CYPRUS WINE – A HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE
Lift a glass of red or white Cyprus dry table wine to your lips and you’re trying a modern wine with very little inherited local tradition. BUT, if it is a drop of Cyprus Commandaria in the glass it is another thing altogether. This is history in a bottle
There has probably been a commercial wine industry in Cyprus longer than anywhere else in the world. Whilst this may give rise to romantic promotional gambits like “Four thousand years of tradition”, it is no guarantee of good wine today.
Thankfully, though, today there is plenty of good wine to drink in Cyprus; but this is due to the skill of modern wine-makers and their equipment rather than inherited traditions.
The wild vine from which our modern grape varieties descended (a very long time ago) undoubtedly grew in Cyprus and the bitter small fruits were probably collected and dried by man. The cultivation of vines for dessert fruit and wine is relatively recent.
In fact, it seems that the grape was first brought near man’s home and cultivated in the Black Sea area around 8,000 years ago. From there it spread slowly south-eastwards to Mesopotamia, Syria and Egypt, from whence it travelled across the Mediterranean to Greece, on to Italy, and so on.
There is much evidence to suggest that the country which had the greatest wine industry for the longest period was Syria, from around 3000 BC or before, until about 1000 AD, when Islam held sway and banned the production of alcohol.
It is known that in that early period, 5,000 years ago, Syrian farmers came to Cyprus and, although there is no evidence to prove it, I am convinced they would have brought their wineproducing grapes with them.
And so, when the Greeks and Romans came to Cyprus several millennia later, I think they would have found wine already here, but probably of a very different style to the wines they were accustomed to.
Because of problems with sealing vessels to protect the wine from oxidisation from the air, most early wines would have been sweet and the tradition of such wines in Cyprus was born. Sweet wines not only oxidise more slowly, but they travel better then dry wines. So, callers to the Cyprus of old would have stocked their boats with the sweet wines of Cyprus.
Not a lot of historical evidence exists to describe the wines of Cyprus between the GrecoRoman periods and the Middle-ages, when Cyprus endured drought, pestilence and regular wars, invasions and incursions.
In the 11th century, when the Crusades commenced, Cyprus wines became recorded and praised. The most noted proponent, at least insofar as legend and wine promotion have it, was Richard the Lion Heart.
From his sojourn here and those of the various Orders of Knights, came the generic description of the sweet wines of Cyprus: “Commandaria”
Commandaria, by law, today has certification of origin, which stipulates types of grapes, regions of production and methods. For such a delicious sweet wine it is a remarkable bargain.
As the centuries passed, writers, priests, explorers, soldiers and rulers praised the sweet wines of Cyprus, bought them, shipped them, drank them. Invasion followed invasion. Four hundred years of Lusignan rule, ending in 1489, was followed by the Venetians (1489-1571), who found the place bankrupt.
The Ottomans invaded in 1571 and stayed until 1878, when they ceded the island to Britain.
In all this period there was not a lot done for the vine-grower, especially under the Turks, who extracted iniquitous triple taxes from vine-growers and wine-makers.
Apart from taxes, one aspect of the Turkish period was that they allocated the better land to people of their faith, leaving the Cypriots of the Orthodox Church the higher, less fertile ground, whose only useful cropper was the hardy vine.
During the Dark Ages, the Defenders of the Faith, the Monasteries, all over Europe were also “Defenders of the Grape”, protecting the heritage if the vine left by the Roman Empire, and ensuring that the making of good wines, spirits and liqueurs carried on. There is no doubt that this tradition held true in Cyprus. There are records of a winery at Chrysorioyiatissa Monastery in the 18th century and, no doubt, wines and liqueurs have been made elsewhere over the centuries.
But it is in the 19th century that the foundations of the modern industry were laid. The House of Haggipavlu was founded in 1844, when the company made the purchase of a second sailing vessel, the “Saint Peter” to add to the first, the “Alexander” bought in 1825. These vessels took exports of wine in barrels all over the eastern Mediterranean.
By the early 1870s, it seemed that exports could rocket to colossal levels, when the Phylloxera beetle struck and decimated every vine-growing area in Europe except Cyprus. The French, and others, demanded thousand of barrels from Cyprus to meet demand for wine and the Cypriots thought their bonanza days had come.
But the French quickly passed laws restricting imports, to force the local industry to rebuild and Cyprus’ boom time faded away.
In 1875, the British leased Cyprus from Turkey and it seemed better days would come. But there were still taxes, and little investment for this small part of the Great British Empire. In 1889 the Cypriots sent a delegation to London to lobby for a reduction in import duties on Cyprus wines, but without success.
But the local industry proceeded undeterred. In 1893, the Haggipavlu family, by then making spirits as well as wines, built the first modern winery, in Sanaja in the Limassol