THE WINES OF CYPRUS -- A LITTLE BIT
The Grape in History and its coming to Cyprus
It is probably true that there has been a commercial wine industry in Cyprus longer than
anywhere else in the world. Whilst this may give rise to romantic promotional gambits like
"Four thousand years of Tradition", it is no guarantee of good wine today.
Thankfully, though, there is plenty of good wine to drink in Cyprus at the present time,
but this is due to the skill of modern wine-makers and their equipment rather than
The wild vine from which our modern grape varieties descended (a very long time ago)
undoubtedly grew in Cyprus and the bitter small fruits were probably collected and dried
by man. The cultivation of vines for dessert fruit and wine is relatively recent. In fact
it seems that the grape was first brought near man's home and cultivated in the Black Sea
area around 8,000 years ago. From there it spread slowly south-eastwards to Mesopotamia,
Syria and Egypt, from whence it travelled across the Mediterranean to Greece, on to Italy,
and so on.
There is much evidence to suggest that the country which had the greatest wine industry
for the longest period was Syria, from around 3,000 BC or before, until about 1000 AD,
when Islam held sway and banned the production of alcohol. It is known that in that early
period, 5,000 years ago Syrian farmers came to Cyprus and, although there is no evidence
to prove it, I am personally convinced they would have brought their wine-producing grapes
And so, when the Greeks and Romans came to Cyprus several millennia later, I think they
would have found wine already here, but probably of a very different style to the wines
they were accustomed to.
Because of problems with sealing vessels to protect the wine from oxidisation from the
air, most early wines would have been sweet and the tradition of such wines in Cyprus was
born. Sweet wines not only oxidise more slowly, but they travel better then dry wines. So
callers to the Cyprus of old would have stocked their boats with the sweet wines of
Not a lot of historical evidence exists to describe the wines of Cyprus between the
Greco-Roman periods and the Middle ages, when Cyprus endured drought, pestilence and
regular wars, invasions and incursions. In the 11th century, when the Crusades commenced,
Cyprus wines became recorded and praised. The most noted proponent, at least insofar as
legend and wine promotion have it, was Richard the Lion Heart. From his sojourn here and
those of the various Orders of Knights, came the generic description of the sweet wines of
Commandaria, by law, today has certification of origin, which stipulates types, of grapes,
regions of production and methods. For such a delicious sweet wine it is a remarkable
As the centuries passed, writers, priests, explorers, soldiers and rulers praised the
sweet wines of Cyprus, bought them, shipped them, drank them. Invasion followed invasion.
Four hundred years of Lusignan rule, ending in 1489, was followed by the Venetians
(1489-1571), who found the place bankrupt. The Ottomans invaded in 1571 and stayed until
1878, when they ceded the island to Britain. In all this period there was not a lot done
for the vine-grower, especially under the Turks, who extracted iniquitous triple taxes
from vine-growers and wine-makers.
Apart from taxes, one aspect of the Turkish period was that they allocated the better land
to people of their faith, leaving the Cypriots of the Orthodox Church the higher, less
fertile ground, whose only useful cropper was the hardy vine.
The Middle Ages to the 19th. Century -- and the Foundations of the Modern Industry
During the Dark Ages, the Defenders of the Faith, the Monasteries, all over Europe were
also "Defenders of the Grape", protecting the heritage if the vine left by the
Roman Empire, and ensuring that the making of good wines, spirits and liqueurs carried on.
There is no doubt that this tradition held true in Cyprus. There are records of a winery
at Chrysorioyiatissa Monastery in the 18th. Century and, no doubt, wines and liqueurs have
been made elsewhere over the centuries.
But it is in the 19th Century that the foundations of the modern industry were laid. The
House of Haggipavlu was founded in 1844, when the company made the purchase of a second
sailing vessel, the "Saint Peter" to add to the first, the "Alexander"
bought in 1825. These vessels took exports of wine in barrels all over the eastern
By the early 1870's, it seemed that exports could rocket to colossal levels, when the
Phylloxera beetle struck and decimated every vine-growing area in Europe except Cyprus.
