A work in progress
By Panos Kakaviatos for wine-chronicles.com
11 May 2017
The fresh sea and air. The music. Fantastic food and kind people. Pafos, Cyprus? “Paradise,” quipped our lovely and engaging tour guide Mary Patrouklou. I joined several other participants on a tour of Cypriot vineyards earlier this month, to learn about their ancient history and to understand the current wine scene.
Our tour, including several stops in charming villages as well as wineries, built up to an award winning ceremony in the 10th annual Cyprus Wine Competition. Never heard of it? I hadn’t either. It would have been better for organizers to have done more publicity, including an English-language website.
But more on that later. Judges included dear friend and Hellenic wine specialist Demetri Walters MW, with whom I had judged two years before at a wine competition in Thessalonika, and Bordeaux-based Marie-Laurence Porte, whom I will see next month at Bordeaux’s Vinexpo.
No wines that we tried were transcendental. Some were very good. Others not so. What mattered most were the enthusiastic and committed Cypriot winemakers who, in just the past decade or so, have raised the bar on Cypriot wine quality, emphasizing indigenous grapes.
Not that long ago, one saw many more vineyards on the island, mainly used to make cheap quaffers sold, primarily, to the Soviet Union. Or at least bartered in exchange for raw materials, as Angelos Tsangarides of the Tsangarides Winery explained.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, the Cypriot government paid wineries to either uproot vines or to make smaller wineries, committed to quality. Tsangarides chose the latter path. Committed to organic winemaking, he points out how the generation of his parents had focused on volume, but not so earlier generations. “You had to go back to our grandparents, who followed even back then the tenets of biodynamic and organic winemaking,” he said.
Locally made, locally consumed
These days, over 95% of all wines made in Cyprus are sold in Cyprus. For tourists and for Cypriots. Sometimes for, say, Russian tourists who tend to like semi-sweet wines. But most wines that sell are dry and off dry rosés and dry whites made from the flagship white variety Xynisteri. We tried many examples of this wine, which is naturally so low in acidity that it requires for the most part acidification.
There is pressure to maintain low prices limits, so many wines go for €8 euros a bottle in stores, and €6 at wineries (triple that for restaurants). In conversations with Walters, I learned that more needs to be done in terms of fine tuning the expression of such local varieties and that too much money is being invested in getting top notch equipment (with help from the EU) but not enough on, say, a careful mapping of the most ideal terroirs for specific indigenous grapes, or isolating the best indigenous yeasts to amplify the purity of the indigenous grapes. “Too many winemakers still use cultured yeasts, which too often yield bubblegum aspects to the wines,” Walters said.
Better marketing needed
Our tour group agreed that the number one priority is to make higher and especially more consistent quality wines. The wineries are still in an experimental stage, figuring out the use of oak, for example, or better matching grapes to terroirs.
But improvements are needed as well to make Cyprus wine friendlier to wine tourism, with more road signs for wine routes, for example, that would make it easier for people to find wineries that we visited, but with the essential aid of a tour guide.
As prolific author and owner of the influential Wine Economist, Mike Veseth noted, in an address to winemakers and government representatives on the first day of our visit, there was no website for this tenth annual event, so very little international awareness. If Cyprus wants to raise its profile as a wine tourism capital, then such efforts matter.
It was great to meet new friends, including Veseth, whose humorous and informative lecture to Cypriot government representatives and winemakers on the first day of our tour explained how older top wine regions have achieved fame proved both succinct and useful. Of course, the wines from such top regions are great. Who thinks that Tuscan wine sucks? Or those from Bordeaux, or Burgundy, or Napa? Or Champagne? All five areas make fine wines, Veseth pointed out, but they have earned respect also via savvy identity strategies and marketing.
He showed an old 1950s photo from the Napa Valley with a very young Robert Mondavi, under a sign proclaiming “Welcome to this world famous wine growing region”. Back then, 20 years before the Judgment of Paris put Napa on the world stage, that region was decidedly not world famous, but Veseth showed how winemakers early on acted as a team with a vision.
Bordeaux, quipped Veseth, is all about “lists” and “box scores” (Robert Parker, anyone?) originating in the price based hierarchy of the 1855 Classification. For Burgundy, the mystical and the obvious come together in “terroir”. Burgundy is the benchmark for a sense of (hallowed) place, not grape.
Perhaps a model for Cyprus could be Tuscany? The sun, the romance, the history and the food: selling wine as part of a glorious package. Cyprus has those elements, too.
The Commanderia question
Speaking of history, much time was spent discussing how to market Commanderia, a wine so legendary that not so many outside Cyprus know about it. Besides, it is a sweet wine. Many industry sources know full well how hard a sell that category is.
The grape Xynisteri is blended with Mavro to make Commandaria, registered since 1993 by the EU as a protected name and geographical origin. The sweetness is natural – the result of the high sugar levels that grapes can achieve in Cyprus’ warm climate, later concentrated by a drying process the grapes undergo before vinification. Some are fortified with pure grape spirit.
