Unless you've peeked, you probably didn't know that the country with both the largest per capita productions and export of wines (but, interestingly, not consumption) is Cyprus, an island in the eastern Mediterranean somewhat smaller than Connecticut. While the sub-tropical areas near the shore are too warm for effective grape cultivation, Cyprus has its share of mountains, including the legendary Mount Olympus, which at 6,400 feet is high enough to support a ski lift.
Cyprus has had a head start on the rest of the world. It traces its wine production back to 5800 B.c. and can cite as apparently satisfied consumers Dionysus (also known as Bacchus), Richard the Lion-Hearted and Queen Elizabeth I. Five hundred years ago, Cyprus was exporting wine to Burgundy. Its range of wines is as wide as its history is long -- dry, medium and sweet sherry, dry and medium dry white table wines, dry and sweet red wines, sparkling wine and brandy.
For years, Cyprus exported substantial quantities of its wine to Great Britain and some to other countries including Russia, Canada and Scandinavia. The British, in particular, craved Cyprus' sherry, a reasonable and very reasonably priced approximation of the real thing, made with Palimino grapes and the solera process. Another popular export was the sweet but balanced red Commanderia, a fortified wine made by the solera method whose fame is traced to a Feast of Five Kings in 1363.
With the formation of the European Economic Community, Cyprus is finding itself squeezed out of its traditional market areas by the high duties imposed upon products from the rest of the world. It is looking for new markets like, say, the United States.
Cyprus is unique in its principal grape varieties -- the red Mavro and white Xynisteri, from which almost all of its wines have been made. But the tantalizing uniqueness of the wines also presents problems of acceptance. Tasting, for example, wines with labels bearing names like Othello, Hermes and Afames for the first time, one is conscious of never before having tried the grape variety. The wines are generally clean and pleasant, if a bit short. Nevertheless, to wine fanciers whose bread and butter are Cabernet and Chardonnay, a Xynisteri may be anathema.
In recent years, the four major wineries of Cyprus have modernized their plants so that a visitor sees large gleaming stainless steel tanks and the most modern presses, along with fine oak barrels. To keep pace with the rest of the world, the wineries and the government engage in extensive experimentation, including with new fermentation techniques and growing areas.
But, most interesting, is the effort to develop "new" wine varieties in Cyprus -- Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Semillion, to name a few. There is also an effort afoot to improve and expand its "Champagne." Early results from the government's experimental winery show that the grape variety used is less important than the vinification technique in developing a suitable sparkling wine. The methode champenoise is used throughout, however.
Sitting within a few feet of the Mediterranean in a bath of warm sunshine at a table piled high with grilled fish and shrimp, skewered lamb and a dozen other dishes, one is puzzled by the fact that most of the three-quarters of a million Cypriots reach for beer and brandy rather than wine with their meals. Not that the local producers don't have a good word for their beer and brandy. It's just that they make an enormous quantity of wine, millions and millions of gallons.
To interest the local propulace (as well as the substantial number of tourists who flock to the three-four- and five-star hotels) in its largest agricultural product, Cyprus started an annual wine festival in Limassol in September, to concide with the harvest. Each of the four wineries has a large booth and dispenses, free, its wines to all comers. There are food stalls selling everything from souvlaki to corn on the cob to cotton candy. There is also entertainment, running from Cypriot folk dancing to Hawaiian singers to a German dixieland band.
During the 10 days of the festival, the crowd averages 10,000 a night. Natives are being baptized and converted to wine in droves. But, one is reassured with each refilling of glasses, there's more than enough to go around.
Note: At the moment, the wines of Keo, the second largest Cyprus wine producer, are sold in this area. Available are Aphrodite (white), Othello (red) and St. John's Commanderia (red dessert). They are carried at a number of local shops, including Calvert Liquor, 2312 Wisconsin Ave. NW; Central Liquor, 518 9th St. NW; Eagle Wine & Cheese, 3345 M St. NW; Pearson's Liquor & Wine Annex, 2436 Wisconsin Ave. NW; Potomac Wines & Spirits, 3067 M St. NW; and Woodley Liquors, 3423 Connecticut Ave., NW.