Back to all articles
  • Jancis Robinson
Written by
  • Jancis Robinson
5 Apr 2007


Greek wine writer Nico Manessis sent this thought-provoking report recently:


Have spent several days visiting the time-warped Cypriot vineyard.

Sophocles Vlasides (35), a leading oenologist who studied at Imperial College, London and Davis, was showing me 100+ year old vineyards he buys fruit from for some of his astonishing, unfiltered, violet-scented Maratheftiko, an obscure red grape which is now making a comeback.

These gnarled, ungrafted vines situated above the village of Kilani are at altitude of 1,100 metres. What was revealing was his statement "as rainfall is decreasing vine stress increases. We now have to irrigate at 600 and 700 metres. I view of this change I am now planting more vineyards higher up at altitudes of more than 1000 metres, as snow of 30+ centimetres falls often from December through March. He smiled broadly and rubbed his hands with glee as he told me that 'snow is forecast for Friday'.

Sorry no pics; it was misty and fog was fast descending on us. All this in the Mediterranean.

Patricia asks:


I'm delighted to see that the Cypriots are keeping Maratheftiko (spelling? The last time Wines of Greece mainland sent me an information leaflet in Greek, I had to extract my 17-year old Ancient Greek scholar from his bed to translate it!). Thrilled that the Cypriots are going higher in the Troodos. There must be great terroir there as the soils are balanced, even a little alkaline. With even the big wine production companies establishing wineries in the mountains, quality can only get better. So what's to do with Commandaria, Nico?


Nico responds:

Only purple pagers would come forward with such insight!

Alas, I could not agree more with your sentiment that the mind set of official mainland Greece is at its best circa 5 BC. Some things never change.

Maratheftiko (after the village of Marathessa) has been plucked from near extinction by the new generation of educated technicians. After centuries of anonymity it was planted adjacent, a vine here and a vine there, to the ubiquitous Mavro grape due its high colour as a ' corrector'. It is now been replanted and much in demand fetching a high price. The emerging varietal wines have an attractive aromatic complexity, reminiscent of Pinot Noir with a gutsy Syrah-like palate. It reminds me of Spain's Bierzo ( Priorato on the Atlantic). It is a little short on the finish but this may be down to the way it is cultivated. The winemakers I met are working to improve on this.

Mount Troodos (1950m) has great terroir. From a passenger seat, I saw
three main types of soils. Lower 350-600m are limestone in which one finds the 14 villages authorised to grow Xynisteri for Commandaria. Further up at 800-1000m there are schistous and andesite. There is a also volcanic brown-reddish rocks.

The (red) wines I tasted style defy the arid ' hot' climate they are grown in, with natural balance and brimming with an identity all of their own. The diurnal temperature variation between +8 C and +30 C must have a play in this. In addition to Marathefiko, Shirazes are fruity and mineral-laden and Cabernet's are...pretty serious.

The most intriguing wine I discovered on this trip is made by Master of Wine Angela Muir. A deep coloured 2006 rosé, made with a very clever blend of Cabernet Franc and Lefkada (Vertzami of the Ionian islands) for the new Zambartas Wineries. This forward thinking father and son team is actually now gaining valuable experience in New Zealand. Imperial College graduate son Marko (25) has the profile, curly hair and physique of a ancient Kouros statue. Eerie.

Obviously Cyprus has the potential. Though if it wishes to be taken seriously it has to urgently introduce better cellar hygiene. There were too many red wines with acetic bacteria, mousey flavours and brettanomyces.

By any yardstick, the best Commandarias are close to exceptional.
Xynisteri is a neutral grape not unlike Spain's Palomino. Both use
solera fractional ageing and with oxidation they become... great.
This said, there is room for improvement in these now undervalued
stickies. Remember the communist era Tokays?