The well-known House of Dionysos in Pafos illustrates in mosaic form the importance of the vine and wine in Cyprus during the Roman occupation of the island. The principal hall, the triclinium, is decorated with a carpet-like mosaic floor representing vintage scenes, vines laden with grapes and humans and erotes picking the fruit. Apart from the many representations of the god of wine Dionysos, who gave his name to the house, the most prominent panel of the west portico which communicates with the triclinium depicts the history of winemaking. King Ikarios, unaware of Dionysos’ true identity gave the god hospitality while the latter was on a visit to Athens. Dionysos showed his gratitude by teaching Ikarios how to cultivate the vine and make wine from its fruit – something that up until then was unknown to mortals.
The mosaic depicts King Ikarios returning home with a cart loaded with wineskins. On his way he met two shepherds to whom he gave some wine to taste. The shepherds became intoxicated and are shown falling down. An inscription in Greek above them explains why: “those who drank wine for the first time”. This tragic episode is the mythological assumption that winemaking is a divine present to the mortals.
Winemaking was known in Cyprus long before Strabo wrote his Geography and even longer before the Pafos mosaic was made. I will try to present the case of winemaking on the island of Aphrodite through the eyes of an archaeologist, starting with the cultivation of the vine.
Macrobotanical remains attesting to the presence of vines on the island were found in two Neolithic and in almost all Chalcolithic sites from all over Cyprus. Thus, the earliest archaeological proven evidence dates back to the middle of the fifth millennium B.C. Pip imprints were discovered in two sites of the Early and Middle Bronze Age as well as in later Late Bronze Age sites.
The particular shape and size of the pips enabled archaeobotanists to distinguish between the wild grapevine and the cultivated Vitis vinifera.
Thus while the earlier specimen is of uncertain identification because of its incomplete nature, the later specimen may be classified as belonging to a cultivated species of vine.
It is quite possible that the wild species Vitis sylvestris existed on the island long before its habitation along with the remaining “first fruits of civilization” such as the olive, the fig and dates. It is rather difficult to make any assumptions concerning the time and circumstances under which the wild vine was brought into cultivation. We may, however, suggest that the intensive cultivation of the grapevine led to specialization of labour.
Another question which remains to be answered is the time of the first winemaking on the island. There is no direct evidence for the production of wine in ancient times. Archaeologists have not discovered large deposits of fruit which had been crushed for the extraction of juice to be drunk as wine after fermentation. There are, however, some installations related to wine production but their dating is obscure.
To some extent these installations are similar or identical to olive oil production installations. Whatever the case, much equipment related to wine production was made of wood, thus leaving no trace in the archaeological record. Indirect evidence for the consumption and most probably the production of wine is present in the form of wine residues found in the bottom of pointed amphoras suitable for transport and storage. A large number of them have been discovered in the Hellenistic layers of the House of Dionysos in Pafos.
Some idea about wine producing installations may be obtained from representations of everyday life scenes appearing on the shoulders of different types of vases dating to the Early and Middle Bronze Age. One such deep bowl of Red Polished Ware was found in Kalavasos and published in 1986. The bowl bears a scenic composition which it seems the excavator interpreted as a wine press scene. A fragmentary human figure to be standing in a trough and he/she may be crushing grapes. This interpretation is by no means certain. The bowl dates to the Middle Bronze Age (c. 1900 B.C.).
A much better and more realistic scene appears on a richly decorated Red Polished ware jug discovered in a tomb in the village of Pyrghos two years ago. The jug is provided with a double cut-away neck and two vertical handles from rim to shoulder.
A large number of everyday life scenes rendered in the round occupy the entire shoulder of the vase. The most notable are a ploughing scene, a woman holding an infant, women preparing bread, a donkey carrying goods and a prominent seated figure. The most complicated group represents several figures possibly treading grapes for the production of wine. A human figure, its extended hands supported by the two vertical handles of the jug, is standing within an oblong spouted trough. A receptacle circular basin is placed below the projecting spout to receive the treaded product.
Another human figure is standing behind the receptacle basin, its hands holding a jug with cut-away spout in the basin. The whole arrangement of the human figures in combination with the placement of the treading trough and the receptacle basin hint to the presence of a wine pressing installation. The iconography of the Cyprus vase is almost identical to a vintage and treading scene from a painting in the Tomb of Nakht dated c. 1372-1350 B.C. from the Valley of the Nobles in Thebes.
The Egyptian painting, however, shows three standing figures in the treading trough while the remaining features are identical to the Cypriot vase. Naturally a painting affords many more possibilities for detailed representation than modelling in clay.
