The Wines of Cyprus in History


Part 1    The Greek Connection

“The World is full of wonders, but nothing
is more wonderful than man”
Sophocles (c.496 – c.405 BC)

The golden age of Greece saw some of the finest works of art, architecture and literature ever bestowed by one civilisation upon its successors.  It also elevated man to freedom — of thought and movement, no longer subservient to gods and despots, as had been Persians, Egyptians, Assyrians and Babylonians.  No wonder classical Greece exercises modern man’s imagination to a vast extent.

Wine was a part of this golden age, socially and economically.  Whilst a considerable degree of mysticism was attached to the great wines of the Greek regions — not unlike the mystique of “great” wine writing today — Greece was the unrivalled leader of winemaking and production in the known world.  Greek farmers produced the grapes that made the wine that Greek merchants sold around the Mediterranean and Black Seas, extending their business travels to places as far apart as France and Ireland in the west to the Crimea in the east.

There is no doubt that the Greek settlements in Cyprus would have received and consumed some of this imported wine from the mainland and other islands, but as far as I can tell, there is no evidence to suggest that the Greeks of that era brought their vines or wine-making to Cyprus.

The vine may well have arrived in Greece from several directions.  Probably at peasant farmer level through Turkey from Syria, by land, producing very ordinary everyday wine, and certainly from Egypt, where wine-making had been an accepted and sophisticated social custom for many centuries, although some time had elapsed before it became a part of religious ceremonies.  Wine and vines travelled by sea, through the islands.  Cyprus seems not to have been involved, but Crete became an island conquered by the wine grape and it then proceeded to the other islands and the Greek mainland, where the first great organised wine industry began.

This is not to say that the Greeks brought wine to Cyprus.  This defies logic, because the Syrians were making famous wines probably before 3000 BC, as the grape-vine travelled from its “birthplace” south of the Black Sea through Mesopotamia to Phoenicia and Egypt, a thousand years before it reached any part of Greece and although it is unproven conjecture, I believe it is a certainty that Syrian farmers came to Cyprus at least four thousand years ago, with their wine and their vines.

CWH - 1868 Illustr News Engraving Vendange in Cyprus

"The Grape Harvest in Cyprus", a widely published engraving from about 1868.


Cyprus Wine – Steeped in history

It is probably true that there has 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, there is plenty of good wine to drink in Cyprus at the present time, 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 3,000 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 personally convinced they would have brought their wine-producing 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.

CWH -  1940s Vasa Commandaria label

1940s Vasa Commandaria label

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 Greco-Roman 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 1870’s, 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 re-build 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 district, with proper presses and fermentation tanks of stone.

Around the same time, an English family, the Chaplins, built a large wine-making plant at the village of Pera Pedhi, just below Platres and starting make wine in fairly large quantities.  Both these wineries would have made dry wines, from the local grapes, “Xynisteri” (white) and “Mavro”, red, which, as I suggested in my first article, were from vines that had been in Cyprus for many hundreds if not thousands of years.

These were the years of the British Empire, with a strong presence in the Middle East, especially after World War I, from 1918 onwards.  So the wine and spirits industry of Cyprus prospered with exports to all the places where the British were present: Palestine, Egypt, Sudan, even to the Arabian Gulf, as well as to the French in Lebanon and Syria.

CWH - 1906 - grape collection near Troodos

A photograph from 1906 showing mules and donkeys bringing in the grape harvest in the Troodos mountains


As the new century started (on January 1st 1901, in my opinion!) there were the two up-to-date wine-making plants  in Cyprus, the Chaplin family’s at Per Pedhi and the Haggipavlu’s at Sanaja, both in the Limassol district.  However, Haggipavlu were developing a big distilling business, based on brandy and wine became rather secondary.  But sales of products based on the grape grew steadily.

CWH - 1930 buying wine in 1930, Swedish academic group

Buying wine in the 1930s, Swedish academic group

In 1927 a group of Cypriot business houses headed by Lanitis formed KEO, with the objective of expanding modern wine production and in 1928 they purchased the Chaplin family winery and shortly afterwards started the construction of a second at Mallia.  As their wines came on to the market, a tacit agreement existed between KEO and Haggipavlu that one would concentrate on wine and the other on brandy.   This came to an end in 1935 when KEO opened a brandy distillery in Limassol, and Haggipavlu countered by purchasing the largest privately owned winery in Limassol and developing it into ETKO.

The third of the “Big Four”, LOEL was formed in 1943, through a break-away of trades union members from ETKO, following a strike.  This was, and is,  a co-operative company run on socialist principles which was to develop a big business with the countries of the Communist bloc. The fourth company, SODAP (The Vine Products Co-operative Marketing Union Ltd.) is also a co-operative, founded in 1947 by the vine-growers themselves, to “protect the rights of the growers”.