The French, and others, demanded thousand of barrels from Cyprus to meet demand for wine
and the Cypriots thought their bonanza days had come. But the French quickly passed laws
restricting imp-imports, to force the local industry to re-built and Cyprus' boom time
In 1875 the British leased Cyprus from Turkey and it seemed better days would come. But
there were still taxes, and little investment for this small part of the Great British
Empire. In 1889 the Cypriots sent a delegation to London to lobby for a reduction in
import duties on Cyprus wines, but without success. But the local industry proceeded
undeterred. In 1893, the Haggipavlu family, by then making spirits as well as wines, built
the first modern winery, in Sanaja in the Limassol district, with proper presses and
fermentation tanks of stone.
Around the same time, an English family, the Chaplins, built a large wine-making plant at
the village of Pera Pedi, just below Platres and starting make wine in fairly large
quantities. Both these wineries would have made dry wines, from the local grapes,
"Xynisteri" (white) and "Mavro" (red), which, as I suggest earlier,
were from vines that had been in Cyprus for many hundreds if not thousands of years.
These were the years of the British Empire, with a strong presence in the Middle East,
especially after World War I, from 1918 onwards. So the wine and spirits industry of
Cyprus prospered, with exports to all the places where the British were present:
Palestine, Egypt, Sudan, even to the Arabian Gulf, as well as to the French in Lebanon and
The stage was set for expansion.
KEO arrives on the scene; Cyprus Sherry booms.
As the new century started (on January 1st 1901, in my opinion!) there were two up-to-date
wine-making plants in Cyprus, the Chaplin family's at Per Pedhi and the Haggipavlu's at
Sanaja, both in the Limassol district. However, Haggipavlu were developing a big
distilling business, based on brandy and wine became rather secondary. But sales of
products based on the grape grew steadily.
In 1927 a group of Cypriot business houses headed by Lanitis formed KEO, with the
objective of expanding modern wine production and in 1928 they purchased the Chaplin
family winery and shortly afterwards started the construction of a second at Mallia. As
their wines came on to the market, a tacit agreement existed between KEO and Haggipavlu
that one would concentrate on wine and the other on brandy. This came to an end in 1935
when KEO opened a brandy distillery in Limassol, and Haggipavlu countered by purchasing
the largest privately owned winery in Limassol and developing it into ETKO.
The third of the "Big Four", LOEL was formed in 1943, through a break-away of
trades union members from ETKO, following a strike. This was, and is, a co-operative
company run on socialist principles which was to develop a big business with the countries
of the Communist bloc. The fourth company, SODAP (The Vine Products Co-operative Marketing
Union Ltd.) is also a co-operative, founded in 1947 by the vine-growers themselves, to
"protect the rights of the growers".
Despite World War II the Cyprus industry prospered. Although not a lot was done for it by
the British, markets were available because of the British and French presence in the
Middle East, which created a demand for wines and spirits produced in Cyprus. Development
resulted from the ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit of the Cypriots running the Big
Four. Good cheap brandy and other distilled products could always command a market, as
could good grape juice, either in its natural form or fermented.
So the sales executives of KEO, ETKO, LOEL and SODAP began to travel the world looking for
Fortified wine, that is to say wine strengthened and stabilised by the addition of brandy
or other spirit, was already popular in Northern markets and the Cypriots had started
making 'Cyprus Sherry' in 1937. But it was in the late 1940's that it really started to
take off. Incredibly cheap, EMVA Cream and many other brands started sweeping into the UK
market -- not yet the wine-loving one it is today, but one that consumed millions of
gallons of "sticky" port or sherry, or imitations thereof, at Christmas and
other celebratory times.
