraz underlines its stylistic difference. He nevertheless thinks indigenous varieties are the future for Cyprus. “The trends worldwide are to get something that is special for your area,” he said. “If you say you’re going to produce the best Yiannoudi, you don’t get a competitor in another country. Business-wise, this winery is profitable because of international varieties, but if you look into the future, you have to be ready for indigenous varieties.”
Kyperounda is another top winery that exports both international and indigenous varietals (through Berry Bros and Hallgarten Druitt). Kyperounda and Tsiakkas are among the best producers of Commandaria in Cyprus, both having abandoned the old tradition of fortifying.
“By adding pure alcohol spirit, you’re destroying too much of the fruit,” Minas Mina, Kyperounda’s winemaker, explained. Both his and Tsiakkas’ Commandarias are almost totally Xynisteri (each blends in 2-5% of the black grape Mavro). Tsiakkas’ 2012 Commandaria, which had 217 g/l residual sugar, was wonderfully complex, with citrus fruits as well as dried fig and toffee notes. “We don’t fractional blend, unlike the big co-ops, as we believe in the expression of the vintage,” Costas Tsiakkas’ son, Orestis, said.
No discourse on Cypriot sweet wine would be complete without mention of Ayia Mavri. This boutique winery’s Muscats of Alexandria have consistently won international awards over the past two decades, and the 2015 version (110 g/l RS, 14% abv) was wonderfully concentrated with a very long finish. Its quality, like that of so many other Cypriot wines, is clear, and is indicative of how far the island’s winemakers have come in the last decade or so.