LIMASSOL, Cyprus —Cyprus is the only country in the world besides Israel whose wine — “Ya’in Kafrisin” — enjoys specific mention in the Talmud. And Lambouri Winery Ltd., which traces its history back 350 years, is the oldest family-run winery on the island.
So it’s only logical that Lambouri, now headed by a Jew named Roland Wig, should tap into the worldwide kosher wine market.
“I took over the winery in 2000, and we rebuilt everything,” said Wig, whose wife’s family owns Lambouri. At present, the company produces 200,000 bottles of dry white, red and rosé wine annually, and an additional 120,000 bottles of dessert wines, including muscat, sweet red, Commandaria Legacy and Apollonia.
Wig, 43, was born in Budapest. An attorney by profession, he worked for years in New York representing Holocaust survivors seeking restitution for Nazi war crimes before relocating to Cyprus full-time in 2007.
“Kosher is only a small part of our production,” said Wig, interviewed in the Cypriot port city of Limassol. “We produce about 25,000 bottles per year, and each bottle retails for €36 (about NIS 150). Our market used to be the U.S., but our partners there overpriced the wine and we ended our agreement with them. Now we’re looking for new partners.”
In the meantime, Lambouri sold nearly its entire stock of previously bottled kosher wine to a buyer in China. He said the Chinese prize his brand not necessarily because it’s kosher, but because Cyprus is one of the oldest wine-growing countries in the world.
Wig’s winery is located in Platres, a traditional winemaking village located 1,128 meters above sea level, along the southern slopes of the Troodos mountain range. In March 2007, Lufthansa German Airlines, celebrating its 25th anniversary of service to Cyprus, chose Lambouri’s Cabernet Sauvignon 2000 as the official wine to commemorate the occasion.
Yet Cyprus was never really known for quality wine until recently.
“Beer obviously is very popular here, but the wine culture started developing 10 years ago. Before that, Cyprus didn’t really have good wine,” Wig said. “Keo and the other big wineries were all export-focused, producing malt wines for the German Christmas market, and shipping alcohol to the Soviet Union. Quality didn’t matter.”
But things have changed, and thanks to Lambouri, Cyprus is today on a growing list of countries including the United States, Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, Germany, Israel, Italy and South Africa that produce kosher wine either for local consumption or export.
Vineyards here are planted at a minimum 1,250 meters above sea level, though Wig says he’s experimenting with grapes grown at altitudes as high as 1,400 meters above sea level.
“The climate in Cyprus is fantastic for cultivating wine grapes,” he said, explaining that temperatures reach a maximum 28 C in summer, dropping to around 15 C at night. In winter, there’s often snow at higher elevations.
“We don’t need to irrigate,” he said. “The soils are volcanic and lime, so they’re very rich in minerals. Our wines are very fruity and low in acidity. The dry wines have only one gram of sugar, which Western Europe would die to have.”
The Lambouri winery is also a tourist attraction, with 35,000 to 40,000 people visiting annually for tours and tastings by appointment only. Yet it’s ironic that most Israeli visitors to Cyprus are not that interested in the winery, even though Israel is the island’s third-largest source of tourism (after Great Britain and Russia).
Wig said an integral part of the kosher effort is Rabbi Arie Zeev Raskin, who on Sept. 13 inaugurated the island’s new Cyprus Jewish Community Center in Larnaca, and laid the cornerstone for a planned Jewish museum adjacent to the synagogue.
“None of us are Shabbos-observant, so we turn the process over to Rabbi Raskin and his team, who meets with us beforehand,” Wig said. “We discuss what we want them to do. We prepare all the machines until they’re clean enough. We set up the machinery, from sorting table to destemming, we then go through the steps, and then we close the door.”
“They crush the grapes and put it in the tank. Once they finish, we come down. All the tanks are sealed with the rabbi’s seal. No more wine can come in or out,” he explained. “We call them every two or three weeks to take a sample and analyze it to see where the fermentation process is. Until the wine is bottled and sealed with a holographic seal, we’re not allowed to touch it.”
In the past six months, Raskin and his team of 10 Orthodox, Shabbos-observant Jews have visited the winery 36 times, he said.
Lambouri’s kosher wines are sold at the Jewish Community Center in Larnaca and at Chabad synagogues in four other locations throughout Cyprus: Paphos, Limassol, Nicosia and Ayia Napa. Together, those five synagogues serve the estimated 3,000 Jews living in Cyprus. Lambouri kosher wines are also available at duty-free shops at Larnaca and Paphos, whose international airports now serve Israel with a combined 80 nonstop flights a week.