A wine fermenting jar from 3500BC proves that Cypriots were among the first in Europe to produce the good stuff; however they still don’t do the bubbles, discovers Shilpa Ganatra.
Listen closely and emanating throughout the stone building of the Cyprus Wine Museum is the gentle sound of classical music. If they turned the volume up, the hope is I’d recognise that the compositions are inspired by wine.
“Both winemaking and music are art,” says Anastasia Guy, the laidback founder of the museum, and composer of the music we hear. “Wine is for all the senses. It begins with the roots finding its place within the ground and rises up to the branches and leaves.
"Each has its own personality — some are full bodied, others are light — and each has its own charisma and aroma too. Even its time in the barrel can inspire music, because what swirls around in the barrel remains a mystery to us all.”
The previous night she was hosting a concert of the museum’s house band, the Commandaria Orchestra, one of many events that take place in the museum, found on the periphery of Erimi village. Handed down to her by her mother, she opened the renovated stone building in 2004.
Upstairs, where the concerts often take place, there are ancient artefacts which tell of Cyprus’s wine-making history, like a fermenting jar from 3500BC that proves Cypriots were among the first in Europe to make the good stuff. Tastings are downstairs, and even though it’s early in the morning, it’s remiss not to sample the region’s speciality of Commandaria, a much-loved variety of dessert wine indigenous to Cyprus.
It was first documented in 800BC when ancient Cypriots used it for their Bacchus festival. By the 12th century, Richard the Lionheart declared it “the wine of kings and the king of wines”. Anastasia sells her own brand, but different varieties are found in almost every shop and restaurant across the Mediterranean island.
As we sup, Anastasia explains how, like many of the modern generation of Cyprus, she was charged with turning a cottage industry owned by a family for generations, into a viable business fit for prosecco princesses like me.
Her solution was to make it a visitor attraction and showcase the history of Cyprus’s wine. Yet for many of Cyprus’ 41 visitable wineries, the solution was to produce more than its indigenous varieties of grape like Xiniersta and Mavro. Most now make Merlot, Sav Blanc or Shiraz and blend them into fine reds, whites and rosés suitable for an international palate — though for the most part, domestic sparkling wine is nowhere to be seen, strangely.
While there’s an essay to be written elsewhere about the homogenisation of winemaking, international influence has at least prompted Cypriot wine producers to up their game. Sampling and spittooning my way through the Troodos mountains, dotted with wine villages throughout, the consistently high standard of the wine is impressive. There’s smooth starts, long finishes and tannin-y tannins throughout.
But my very first taste of Cypriot wine happens away from the villages, where tastebuds are all too easily influenced by the beauty of a perfectly-lined vineyard and the passion of a maker. Conversely, it’s in the hip, modern marina of Limassol. Past the TGI, Pizza Hut and KFC we find Epsilon, a family-run bar/restaurant that’s heaving on the Friday night I land.
There’s party-goers looking their best in the open-air cocktail bar, and families and couples in the restaurant area that overlooks the shimmering waters. With the benefit of a modern-presented Cypriot feast to accompany the wine — we’re talking halloumi, beetroot salad, a seafood mix and more halloumi because it’s amazing — I request a solid domestic red, and the sommelier returns with a 2017 Vasilikon that’s on the money: berry-ish, jammy, and most importantly, too easy to drink.
It turns out it’s a better-known brand in Cyprus, and the winery is easily visitable as it’s part of the Laona Akamas winemaking route. It’s one of seven wine routes on the island that take in the maximum amount of tastings with minimum distance.
Geographically grouped, these generally begin in the lower, coastal areas of south Cyprus and work their way up to the higher altitudes of the better vineyards (Cyprus’ ‘Protected designation of origin’ requirements state that the vineyard must be over 600 metres above sea level).
Vasilikon, featuring a wine laboratory, storage cellars, a wine museum, tasting room, wine shop and 35 acres of vineyard, is the on the most westerly route, which skirts the coastline near the beachy destination of Paphos.
Meanwhile the Commandaria route visits 14 villages that produce their signature fortified wine. In order to be called Commandaria, it has to fulfil strict criteria that guests will encounter on a visit: the grapes must come from completely natural vineyards on the southern slopes of Troodos; the grapes have to dry in the sun for five to 20 days; and the wine has to age in a barrel for at least two years.
The most popular trail is the Krasochoria of Lemesos route, as it takes in mountainous wine villages that locals visit when the low-lying coastal areas are just too hot (“when it’s snowing in Troodos, you can still swim in the sea,” my taxi driver says of Cyprus’s microclimates). It’s on this route that the Cyprus Wine Museum is located, as well as another highlight: the Zambartas Winery. The founder’s son, Markos Zambartas, studied the craft of winemaking in Australia, France and New Zealand.
Now, along with his wife Marleen, they do his late father proud as they update their old world wines with new world techniques. And as suggested by the construction work I see as I pull up, he’s updating their HQ too.
One of the first aspects completed was the floor-to-ceiling glass wall that surveys the acres of his postcard-perfect vineyard that’s staggered across the hills of Agios Amvrosios in neat lines. But venture downstairs, and the faint grapey smell confirms it’s the production rooms, where their seven wines are stored in towering vats that take up two levels of this interesting building.
Tour guide Adriana Olivia also delivers the best bit: the tasting. For €10, visitors can try five wines with nibbles, and coffee afterwards. Sampled together, it’s an ideal way to note similarities and differences, particularly between native and introduced grape varieties. Their Xynisteri proves to be a light and fruity white: just the way I like it.
For a rich red, the Shiraz-Lefkada blend is robust enough that I struggle to finish in time for the next wine; it’s one to linger with after dinner in the company of good friends. But why the lack of sparkling wine?
“It just doesn’t suit Cyprus,” Markos explains. “It doesn’t have the right climate, and this affects quality. You’d find too many bubbles in it, and it will taste quite sugary. And the specialist equipment is expensive to ship over, especially for a small batch of sparkling wine.” Ah, the mystery is solved.
As I return to the car, rubbing my eyes for more reasons than strong sunlight, I’m glad it’s not me driving. Certainly, these trails bring up the age-old logistical quandary of how to drive to places to imbibe alcohol; the only answers are to join an organised tour, or hire a driver — expect to pay around €250 a day.
A second best is to stay in a hotel with an inbuilt passion for wine yet stepping distance to bed. in the neighbouring village of Lofou, for example, Hotel Apokryfo is a sterling example of rustic-chic boutique with an extensive wine cellar of both domestic and international favourites, ranging from €16 to €85.
And if I wasn’t already impressed with my wine-themed trip around Cyprus, the bottle of local wine left in every room in the hotel, enjoyed in the golden-orange sunset of their gardens, would make me fall in love a little more. Who needs bubbles anyway.
How to get there: Direct flights run in the high season from Dublin to Larnaca with Cobalt, and to Paphos with Ryanair, from €33.99 one way.
Where to stay: Hotel Apokryfo is a deceptively humble yet stylish boutique hotel in Lofou. Rooms from €170 including breakfast.
What to do: For more information about group wine tours, vineyards to visit, traditional wine villages and more, see visitcyprus.com