All over the world Cyprus sold its vine products -- concentrated grape juice, pure alcohol
for translation into vodka and other spirits, Sangria and other fruit-juice laced wines,
whilst developing its growing local market as the tourism industry began its upward surge.
TOWARDS THE MILLENNIUM
For more than thirty years, the Cyprus wine industry was "The Big Four": KEO,
ETKO, SODAP and LOEL, who produced very similar lines of wines, spirits, liqueurs and
other by-products of grape juice. They were, and are, essentially businesses, whose
function is the utilisation of a basic raw material (grape juice) to make commercially
viable products to he sold around the world in one form or another. The object is to
produce profits or dividends for the shareholders, whether they were family members, grape
growers or investors large or small.
In the 1950's and 1960's the world was demanding low-priced products and Cyprus supplied
them -- dry, medium and sweet "Cyprus Sherry", table wines sold in bulk to
Britain (where it turned up in bottles with brand names like "Hirondelle") and
other countries, by the million litres. Wine, or "Plonk" to give its vernacular
title, was the party drink and you took us much as you could buy for a Pound or two.
The came "wine lakes" and the drive by marketing men for "quality",
wines bottled in the country of origin. Cyprus began to look at the nature of its industry
-- small labour-intensive hillside vineyards producing indigenous grape varieties that
didn't match the demand for wines made from varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon and
Chadonnay; time and distance between the vines and the wineries which meant that grapes
were "stale" by the time they got to the factory; and out-of-date marketing
In the early 1980's the Cyprus government, as part of its drive to create rural industries
and away-from-the seaside tourist attractions, enabled small enterprises to apply for
licences to operate wineries of 50,000 to 300,000 bottles-a-year capacity, in the hill
villages of the grape growing regions. The first of these was at Chrysorioyiatissa
Monastery in the Paphos District, whose Monte Roya winery was established with German
technology and equipment, making a range of wines, of which the white, Ayios Andronicos is
among the top five Cyprus white wines.
The late 1980's and early '90's saw a rush of small wineries starting up: at Ayios
Amvrosios, Kilani, Platres, Monagri, Arsos and other places in the Limassol district and
at Kathikas and Vouni-Panayia near Paphos. The Ministry of Agriculture formed a special
Oenology department in Limassol, with a fully equipped laboratory and a team of
experienced specialists. There, wines were made from every grape variety and every region
of Cyprus, experimental plantings undertaken all over the country and training courses
arranged for would-be winemakers. Most of the small wineries owe a great debt to the
unit?s director, Dr. Rhumbas and oenologist Andreas Frangos.
The result of this development has been the appearance on the local market of more than
100 red, white and rosť wines -- some bad, some good and a few very good. The bad have
largely vanished. What is remarkable is that in such a short time these intrepid young
producers have started to make wines that are drinkable, enjoyable and getting better
every year, with emerging and definite styles of their own.
Whilst this exciting development has been taking place the Big Four have also been very
active. They have developed new vineyards, of their own and through purchase. They have
planted hundreds of thousands of new vines of famous international varieties and
re-discovered old Cyprus types. They have built new or restored wineries in the hills, as
well as made valiant attempts to shorten the time between picking and pressing grapes in
Limassol. Their laboratories have researched new production techniques and their
oenologists have introduced new styles and new brands. Millions are being spent on all
All this is good for the consumer. We have today a good range to choose from at prices
that still represent very good value. Competition between the big boys and the smaller
local producers, as well as from an ever-growing range of imported wines from all over the
world ensures this. The Cyprus industry has a battle on its hands, but in my view the turn
of the century will see it in pretty good shape.
(c) Patrick Skinner 1998
The Greek Connection
"The World is full of wonders, but nothing
is more wonderful than man"
Sophocles (c.496 - c.405 BC)
The golden age of Greece saw some of the finest works of art, architecture and literature
ever bestowed by one civilisation upon its successors. It also elevated man to freedom --
of thought and movement, no longer subservient to gods and despots, as had been Persians,
Egyptians, Assyrians and Babylonians. No wonder classical Greece exercises modern man's
imagination to a vast extent.
