Cyprus uncorked

Cypriot wines are changing with the emergence of a new wave of boutique wine-makers and an impressive selection of local labels

With many boutique labels difficult to find outside restaurants and hotels, it’s surprising to learn that consumers are spoiled for choice when it comes to the array of affordable, high-quality vintages available in Cyprus nowadays. Since publication of the Cyprus Tourism Organisation’s (CTO) wine touring routes the task of locating the island’s hidden producers is considerably easier.

“I think it’s important to work with the original varieties like Xinisteri. It’s unique and you can’t find it anywhere else in the world,” he explains. “We have to work to find out what it can give us which I believe is many things. We’re using new methods, new technology and very low temperatures for fermentation now and I think every year it makes us better.”

However, focus on the business of wine-making rather than tourist facilities means that for the time being at least, wineries remain a far cry from the gourmet-friendly establishments of Margaret River or the Yarra Valley. Wine quality certainly makes up for the lack of amenities, and even dedicated wine buffs can’t resist deviating from the itineraries to explore Cyprus’ multifaceted rural charm.

Six itineraries cover each of the island’s wine-making regions, from Laona to Akamas in the west, to the Limassol villages which produce the world’s oldest appellation, Commandaria, given its name by 12th century Crusaders. Winery opening times vary so it’s wise to call ahead before hitting the road.

The CTO’s downloadable routes are a good starting point; a Cyprus wine guide invaluable, and village websites a great source for information on attractions and annual festivals.

It also goes without saying not to drink and drive and it’s normal to use the spittoons provided at every tasting. I tried two routes over several days, starting with route five across the mountainous Pitsilia region, featuring three notable producers along with numerous frescoed churches, EOKA hideouts, and purveyors of regional delicacies en-route from Pelendri to Agros. Undoubtedly the most remarkable is Tsiakkas Winery on the outskirts of Pelendri in an area extensively damaged by forest fires in 2007.

Although the vineyard was destroyed, the flames narrowly missed the attractive winery established by ex-banker Costas Tsiakkas and wife Marina over twenty years ago. Costas is one of a new breed of winemaker; displaying passion and dedication to the task of establishing Cyprus as a producer of world-class vintages.

Like others, his experimentation with technology, production techniques and vines, including indigenous grape varieties, has resulted in dramatic improvements to the island’s output over the past three decades. Changes include the challenging task of altering traditional cultivation methods and working in partnership with growers to manage vineyards and harvesting in accordance with the winery’s needs. “You never know and that’s the miracle of wine sometimes.

The wine you make is in the vineyard,” Costas says, repeating a commonly quoted oenologist maxim. Astutely predicting a fad for Roses, Tsiakkas was one of the first Cypriot producers to bring it to the local market.

Today it accounts for twenty per cent of the winery’s sales from an extensive product list which features Chardonnays, a crisp and zesty Sauvignon Blanc and good selection of reds. In search of a wider choice of producers, a second foray into wine country took me on a circuitous excursion around one of the oldest wine-making regions, the Krasochoria, or Wine Villages of Limassol.

Stretching across the fertile southern slopes of the Troodos range, the route penetrates deep into lush green vine-covered foothills, where conditions are perfect for the cultivation of international varietals alongside indigenous grapes such as Mavro, Ofthalmo, Maratheftiko and Xinisteri.

Featuring over twenty wineries and villages, the route follows the E601 off the Limassol to Pafos highway before joining the E803 at Ayios Amvrosios. Winding gently through a patchwork of stepped vineyards and orchards, my route offered a break at the village of Vouni, providing an opportunity to explore meandering laneways crammed with superb examples of traditional rural architecture.

My first wine-related stop is in neighbouring Koilani, a haven of tranquillity positioned west of the river Kryos at an altitude of 820m with magnificent views over the surrounding countryside. Leafy lanes and the tantalising aroma of souvla lead to a convergence of tavernas offering regional specialities beneath the shade of vine covered gazebos.

