Experiencing the Authenticity of Cyprus Mountain Life

By | 9 April 2024

In the second part of his Cypriot journey, Paul White tastes the wines of the producers making the most of the country’s rediscovered indigenous grape varieties.


Paul White

Cyprus has its share of modernist glass and concrete box wineries. The most dramatic is the newly opened Marathatra, literally knife-edged architecture perched precariously on a knife-edged ridge. Counterpointing these creations are decidedly less grand designs that have organically sprouted out of “mom and pop” family operations. What unites all are the mountain locations that often share spectacular views of 400+-year-old abandoned terraces on steep slopes opposite and, sometimes, below.

Cyprus: An island apart

Uniting them is a recent movement that aims to reclaim Cyprus’s unique wine heritage, crucial to which is its forgotten native grape varieties.

About half a century ago, Cyprus consciously chose to abandon its local grapes and 6,000-year-old winemaking traditions, in favour of “international-style” New World varietal wines, which are based on French grape varieties, cool fermentation, and French oak barrels. An entire generation of winemakers effectively lost touch with their vinous roots and the unique identity of Cyprus.

Orestis Tsiakkas encapsulates the situation, saying, “We didn’t know how to plant or make wine from these completely novel ‘ancient’ native grapes. Yainnoudi, Maratheftiko, Xynisteri were always there, but were not taken seriously. But the results of the tests were so encouraging. And so now we are learning, relearning, rediscovering …”

WineCore, a consortium of 14 growers, is leading the way in the preservation, promotion and development of the unique local varieties of Cyprus wines.

Discover more about WineCore

Here are some insights into the fruits of their labor.

The two primary white grape varieties of Cyprus, Xynisteri and Promara, have thick skins, are rich in texture, and mild in acid. Such attributes make them a challenge in the current market which favors crisp and fruity tastes. However, all Cypriot grapes have gained from practices like nocturnal harvesting, overnight chilling, and cool fermentation in stainless steel vats.

In addition to these technological advances, new vineyards located at altitudes as high as 1,535m (5,035ft) and selective exposure have a significant influence on the styles of Cypriot wines. Locations at these higher, always breezy altitudes experience diurnal temperature swings of over 20 degrees. Together with a revival of the use of bush vines, these conditions have extended the growing periods, preserving the delicate aroma, finer textures, and natural acidity of the wines, as opposed to the rich, fruity, and soft styles produced at altitudes below 700m (2,300ft).

Xynisteri, known for its low acidity, exhibits significant versatility, capable of producing a wide range of wines from extremely dry to exceptionally sweet. Aphrodite Constanti, Vasiliken’s winemaker, suggests that Xynisteri can be classified into three aromatic subtypes: stone fruits, light blossoms, and tropicals such as passionfruit and pineapple.

In higher altitudes, Xynisteri showcases more aromatic qualities along with crisper acidity, embodying floral, lemony, beeswax, and lanolin characters. Conversely, at lower altitudes, it contours towards nectarine, stone fruit, and green melon profiles. Textural layers also vary, ranging from very fine viscosity to rich oiliness.

Vineyards at lower elevations, particularly those at 700m on the far western side of Cyprus, utilise sea breezes to yield the cool climate, varietal characters of 11-12.5% ABV. Grown within clear sight of the Mediterranean, the 65-100-year-old bush vines of Vasiliken contribute to a slower maturation.

Diversities are also induced by the vineyard exposure. As an illustration, Kyperounda planted two Xynisteri vineyards at 1,200m. Both 2022 versions turned out as 12.5% wines but exhibited noticeable disparities. Their sunlight-filled west-facing variant delivered primary peach and mineral hints, light florals, a sleek, full-bodied texture, and propagated a long, dissolving finish, scoring 18.5/20. On the contrary, their cooler, eastern, morning-sun-exposed plot produced more floral, green herbs, and citrus-driven flavours, featuring notably more acidity and finer viscosity, with a score of 17.5/20.

Xynisteri showcases its potential for ageing as well. For instance, Kyperounda Petritis from 2013 and 2004 have intriguing notes of preserved lemon, zest, beeswax, and toast, echoing the tertiary development found in old Clare Valley Riesling or Savennières.

Promara, harvested in August and known for being the first grape to mature in Cyprus, has a thick skin like Xynisteri. This quality gives it a textural quality and low yields. Promara is darker with a slightly higher acidity, and its fruits range from flavors of pears to green melons and cantaloupe.

Noteworthy examples of Promara are the high-altitude, fresher and more floral version by Tsiakkas with 12.7% alcohol, the fuller variant by Vlassides with 14% alcohol, and Zambara’s version which strikes a stylistic balance between the two.