Despite World War II the Cyprus industry prospered.  Although not a lot was done for it by the British, markets were available because of the British (and French) presence in the Middle East, which created a demand for wines and spirits produced in Cyprus.  Development resulted from the ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit of the Cypriots running the Big Four.  Good cheap brandy and other distilled products could always command a market, as could good grape juice, either in its natural form on fermented.

So the sales executives of KEO, ETKO, LOEL and SODAP began to travel the world looking for opportunities.

Cyprus Sherry Ad

Cyprus Sherry ad

Fortified wine, that is to say wine strengthened and stabilised by the addition of brandy or other spirit, was already popular in Northern markets and the Cypriots had started making ‘Cyprus Sherry’ in 1937.  But it was in the late 1940’s that it really started to take off.   Incredibly cheap, EMVA Cream and many other brands started sweeping into the UK market — not yet the wine-loving one it is today, but one that consumed millions of gallons of “sticky” port or sherry, or imitations thereof, at Christmas and other celebratory times.

All over the world Cyprus sold its vine products — concentrated grape juice, pure alcohol for translation into vodka and other spirits, Sangria and other fruit-juice laced wines, whilst developing its growing local market as the tourism industry began its upward surge.  There were boom years and the industry prospered making literally hundreds of grape-based drinks: juices, concentrates, table wines, aperitif and dessert wines, vermouths.

For more than thirty years, the Cyprus wine industry was “The Big Four”: KEO, ETKO, SODAP and LOEL, who produced very similar lines of wines, spirits, liqueurs  and other by-products of grape juice.  They were essentially businesses, whose function was the utilisation of a basic raw material (grape juice) to make commercially viable products to he sold around the world in one form or another.  The object is to produce profits or dividends for the shareholders, whether they were family members, grape growers or investors large or small.

In the 1950s and 1960s the world was demanding low-priced products and Cyprus supplied them —  dry, medium and sweet “Cyprus Sherry”,  table wines sold in bulk to Britain (where it turned up in bottles with brand names like “Hirondelle”) and other countries, by the million litres.  Wine, or  “Plonk” to give its vernacular title, was the party drink and you took us much as you could buy for a Pound or two.

Then came “wine lakes” and the drive by marketing men for quality wines bottled in the country of origin.  Rather l;ate in the day, Cyprus began to look at the nature of its industry: small labour-intensive hillside vineyards producing indigenous grape varieties that didn’t match the demand for wines made from varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay; time and distance between the vines and the wineries which meant that grapes were ‘stale’ by the time they got to the factory;  and out-of-date marketing techniques.

Sulphering the vines in Vouni (1992)

Sulphering the vines in Vouni (1992)

In the early 1980s the Cyprus government, as part of its drive to create rural industries and get-away-from-the seaside tourist attractions, enabled small enterprises to apply for licences to operate wineries of  50,000 to 300,000 bottles-a-year capacity, in the hill villages of the grape growing regions.  The first of these was at Chrysorioyiatissa Monastery in the Paphos District, whose Monte Roya winery was established with German technology and equipment, making a range of wines, of which the white, Ayios Andronicos is among the better Cyprus white wines.

The late 1980s and early  1990s saw a rush of small wineries starting up:  at Ayios Amvrosios, Kilani,  Platres, Monagri, Arsos and other places in the Limassol district , and at Kathikas and Vouni-Panayia near Paphos.   The Ministry of Agriculture formed a special Oenology department in Limassol, with a fully equipped laboratory and a team of experienced specialists.  There, wines were made from every grape variety and every region of Cyprus, experimental plantings undertaken all over the country and training courses arranged for would-be winemakers.  Most of the small wineries owe a great debt to the unit’s directors, formerly Dr. Rhumbas and latterly Andreas Frangos.

The result of this development has been the appearance on the local market of more than 100 red, white and rosé wines – some bad, some good and a few very good.  The bad have largely vanished. What is remarkable is that in such a short time these intrepid young producers have started to make wines that are drinkable, enjoyable and getting better every year, with emerging and definite styles of their own.  They now regularly win Medals at international wine shows and tastings.

Whilst this exciting development was taking place the Big Four were also very active.  They have developed new vineyards, of their own and through purchase. They have planted  hundreds of thousands of new vines of famous international varieties and  re-discovered old Cyprus types. They have built new or restored wineries in the hills.  Three of them (KEO, ETKO and SODAP) have ceased taking grapes to Limassol and established modern wineries in the hills of Limassol or Paphos districts. Ane LOEL are planning to move up-country as well.  Their laboratories have researched new production techniques and their oenologists have introduced new styles and new brands.  Millions are being spent on all this.

All this is good for us, the consumers.   We have today a good range to choose from at prices that still represent very good value.  The Big Four have downsized considerably (grape production for wine has reduced by 70% in 15 years), whilst the “independents” have survived, prospered and expanded.  Competition between the 40+ wineries is intsne and of course, with Cyprus’s EU membership reduced import duties mean further competition from a large range of imported wines from all over the world.

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