Close by, village elders engage in an age-old daily ritual of gossip and backgammon over coffee or locally-produced Zivania. Visitor attractions include a vine museum, and the pretty Byzantine church of martyr Ayia Mavri with its 15th century frescoes.

There are several outstanding wineries to visit around the village, including cosy Ayia Mavri with its small, modern production facility and plantation dating back hundreds of years.

Tasting takes place in a simple cellar where a display of awards and photographs in which proprietor Mrs Yiannoula Ioannidou and husband Ioannis pose alongside Cypriot presidents, testify to the winery’s success.

Among the excellent selection of vintages is the ‘Mosxatos 2007,’ recipient of a coveted ‘Muscats du Monde’ Grand Gold award, plus an array of great reds, whites and wonderful ‘Kiladi’ rose, the latter sold at a very digestible price of €5 ($7). In addition, the winery will release its first Xinisteri Muscat in 2011.

The next stop is at the pretty village of Pera Pedi, surrounded by mountains and built on a fertile plateau sustaining olive groves, orchards and vineyards.

Although a popular summertime hideaway for city dwellers, the village has managed to retain its old world charm through careful regulation of traditional architecture and restoration of its rural heritage sites.

On pine-clad slopes overlooking a smattering of white rendered homes, workers are putting the finishing touches to the striking stone and timber headquarters of Constantinou Winery.’

The large, modern facilities will enable the winery to double its production to 250,000 bottles a year. Local grape varieties have come into their own with some noteworthy vintages, yet owner Costas Constantinou, a self taught winemaker, believes that they have yet to reach their full potential.

“I think it’s important to work with the original varieties like Xinisteri. It’s unique and you can’t find it anywhere else in the world,” he explains.

“We have to work to find out what it can give us which I believe is many things. We’re using new methods, new technology and very low temperatures for fermentation now and I think every year it makes us better.”

The winery uses around 100,000kg of Xinisteri grapes for its crisp, aromatic Ayioklima whites, which can be tasted along with a first-rate selection of reds, Levanda Rose and orange and coffee flavoured liqueurs. In contrast to Cyprus’ arid landscape, the road from the village passes through scented sylvan hills toward the tiny settlement of Mandria, home of the secluded M. Antoniades Winery, owned and managed by wine chemist Marios Antoniades and his wife Eleni, a microbiologist. Using a combination of traditional and scientific techniques the couple produce wines low in sulphates with a delightfully crisp, clean flavour.

Unusually for Cyprus, the range also features a sparkling wine made from Xinisteri, in addition to an excellent 1993 Commandaria.

The route continues in the direction of Omodos, the jewel in the Krasochoria’s crown. Extensive renovation and pedestrianisation of its stone clad streets make it a pleasant place to recharge with a coffee before a spot of sightseeing and shopping. A honeycomb of alleyways jammed with stalls offer a cornucopia of souvenirs, narrow-knit lace, and an Omodos speciality, ‘arkatena koulourka’ sweet crispy rolls made with chickpea yeast.

Handicrafts are in abundance, from handmade soap to the vibrant artworks of popular glassmaker Dempsi, located close to the village’s historic wine press. On the outskirts of the village, beyond a comparatively plain exterior, is ‘Linos Winery’ with an annual output of 200,000 bottles produced from the winery’s own vineyards located nearby.

A delightful guide offered a tour of Linos’ well-stocked cellar before sampling five labels using blends of Mataro, Grenache and Mavro varieties, a fantastically fresh Dry White composed of Xinisteri and Riesling, and delicious honey-scented Muscat.

My final stop is at the peaceful village of Vasa, home to Vasa Winery operated by the Argyrides family and considered by many to offer the most impressive visitor experience. Closed to the public to take delivery of the recent harvest, I could only admire its beautifully restored stone facade, adding it to a long list of illustrious wine-makers to save for another day.

Melissa Reynolds is a regular contributor to Neos Kosmos who resides in Cyprus