CYPRUS WINE HISTORY: It’s In The Pipeline

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CYPRUS GOURMET

Incredulity reigns when I tell young colleagues in the wine business that wine tankers used to travel the seven seas transporting wine in bulk from the producing countries to importing markets, accustomed as they are to exotically shaped bottles and complex and colourful label artwork on wines bottled in the country of origin.
“You’re making up stories”, they say when I tell them about the shore-to-ship pipeline that used to exist in Limassol (and about which people in the big wine companies have only the barest recollections) but, it’s true and I have a story and some pictures as proof.
In 1994 I was given an account by Stelios Sitas, then a decade or more retired from running a leading shipping and freight agency, of a unique day in the history of Cyprus wine. In the light of signs that for economic and ecological reasons the wine industry will return to shipping a lot of wine in bulk, I am presenting Stelios Sitas’ own words.

“The following story happened in the late 50's and was a result of the fight of the Algerian people against France for their independence.
But let me introduce myself, as I played an important part in the whole story. My name is Stelios Sitas and at that time I was manager of the shipping firm NASITAS & Co., the activities of which were – amongst others – to represent various shipping companies.
One day we received a cable from the owners of a wine tanker to say that they would be sending their tanker in a week's time – the name of the ship escapes me – to load about 4000 tons of wine for France and that the shippers were KEO. They also requested us to undertake the agency of the ship.
We were surprised to hear this, because to our knowledge France had its own vineyards, not knowing at that time that the Algerian wineries supplied France with wine in order to reinforce their own production and that the supply had stopped due to the destruction of the vineyards there which were mainly owned by the French. However, the pleasure of getting the agency of the ship made us forget this issue.
On the appointed day the ship arrived. We took the notice of readiness which we transferred to the Shippers and in about an hour's time the tanker was berthed next to a buoy which indicated the end of a rubber pipe which conducted the flow of wine from the factory to the tanker and as soon as this was connected to the tanks on board the pumping of wine started.
I can't remember how long it took to complete the loading, but I do remember that when I went on board at about 4 p.m. to take the shipping documents in order to obtain the signature from the Master that they had received the assigned quantity, so that we could issue the Bill of Lading later, to my surprise the Captain refused to sign the papers because he claimed that a quantity of about five tons was short shipped. I immediately went ashore and made inquiries with the shippers who confirmed that they had pumped the assigned quantity. To this the Captain replied that he was well aware of the capacity of his tanks on board and that the said shortage was a fact. I went back to the Shippers.
One must not forget that at the time, Limassol had no harbour telephones or cellphones and communication was done by launches from shore to ship and vice-versa.
Now the Shippers became very worried and started investigating and discovered that there was a leakage in the pipe and that the missing quantity had been spilled into the sea! So at their request the departure of the ship was delayed so that they could replace the missing quantity. Although they did not have the quantity at hand, KEO managed to produce the missing tons of wine in a few hours and it was promptly pumped into the tanks.
The whole loading, despite difficulties of communication and accidents, was completed in a day and the tanker left Limassol with a full cargo late that night. During the loading operation, the Captain confirmed to me that he had had a regular itinerary between Algiers and France, but that on this specific voyage he came to Cyprus because other neighbouring wine producing countries like Spain or Italy etc., were unable to supply France due to other commitments.
By coincidence on the following day the fishing catch was double than usual. It appears that the fish got drunk and went direct to the fishermen's nets!”

This story illustrates just one of the many illegal practices that went on in the wine industry fifty years ago. For many years French winemakers used to import in bulk huge quantities of soft, fruity, low-acid wine from Algeria (and Morocco, too), which they then blended with their own wine, which was much sharper and high acid. The results, which happened to be very acceptable blended wine, were sold both in France and export markets (notably Britain), with Appellation Controllée labels. Very soon after this incident, the European Commission and the governments got legally tough and the practice was stopped.
I well remember the first vintages of “unblended” Burgundy and Beaujolais that came along a couple of years later – more expensive, thin, sharp and not very pleasant! It is not altogether surprising that the world fell in love shortly after that time with the ready-to-drink, brash, bright and fruity Australians and Californians.
So, 40 years ago, huge quantities of wine were shipped in bulk and bottled in the importing country. And, you know, it’s starting to happen again and probably it is environmentally better than shipping millions of glass bottles around the world. I have sampled several wines lately shipped in bulk to the UK and bottled there.
Where there are no deep water harbours, freight and liquids have to be transported out to the ships. Hence: pipelines.
Roving through my photo files, I came upon these old photographs taken by KEO. And here is a pipeline (perhaps not the one used in the late 1950s) which is pumping wine into barrels and other containers to be taken out to freight vessels by lighters.
Urgent shipments were also made by air!
In those days (1952 according to the photo captions) KEO had a corporate presence in the UK, bottling and distributing Commandaria, Cyprus Sherry and bulk table wines. The latter were often the base for low-cost branded wines like “Justina”.
Times sure have changed!