October 9, 2000
The recent political unrest in Greece, Turkey, and Cyprus would lead most historians to say, “What else is new?” For more than 4,000 years, Cyprus has been a main player in the ancient history and society of the Greek empire, a supplier of copper to the Egyptians, and over the last 800 years, a political soccer ball between the Greeks and the Turks. In fact, the island, which is a mere 90 miles west of Lebanon, is settled and governed by both countries.
One thing that has never changed, however, is the fertility of the land and the blessed agricultural fecundity of its mountainsides and valleys. This is predominantly true in the southern half of the island, where wine has been made without interruption for millennia. Even during the reign of teetotaling Muslims, the enlightened abstainers allowed vineyards to flourish. One gregarious ruler in particular encouraged production, all the while earning and welcoming the indisputable title of “Sultan Selim the Sot”.
From the base of Mount Olympus and the Trodos Mountains to the seaside region around the port city of Limassol, a variety of wines are made using indigenous grapes. They are red Mavron and Opthalmo, and white Xynisteri and Muscat of Alexandria. Around 1500, cuttings of these grapevines were transported to Madeira, Sicily, and Hungary, where they flourish to this very day.
In recent times, new grape varieties such as Grenache have been carefully introduced into the vineyards. I say “carefully” because the disease of Phylloxera has never touched Cyprus, and so all vines are still planted on their own, ungrafted rootstocks. This is a great rarity in our modern world. The vineyards cover 100,000 acres, a significant 10 percent of the island’s total agricultural area.
Cyprus is the legendary birthplace of the goddess Aphrodite and her influence is still felt in the place names, product names, and everyday activities touched by the goddess of love. Its red wines are deep, full colored and textured with a nice tannic grip, so perfect to accompany the strongly flavored, spicy Cypriot food. The whites are also full with special flavors: a combination of the unique native grapes and the wild yeasts that produce a fascinating profile. Most are dry.
The most famous wine was once called Nama, but is now named Commanderia after the 12th century errant knights of Templar. It is a mixture of red Mavron and white Xynisteri grapes that are sun dried and aged in earthenware jugs, or, more recently, cement tanks. This new wines is then added to older vintages where in time it takes on the smoother character of its older teacher. (This, by the way, is called the “Solera” system.) Commanderia is an unfortified, high (16%) alcohol amber wine, dark, velvety, and mellow with a rich, toasty, luscious flavor. Some local, unexported bottlings can be exciting indeed but require a special trip. The exported version is still very tasty if not as saturated and age-worthy.
The city of Limassol has been called “the Bordeaux of Cyprus”. Its port location is home to the four largest blenders, bottlers, and shippers of Cypriot wine. They are the firms of Keo, Sodap, Etco, and Loel. Most wine from Cyprus is a result of the production of hundreds of farmers and the skillful blending procedures of the aforementioned firms. Only in the last few years have estate bottled wines begun to appear, and none are yet available on the international market.
Here are some examples that are available locally:
Be on the lookout for these fascinating wines. They are also readily available in all of our local Greek restaurants.