Discovering Cyprus: An Island Like No Other

By | 25 March 2024

A neglected corner of the Mediterranean wine world with an ancient winemaking tradition is enjoying a renaissance.

By Paul White

In the first of a three-part series on the wines and winemakers of Cyprus, Paul White is surprised by a dynamic and historic wine culture that is beginning to make full use of a host of fascinating indigenous grape varieties and techniques.

I didn’t know what to expect from my first visit to Cyprus. The cynic in me suspected Cyprus might be cranking out loads of misplaced, nondescript Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet, and other “nowhere” wines for beached tourists, so often the case with Mediterranean countries over the past four decades.

With immense pleasure, I discovered an energetic wine culture deeply rooted in history, which is currently reviving an assortment of native grape types formerly not well-known. As for untouched territories, what more can one wish for?

On a surprising note, the wine of Cyprus is remarkable in numerous ways.


Cyprus holds the unique status of being the sole European country to be entirely free of phylloxera. Vines here grow on their very own roots, which is often theorized to pave the way for healthier plants and authentic varietal traits. As Cyprus was not covered in glaciers during the last Ice Age, its over a dozen indigenous grapes managed to escape extinction, much like some exclusive locations in Iberia and Mediterranean islands. Consequently, they continue to maintain unique DNA structures; while some display more ancient wild grape traits, others exhibit characteristics of later periods of domestication.

Cyprus is a region of vast “differences”. This island’s landscape, ranging from towering mountains to the sea, is diverse, multifaceted, and impactful as anywhere else globally. Cyprus, located on the brink of two continental plates, is renowned in geological circles for showcasing some of the oldest rocks on earth. Around 92 million years ago, these rocks surfaced from 8km deep within Earth’s mantle. This is juxtaposed by large layers of limestone raised from the seabed. The island’s soils are half volcanic and half calcareous derived – all of it infertile. Vineyards are situated anywhere from sea level to mountain tops, with the most captivating amongst them being placed between 600–1,500m, among Europe’s highest. This elevation is actively utilized to extend the growing season and result in more intriguing wine characteristics.

The tradition of wine making in Cyprus extends back to the earliest periods of wine history. Excavations have uncovered clay pots filled with tannins dating back 6,000 years. Additional discoveries suggest these timelines may be extended back to 8,000 years or possibly further. This compares with the ancient wine-producing cultures that populated modern-day Georgia, Armenia, and Turkey.

The area still preserves hundreds of 500-600-liter clay winemaking vessels named pithari, akin to Roman dolium but predating the Romans by several thousand years. These large jars, now decorative features in wineries, restaurants, town squares, and private gardens, were primarily used for large-scale wine production until recent times and still serve in local areas for familial production. This can be compared to the timeless technology still used in Alentejo’s talha or Georgia’s qvevri wine cultures. However, Cyprus hasn’t yet realized the potential these pots hold for their wine future.

Cyprus’s “modern” wine history started during the Crusades when western Europe came across its predominant, super sweet, sun-dried grape wines. Richard the Lionhearted famously served it at his wedding, after he became the King of Cyprus in 1191. Soon after, he sold the country to the Knights Templar who then sold it everywhere around the Mediterranean. Named Commandaria, after their castle headquarters in Limassol, this wine is believed to be the oldest continually produced wine brand in the world. It gained popularity throughout Europe during the Renaissance, survived the Ottoman occupation, and was later promoted during the British colonial periods in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Today, it is undergoing a mindful makeover by the 54 small producers operating in Cyprus.

In the early 20th century, Commandaria’s oxidative style naturally evolved into Cyprus Sherry. It was first fortified in 1927 and this derivative turned out to be a massive success globally, until it sadly fell out of fashion in the 1980s.

After the global decline of fortified wine and the rise of mass tourism focused on the beach in the 1970s and 1980s, the Cypriot government deliberately shifted wine production away from local varieties. State subsidies prompted the removal of local grapes, old bush vines were trained on modern high trellis systems, and native vines were replaced with more easily pronounced, recognizable French “international” varieties.

More positively though, this era saw a revolutionary change toward professionally trained and scientifically educated winemaking. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Cypriot wine turned less about location and more about external designs and hopes. Where the previous regime often produced oxidized, dirty wine; in this era temperature-controlled stainless steel, introduced yeasts, and French oak took over, resulting in more “modern”, brighter, and fruit-forward “New World” styles.

Approximately 15 years ago, a significant shift occurred. Rising alcohol levels in French varieties, a result of global warming, spelled an end to the reign of these foreign intruders.

Historically, the focus of Cypriot production was on Commandaria’s native grapes, Mavro and Xynisteri. Up to 70 percent of production was devoted to these two. In conjunction, successful dry wines had also been produced from these, as well as international varieties. However, knowledge about other local varieties that had survived from earlier times was sparse. Efforts were ramped up to identify these, looking to old field blends and long-abandoned pre-Ottoman terraces. Akis Zambartas, renowned winemaker at KEO winery and student of ampelographer Galet, pinpointed 12 native varieties of promise. Further varieties have since been discovered, adding to his initial research.

This journey of discovery continues with wine producers successfully understanding and defining the attributes and potential style of these grape varieties. Xynisteri, identified with citrus, beeswax, and melon notes, is used to produce a diverse array of high-quality wines. It’s frequently deemed as the Cypriot equivalent to Chenin Blanc. Both Xynisteri and Promara are textured, with thick-skinned and fairly low acidity. Promara leans towards stonefruit flavors while Spourtiko has a neutral profile with lemon and grapefruit hints, delivering a wholesome modest alcohol content.

Two of the notable reds, Yiannoudi and Martheftiko carry solely female flowers, just like wild grapes and necessitate co-planted pollinators. These have been cultivated alongside tamed varieties since ancient times, debunking the bias that wild grapes aren’t capable of producing quality wine. Maratheftiko, which is aromatic and linear, carries a red fruit flavor, and mirrors Nebbiolo, forming a nice contrast with Yiannoudi’s darker fruit and more robust tannin profile that is akin to Touriga Nacional or Malbec. Bambakada has a Dolcetto resemblance, delivering a brighter, lighter, and delectably red-fruit profile. Lefkada’s vinos, red-fruit esque as well, could be mistaken for Alfrocheiro or Valpolicella.

Other grapes—Flouriko, Kanella, Morokanella, Michalia, Maroucho, Omoio, Ofthalmo, and Vasilissa—are too early in the rediscovery stage to even begin mapping out possibilities, but they’ll get there. 

The second part of this series, to be published later this week, will dive more deeply into the producers and their wines.

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