A similar scene is known from an Attic black figured amphora by the painter Amasis dated c. 550 B.C., not to mention later representations in mosaics and other media. As I have mentioned before, wine producing installations are similar to olive oil installations but some slight differences may clarify their identity. Deep pressing troughs could be associated with wine production although they could also be used for olive pressing. Such is the spouted circular trough from the Late Bronze Age settlement near the Larnaka Salt Lake. Similar troughs are also known from Kommos in Crete.
There is little doubt that the level press was used for the production of wine as well as for the production of olive oil. For the latter this use was established on archaeological evidence at least from as early as the Late Bronze Age. Before the intro introduction of the lever press, which was in use in combination with a screw mechanism up to the middle of the present century, wine as well as olive oil were produced in simple rock-cut installations consisting of a sloping crushing or treading floor connected to a lower collecting vat. For the production of wine the treading floor was made deeper and usually larger in size. Such installations were recently discovered on a low rocky plateau in Geroskipou, overlooking the ancient city of Pafos, the capital of Cyprus during most of the Hellenistic and Roman periods.
There is a variety of shapes and combinations of these installations which no doubt were used for the production of wine. The most common combination are two basins, at slightly different levels communicating through an open channel or through a hole between them. Treading took place in the first basin at a higher level and the juice was conveyed into the lower basin which is usually much bigger and deeper than upper one.
In one case a canalis rotunda resembling a chariot wheel is also connected to a couple of basins. It is possible that this circular channel was used only when olives had to be crushed, but we cannot exclude the possibility of the use of a galeagra for the pressing of grapes. Small portable installations made from a monolithic stone are also known in some parts of the island. An example from Pafos represents a press bed rectangular in plan, connected with a rectangular receptacle. This monolithic installation works in combination with a wooden container (cofre) and most probably is the predecessor of the galeagra with screw. All types of presses known from classical literature appear in Cyprus throughout the Roman period, attesting to the close contacts between metropolitan centres and the provinces of the empire. The presence of stone stipites in at least five different sites provides direct evidence for the use of the lever and drums press as described in detail by Cato and demonstrated by the wine press in a Pompeiian house.
The introduction of the screw in the pressing operation replaced all previous installations at least in large capacity wine producing units. Its application enabled greater force to be brought in and, as a consequence, the press bed could be placed anywhere between the anchoring point and the screw. This type of press which was described in detail by Pliny was in use up to the middle of the 20th century at least in three different wineries on the island of Cyprus. During the Byzantine period it was the press par excellence in all church wineries used by the communities.
Small mobile presses known as galeagra were introduced most probably during the latter part of the Roman period as a result of the decentralisation of the economy.
Their prototype is known in Pompeii in the form of a single screw direct press. Complete examples are still preserved in monasteries which continue old traditions.
The earliest preserved equipment is usually entirely constructed of wood. Cyprus wines were famous since the time of Strabo but this fact did not prevent the import of wines from world famous centres such as Rhodes, Thasos and Chios. Wine containers from these Aegean islands have been discovered in the Hellenistic cemetery of Pafos as well as in the Roman villas. The wine of Cyprus was also famous in the Middle Ages and King Francis I of France attempted to naturalize the Cyprus grapevine at Fontainebleau, albeit without success. The Knights Templar who established their Grande Commanderie at Kolossi produced their own wine which became known as the vin de la Commanderie.
This wine is still produced on the island not by factories but traditionally by certain villages. The wine is known today as Commandaria and it is bottled at the Limassol factories under different commercial names. Etienne de Lusignan, writing in 1580, praises the wine of Cyprus as “the best in the world”. This, he writes, is confirmed by Saint Bernard, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Saint Gregory and Saint Hilarion. Saint Gregory mentions that Solomon planted in his garden some vines which he had transported from Cyprus.
Though there is no historical basis for the story that the sweet wine of Cyprus was the main inducement of the Turkish Sultan Selim II for attacking and con conquering Cyprus in 1571, the wine industry did not flourish during the period of Ottoman rule. The main obstacle was the triple taxation amounting to 28%, as well as some vine diseases.
Commandaria wine, despite the oppression of both the Venetian and Turkish rulers, very strictly maintained its main traditional characteristics, the area where the vines were cultivated and the method of production.
At present, the same method of making Commandaria continues to be as successful as during the period of the Crusades and it is probably the same method recorded by Hesiod 2000 years earlier. Commandaria is known since the Templars and Hospitallers, thus it is the wine with the oldest appellation of origin.
by Dr Sophocles Hadjisavvas
From “Cyprus Today”, January – March 2007