Wine was a part of this golden age, socially and economically. Whilst a considerable
degree of mysticism was attached to the great wines of the Greek regions -- not unlike the
mystique of "great" wine writing today -- Greece was the unrivalled leader of
winemaking and production in the known world. Greek farmers produced the grapes that made
the wine that Greek merchants sold around the Mediterranean and Black Seas, extending
their business travels to places as far apart as France and Ireland in the west to the
Crimea in the east.
There is no doubt that the Greek settlements in Cyprus would have received and consumed
some of this imported wine from the mainland and other islands, but as far as I can tell,
there is no evidence to suggest that the Greeks of that era brought their vines or
wine-making to Cyprus.
The vine may well have arrived in Greece from several directions. Probably at peasant
farmer level through Turkey from Syria, by land, producing very ordinary everyday wine,
and certainly from Egypt, where wine-making had been an accepted and sophisticated social
custom for many centuries, although some time had elapsed before it became a part of
religious ceremonies. Wine and vines travelled by sea, through the islands. Cyprus seems
not to have been involved, but Crete became an island conquered by the wine grape and it
then proceeded to the other islands and the Greek mainland, where the first great
organised wine industry began.
This is not to say that the Greeks brought wine to Cyprus. This defies logic, because the
Syrians were making famous wines probably before 3000 BC, as the grape-vine travelled from
its "birthplace" south of the Black Sea through Mesopotamia to Phoenicia and
Egypt, a thousand years before it reached any part of Greece and although it is unproven
conjecture, I believe it is a certainty that Syrian farmers came to Cyprus at least four
thousand years ago, with their wine and their vines.
So it is probable that the Greeks and later the Romans found local wine being made here in
Cyprus when they arrived. Whether it was to their sophisticated palates is another matter!
Since Greece's classical era, there has been very little input to Cyprus wine from Greece.
Today, Cyprus wine labels, show some influence of Greek practice in their wording, whilst
a few of the Cypriot wine-makers have spent time in Greek wineries studying methods. I
know of no Greek winemakers who have been tempted to try making wine here, whilst the
Cyprus industry turns to French wine professorial advice rather than Greek.
In recent years, of course, the Greek wine industry has been putting its own house in
order, as part of its obligations to, and with the financial assistance from, the European
Union. Modern methods have been universally adopted, old grape varieties have been
protected and encouraged, as new ones have been planted alongside. A few large producers
have emerged, with quantities sufficient for export and marketing skills and budgets to
match, but in the main, the best Greek wines are jealously guarded by Greek wine lovers
for home consumption. And herein lies one of the salient differences between the Greek and
the Cypriot -- the Greek adores his wine and thousands of Greeks make their wines from
their own vines.
The Cyprus industry is clearly watching its Greek counterpart, especially in regard to the
benefits it has received from EU membership, in relation to grants, the institution of
Appellation regulations and marketing opportunities. The Cyprus winemakers are increasing
production of quality wines made from their own vineyards, whilst the Cypriot consumer is,
at last, learning the lessons of classical Greece -- that wine is an integral part of
social and economic life.
Neither Cyprus nor Greece have vast tracts of flat land that can be planted with the
ubiquitous Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay to produce millions of litres of varietal
wines for the world's supermarkets. And neither of them started to make wine in the
eighteenth century, with no tradition or wine culture to concern them. Both countries are
among the oldest wine producing areas in the world -- Cyprus may well be the oldest of any
significance -- and have traditional grape varieties and a very long winemaking heritage.
They also have small vineyards and highly individualistic growers, which points
increasingly to a future in which a robust home market supports most of the production of
small quantities of a large number of different wines, and the wine lovers of the world
search them out in specialist shops. And that need not be a bad future.
Copyright (c) Patrick Skinner 1998