Yiannoudi, a historical red variety, is discovered in centuries-old vacant vineyards co-planting with Mavro and Xynisteri. Mavro, Xynisteri, and Syrah can pollinate Yiannoudi, an uncultivated grape that relies on Xynisteri’s flowers. The practice of co-planting typically alternates every two or three vines with the wisdom that higher ratios of Xynisteri can cause overproduction in Yiannoudi.

Yiannoudi’s tantalizing blend of aromatics and flavors frequently lean towards herbal bay leaf and balsamic notes, amidst a medley of savoury, roasted red and black fruit undertones. The higher the elevation, the more one is treated to florals and black fruit characteristics; while lower, warmer climates yield fuller-bodied, red-fruit wines, distinguished by high acidity and ultra-firm, at times chunky, tannins.

In the past half-decade, there’s been a noticeable trend of gentler handling, less extraction, and older oak, leading to a shift in Yiannoudi towards refined, more elegantly transparent styles.

Exemplary offerings include Dufermou’s Yiannoudi, which captivates with its prominent bay leaf notes, succulent red fruits and firm, finely grained tannins. The Tsiakkas’ variants grown at higher altitudes tantalize the palate with more floral and black-fruit flavors, softer tannins and a lively acidity. The most sophisticated and polished vintages tasted were from Vlassides and Marathasa.

Maratheftiko—a tongue twister, translate to “trickster”—is another non-hermaphrodite grape that requires pairing with a Spourtiko. Earning accolades as a rising star, numerous winemakers have extolled its “wild” fruit flavors: brambly mulberries, blackberries, blueberries, livened up with fresh strawberries and cherries.

Nelion winemaker Marios Loannou strongly believes that Maratheftiko was misunderstood at first, having erroneously been labelled the “Cabernet of Cyprus”. This led many to produce it in an excessively tannin-rich and intense style. Undeniably, younger versions can wield intense, aggressively charming Cabernet tannins. However, of late, producers are seeing it as more similar to Pinot Noir, adopting more delicate handling methods for subtler, clearer renditions.

The Zambartas Maratheftiko 2022 follows that large, daring, exuberantly black-fruited and chunky style, but their impressively widespread 2018 shows how time can bring tannins and acidity into a more harmonious balance. 18.5/20

The Nelion Maratheftiko 2020 leans towards a wilder, more floral violet note, with a fleshier velvety texture and masterfully tamed tannins. 18/20

Lefkada is another red that requires cross-planting with Xynisteri. It’s infamous for being challenging to grow and late to ripen. Aphrodite Constanti from Vasiliken grumbled about how “its stems can be green even when ripe!” Being excessively tannic, Lefkada calls for light extraction and tender handling to prevent it from turning into astringency.

Vasiliken’s Lefkada 2018 (12.5% ABV) presented clear spicy cinnamon and red fruit aromas, a velvety entrance and sharp-edged tannins on the finish. 16/20

Bambakada appears ideal for Nerello Mascalese or Alfrocheiro aficionados. Among the most impressive sampled was Tsiakkas’s Vamvakada (alternative spelling) 2021. With 13.7% ABV, it’s a lively combination of red and black fruit characteristics, silkily textured, carefully structured, and deceptively long-lasting. 17/20

In regards to Mavro—the renowned old mainstay of Commandaria—the few I tried were pleasantly simple, cherry-like quaffers, light-bodied, fine-tannined, and refreshingly juicy. Ideal dinner wines. The best of the bunch, Tsiakkas Moulos 2022 (12.6% ABV) from 80-year-old vines. 16.5/20

The most intriguing discovery I made in Cyprus was the presence of dozens (hundreds…thousands?) of unused pithari clay pots adorning gardens, town squares, and wineries. Most were wonderfully preserved specimens of pots commonly utilised to produce wine in Rome and throughout the Mediterranean 1,500-3,000 years ago.

It reminded me of the similarly displayed talha pots I saw back in Alentejo 15 years ago. Today most of those old talha are making highly prized wine again in both modern wineries and village restaurants.

It’s clear that pithari have been ideally suited to sun-dried grape fermentation and maturation for millennia, alongside the thick-skinned local whites and firmly-tannined red grapes that produced wines Cypriots drank on a day-to-day basis. What intrigues me about many native Cypriot grapes is whether they were specifically farmed and weeded out over time to suit Cyprus’s unique form of pithari. An intriguing question Cypriots will no doubt soon be solving for themselves.

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