Already referred to in ancient times and later called “Nama” this sweet wine did not take the name Commandaria until the late 12th century, when Guy de Lusignan was gifted the island by King Richard ‘the Lionheart’ of England, who had captured it during the Crusades. After his defeat, De Lusignan fled to Cyprus. He imposed feudal rule and remained on the island until his death in 1194. The name thus comes from the Grand Commandery, the feudal land belonging to the Knights of St John of Jerusalem, where the original wine-producing vineyards were located. Our tour visited the superb Cyprus Wine Museum, which includes a room dedicated to Commanderia.
At the opening conference, where Veseth gave his talk, Cypriot Minister of Agriculture Nikos Kuyalis and various winemakers, as well as Antonis Konstantinou, author of a truly interesting book on Commanderia wine, discussed how Commanderia could be better marketed and advertised as the “flagship” for Cyprus.
No matter what the illustrious history, sweet wines do not sell so well, some said. And that the focus should be on dry wines. Wine Economist contributor Sue Veseth, Mike’s partner, explained that by emphasizing Commanderia, younger producers who only make dry wines, could be left out.
Swedish wine expert and Forbes correspondent Per Karlsson, who was part of our tour, wondered, too, how much of a hard sell Commanderia would be. Sure, Commanderia has an amazing history, that goes back to ancient days and associated with Middle Age knights and legend. But even Sauternes, far better known on international markets, is not selling so well, as world markets overwhelmingly favor dry. The logic, industry reps on island say, would be to minimize production of Commanderia and stress high quality and better advertising, to make it act as the driver for Cypriot wines. Much like Port has proven to be for the dry wines of Portugal.
Focus on dry
In speaking with talented younger generation winemakers on Cyprus, two things were clear: a focus on dry wines that sell and experimentation. Dry rosé for example is the number one seller for talented young winemaker Marcos Zambartas of the eponymous domaine. We later visited a “new” old vineyard dating back to 1921 that constitutes a field blend of four or five indigenous grapes. Another focus is how to best express the indigenous grapes of Cyprus.
It was not until but 10 years ago, many say, that quality-minded producers started to focus on fine expressions of indigenous Cypriot varieties, after the 1970s era of super high yield bulk wines made from international varieties. But only later did producers discover that some international varieties, like Merlot, are not particularly suited to the island climate. One of my favorite producers is the Vlassides Winery, which earned gold at the competition.
Although indigenous varieties are being explored more than ever, Sauvignon Blanc is an international variety that does work, as said Francis Guy of the Cyprus Wine Museum, which was only launched in 2004 with family money.
He and others recommended only too highly the Sauvignon Blanc made by Sophocles Vlassides. Funny enough, Sophocles, who educated himself at UC Davis, did not want to serve it: “Why bother,” he remarked. “You can get similar profiles in Sancerre and in the Loire.” He was keen on showcasing his Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz (which, by the way, was excellent and tasted more like a northern Rhone Syrah). But so was his Sauvignon Blanc, at only €10 a bottle.
Only recently did he decide to sell some Commanderia. And he says in this video sums up the reality of the market for Cyprus: concentrating on dry wines is the way to go.
In any case, visiting vineyards in Cyprus today is like observing a Petri dish of experimentation: some more successful than others. Take for example the driven and talented 32-year-old winemaker Marinos Ioannou of Nelion Winery.
His Ofthalmo 2014, the name of a local red grape, proved to be the most popular and interesting for all of us at his domain in the mountains. Notes of fresh cut hay and earthy aromas, along with ripe fruit enchanted us. Ofthalmo is not a very tannic grape and has a somewhat similar profile to Cinsault, Ioannou explained. He was not sure about pricing and it costs only 8 euros a bottle at the winery. We all thought that the price could be raised. Ioannou and other winemakers are literally finding their ways. And there are some really tasty wines to enjoy at modest prices.
Many fine white Xynisteri is available, and quality and style vary. One of my favorites was the Vasilikon Winery Xinisteri 2016, very mineral, and “seafaring” with fine freshness. A low acid grape, almost all Xynisteri wine is acidified. “We try not to add too much,” said owner Yiannis Kiriakides. Most of the grapes he uses to make the wine – 70% – are owned by the winery.
Cold maceration is done before fermentation and there is some batonnage. The alcohol is 13.5 degrees, but not felt. Lees stirring (batonnage) lends body and flavor. Price ex-cellar? €4.95 and only 6 in shops. We even tried a 2011 vintage which was fine to drink! Video below from our visit…
We visited several other wineries and enjoyed some great foods. I will write in more detail in subsequent postings about the wines we tried and about some of the restaurants we visited, all highly recommended, from authentic tavernas in Nata and in Omodos, to a special gourmet inn, run by a New Yorker, and located in the tiny village of Vavla.
A special word of thanks to Georgios Kassianos, operations manager of the gorgeous Annabelle and Almyra beachfront spa hotels in Paphos. Both with super friendly staff and plenty of amenities, including fitness rooms, pools and excellent cuisine, such as fresh fish and seafood caught daily at Almyra’s Ouzeri restaurant. More on that coming! And many thanks to our guide Mary Patroklou, who showed much commitment and enthusiasm to promoting Cyprus.
For more information on the indigenous grapes of Cyprus, I recommend reading this essay by my friend Yiannis Karakasis MW.
I’ll be back in the next couple of weeks with another essay on the foods we had enjoyed earlier this month and specific tasting notes on the wines I liked most from my visit.
Until then, cheers!