Cyprus has been a vine growing and wine producing country for millennia. Internationally, it is best known for Commandaria wine. Most wine production remains based on a few varieties of local grapes such as Mavro and Xynisteri (see table below) although international varieties are also cultivated.
Exactly how far back wine production in Cyprus goes is unknown. Wine was being traded at least as early as 2300 BC, the date of a shipwreck (similar to the Kyrenia ship) carrying over 2,500 amphorae, discovered in 1999. Its origin and destination are unknown, but must have been along the trade route between Greece and Egypt.
More recently, two discoveries have put that date back by a few more years. The first was the discovery of a Bronze Age (2500-2000 BC) perfumery near the village of Pyrgos. Near this perfumery, an olive press, a winery, and copper smelting works were also discovered. Wine containers and even the seeds of grapes were unearthed.
The second discovery involved an intriguing sequence of events. Dr. Porphyrios Dikaios, a major figure in Cypriot archaeology and once curator of the Cyprus Museum, had carried out excavations on the outskirts of Erimi village between 1932 and 1935. During these excavations, several fragments of round flasks were unearthed (amongst other artefacts). These pottery fragments ended up in the stores of the Cyprus Museum still unwashed in wooden boxes. They were dated to the chalcolithic period (between 3500BC-3000BC). In 2005, well after Dr Dikaios’ death, the chemical signatures of 18 of these were examined by a team of Italian archaeologists led by Maria-Rosaria Belgiorno. Twelve of these showed traces of tartaric acid (a component of wine) proving that the 5,500-year-old vases were used for wine.
During the Ottoman occupation of the island, wine production went into decline. This was attributed to two factors: Islamic tradition and heavy taxation. Indicative are reports written mainly by French and British travelers of the time; Cyrus Redding writes in 1851:the vine grower of Cyprus hides from his neighbour the amount of his vintage, and always buries part of his produce for concealment; the exactions of the government are so great, that his profit upon what he allows to be seen is too little to remunerate him for his loss in time and labour. The quality of the wine produced also lagged behind times with Samuel Baker referring to Cypriot wines in 1879 "It should be understood that no quality of Cyprus wines is suitable to the English palate".
The first wave of expansion for Cypriot wines came with the misfortunes of the European viticulture sector. The phylloxera epidemic that affected mainland Europe in the late 19th century had destroyed the majority of wine producing vines. Cyprus, an island with strict quarantine controls managed to remain unaffected . As a consequence, demand for Cyprus grapes and wines coupled to the relatively high prices offered resulted in a mini boom for the industry. Further demand early in the early 20th century came from local consumption and from the regional forces of Britain and France in the Middle East. Cyprus produced quality cheap wine and spirits (mainly in the form of Cyprus brandy) and the big four companies prospered as a result.
The next big export product came in the form of Cyprus Sherry. It was first marketed by that name in 1937 and was exported mainly to northern Europe. By the 1960s, Britain was consuming 13.6 million litres of Cyprus wines, half the island's production, mostly as sweet sherry. A British market research study of fortified wines in 1978 showed Emva cream was the leading Cyprus sherry in terms of brand recognition, and second in that market only to Harveys' Bristol Cream. The island became the UK's third leading wine supplier behind France and Spain. A major factor was that Cyprus Sherry was more affordable than Spanish Sherry as British taxation favoured alcoholic beverages with an alcoholic content below the 15.5-18% bracket. This competitive advantage was lost a few years later with the re-banding of the alcohol content taxation. The fortified wine market also began to shrink as a whole due to a change in consumer taste and as a result Cyprus sherry sales in the UK fell from their peak in the early 1970’s by some 65% by the mid 1980’s. The final blow came when the EC ruled that as of January 1996 only fortified wine from Jerez could assume the title of sherry.
The other big market for Cyprus wine during the same period was the former Soviet block. Large volumes of low quality, mass produced, blended wines were sold to the eastern block with the cooperative wine producers (LOEL and SODAP) taking the lion’s share. This market began to dry up in the 1980s and vanished altogether with the fall of communism. Indicative of the industry's mass production tactics comes in a report by The Times in 1968 commenting on ''"the end of an underwater pipeline off the coast of Limassol linking to tankers taking on not gas or oil but wine - 100 tons an hour of it - destined for about 40 countries throughout the world.
The climate allows for cultivation of most grape varieties. However local varietals (Mavro and Xynisteri) constitute the bulk of current plantations. Maratheftiko is an ancient grape varietal that is currently being revived.
Table showing areas and quantities cultivated by Vines for Wines by variety:
|Variety||2004 Cultivation (decares)||2004 Quantity (kg)||% of total||2003 Quantity (kg)||% of total|