“Cyprus wines? Not really sure I have ever had one. Do they make much wine in Cyprus?”
Many readers of this column would probably say something similar when asked about Cyprus wine, but the person I was talking to was a bit different.
I spotted him on the Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt to Seattle and remembered that he sat in front of me on the earlier Larnaca-Frankfurt leg. He did business in Cyprus and traveled there a lot, he told me. Drank wine there, too. But Cyprus wine? Not so much.
Mostly he drank the less expensive import wines while he was in Cyprus — wines from Spain, Chile or Australia. Maybe he tried one from Cyprus, he thought, but mainly he stuck with the value import wines.
In this respect my new friend’s consumption pattern reflects the Cyprus wine market in general. When Cyprus entered the European Union back in 2004 its ability to protect its domestic wine industry from cheaper imports was greatly diminished — imports account for about two-thirds of Cyprus wine sales now — and a new wine regime began to emerge.
Regime Change 101
Unable to compete with very efficient international value wine producers, Cyprus had no choice but to reconfigure its wine sector to move up the quality (and price scale). And while Cypriot wines are not expensive by American standards (a bottle of truly excellent Vasilikon Xynisteri dry white wine cost less than $20 at a seaside restaurant in the tourist district — what a steal!) they are necessarily priced above the imports.
This was my first visit to Cyprus, but not my first experience with the types of changes that Cyprus wine is experiencing. My native Washington State, for example, had to make the quality leap in the 1960s when the “California Wine Bill” was passed by the legislature in Olympia and cheaper California wine flooded into the local market. The forced upscale move was the best thing that every happened to the wine industry here.
New Zealand faced the same sort of situation in the 1980s, when the collapse of their protected wine sector forced a dramatic economic course correction. Imports flooded in, foreign investment came, too, and a new export-oriented quality wine industry emerged. New Zealand today has the highest average export price of any country for still wines — an amazing achievement.
I found a similar story in Canada, which was forced to liberalize wine trade with the U.S. when the Nafta agreement was signed in the 1990s. In order to be competitive winegrowers in the Okanagan had to replace their hybrid vines with vitis vinifera — an expensive investment. But the results have been amazing.
The transition from volume to value is never easy and is always controversial (my South African friends can attest to this). Not all firms or regions will make it through the process successfully (there is a “survivor bias” to the data), but the success stories are compelling. This is the world that Cyprus wine has entered.
Revolutions always have a vanguard. As is often the case, some winemakers took the first steps to higher quality before market conditions made this a necessity and we visited several of these pioneering wineries (see complete list below). One that stands out in my mind is Vouni Panayia Winery in the mountains near Pafos, which was the first private regional winery in Cyprus.
Vouni Panayia was founded in 1987 by Andreas Kyriakides, who had previously worked in the enology and viticulture section of the Department of Agriculture and so had a good understanding the Cyprus wine sector. He and his family set out to achieve quality at a time when quantity was still a strong factor and to do it using indigenous grape varieties at a time when international varieties were in vogue.
Kyriakides bet on his vision of the future and the family’s efforts have paid off. Sue and I were impressed with the deep red Yiannoudi, which went so well with the roast lamb at lunch, and the delightful dry white Alina (made with Xynisteri variety). The white Promara (indigenous Promara variety) was fantastic — a desert island wine candidate!
Vouni Panayia Winery might have helped start the quality revolution in Cyprus, but they have had plenty of help. The movement is advancing rapidly today and seems to be ready for the next challenge: gaining greater traction (and higher prices) in the domestic and carefully chosen export markets.
My first thought when I tasted some of the wines was that Xynisteri could be the key to this next stage — it is a delightful dry white wine that would appeal to Sauvignon Blanc drinkers. That first bottle of Vasilikon Xynisteri was followed by several others of that variety from various producers and we never had one that wasn’t delicious.
This observation led, of course, to the idea that indigenous varieties should be the prime focus for both red and white wines. Vouni Panayia certainly makes a strong case for the indigenous grapes of Cyprus.
I still believe in the Cypriot native varieties, but as we tasted more and more wines I realized that Cyprus winemakers can do wonders with some of the international varieties, too. Maybe a hybrid strategy is called for.
My heart wants indigenous variety wines that are not found anywhere else in the world, but my pragmatic head says that Cypriot winemakers should make the best wines they can out of other grapes, too. We had wonderful Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. Why not? So long as native varieties are not forgotten. The quality of the best of these wines is so high that I think they will thrive.
The Next New Zealand?
So, to return to the headline at the top of the page that I teased you with, is Cyprus likely to be the next New Zealand — a small, almost forgotten wine-making island that makes the transition from volume to value with spectacular success?
It is not a ridiculous question. Back in the mid-1980s not many could have imagined much less boldly predicted the amazing growth that New Zealand has achieved in the last 30 years. That same conversation (Do Kiwis make wine?) that I had about Cyprus at the start of this column could have been about New Zealand wine back then.
That said, Cyprus is not likely to be the next New Zealand. No one is. New Zealand’s unexpected success was the product of global market conditions that don’t exist in exactly the same way today due to the rapid expansion of wine production in other New World nations. The market space that New Zealand has been able to fill doesn’t exist in the same way for other wine exporting countries any more.
But Cyprus doesn’t have to be the next New Zealand to be successful. Wine-makers on this small island have great potential and if they can only work together to realize it in domestic and international wine markets, that will be good enough.
Maybe in 30 years we will ask if some other country has the potential to be the next Cyprus? Wouldn’t that be delicious!
2017 Cyprus Wineries Visited