Commandaria—the world’s oldest named wine
Commandaria, the storied fortified wine of Cyprus, is one of the world’s most luxurious dessert wines. It has been enjoyed throughout the ages—from ancient Greece to the Crusades to the Age of Exploration to today—by kings and queens and knights and knaves alike, all the while inspiring conquest, soothing the palates of travelers from faraway places, and fueling international trade. Admittedly, Commandaria is today not as well-known as its other fortified counterparts—Sherry, Port, Madeira, Marsala, and Vermouth—but it is every drop as esteemed by the world’s wine cognoscenti and is experiencing a renaissance within the ranks of 21st-century young gentlemen who insist upon indulging in the masculine luxuries of life.
Legend has it that the first wine-tasting competition was held in the 13th century in France. Organized by France’s King Philip Augustus (1180-1223), the event, recorded in a poem by noted French poet Henry d’Andeli dated 1224, was dubbed “La Bataille des Vins” (“The Battle of the Wines”) and was open to wines from all over Europe. Emerging victorious was a sweet wine from Cyprus, widely believed to be Commandaria.
Commandaria holds the distinction of being the world’s oldest named wine still in production. Made from sun-dried grapes, the wine is first described in 800 B.C.E. by Greek poet Hesiod and was known to be widely consumed during the festivals of ancient Greece. At the May 12, 1191 wedding of England’s King Richard the Lionheart and Berengaria of Navarre in the city of Limassol (Lemesos) on the island of Cyprus during the height of the Crusades, Richard declared Commandaria “the wine of kings and the king of wines.” In 1212, Wilbrand von Oldenburg, Count of Oldenburg, writes: “The wines of this island are so thick and rich as if they are meant to be consumed like honey on bread.” And in 1363, at a symposium of sorts that would come to be known as “The Feast of the Five Kings,” organized by the Lord Mayor of London in honor of Peter I, King of Cyprus; King Edward II of England; David II, King of Scotland; John II, King of France; and Valdemar IV, King of Denmark, it was Commandaria that was served.
Towards the end of the 12th century, Richard the Lionheart sold the island of Cyprus to the Knights Templar (founded in 1118), who, upon recognizing that they could not maintain the island, in turn sold it to Guy de Lusignan, French King of Jerusalem (1186-1192) and founder of the Lusignan Dynasty that ruled Cyprus from 1192 to 1489.
During the Lusignan era, Cyprus became a beacon for settlers from Western Europe, amongst them arriving the Order of St. John of Jerusalem Knights Hospitaller to whom an extensive tract of land in the area west of Lemesos (the area known today as Kolossi) was granted, such land holdings laying the foundation for the establishment of feudalism on the island of Cyprus. Headquartered in a castle today known as Kolossi Castle situated on the sunny southern coast of the enchanting island, the estate was referred to as “La Grande Commanderie” so as to distinguish it from two smaller command posts on the island (“Phoenix of Paphos” and “Templos” in Kyrenia). The word “commanderie” referred to the estate’s function as a military headquarters. Eventually, the area under the control of the Knights Hospitaller came to be called “Commandaria.” And when the knights began producing significant quantities of wine for export to the royal courts of Europe as well as for consumption by the many pilgrims en route to the Holy Land, the wine assumed the name of the region that gave it rise. As such, the present-day practice of naming wines after the regions where they are produced began with Commandaria. (In 1307 the Commandery region came under the control of Philip IV, a descendant of King Richard the Lionheart.)
For the three centuries of the Turkish era, from 1571 to 1878, production levels of the luscious Commandaria wine declined drastically due to exorbitant taxation: 20% duty on grape production; 10% duty on wine production; and 8% duty on wine exports.
Today, the wine is produced and marketed as “Commandaria,” though it has had other names and spellings in the past: “Commandery” by Cyrus Redding in his book A History and Description of Modern Wines (1860); “Commander” by Thomas George Shaw in his book Wine, the Vine, and the Cellar (1863); and “Commenderia” by Samuel White Baker in 1879.
Commandaria is made exclusively from two Cypriot grapes: a white variety called Xynisteri, and a red variety named Mavro. The grapes are left to overripen on the vines, thereby increasing their sugar-content. The period for harvesting is declared by the Wine Production Association of Cyprus when it is determined that the grapes have attained the desired levels of sugar. The grapes are then laid out and sun-dried for seven to ten days, thereby further concentrating the sugar-content on account of the additional evaporation that occurs during the drying-process. Thereafter, the juice is extracted by crushing and pressing and placed into reservoirs where the two-to-three-month fermentation process begins, the sugars in the grape juice converting to alcohol. (Because the phylloxera epidemic that scourged the vineyards of continental Europe did not reach Cyprus, the native grapes used to produce Commandaria are truly native—they are not, as is the case with most European grapes of today, grafted onto phylloxera-resistant American rootstock.)
Once the fermentation process has completed (the minimum allowable alcohol content being 10% but typically realizing at around 15%), the alcohol-content may be increased by adding grape-derived alcohol (95% by volume) or brandy (distilled wine) with an alcohol-by-volume content of 70%, the result being a fortified wine with an alcohol-content of no more than 20% (with a potential alcohol-content—which might occur during the aging process—of no more than 22.5%). In essence, though, because of the high concentration of sugars that naturally occurs in the grapes as a result of being allowed to overripen on the vines then sun-dried for seven to ten days, Commandaria need not be supplemented with additional alcohol in order to attain the minimum-allowable alcohol-by-volume content. Thus, fortification of Commandaria is not mandatory.
While the origins of what is today regarded as the method of producing Commandaria has been lost to time, evidence of the wine’s production appears in the poem Works and Days, written in the 7th century by Hesiod. Only grapes harvested from vines that are at least four years old may be used in the production of the luxurious wine, but it is generally accepted that the best wines derive from vines at least 10 years of age, the region known for having vines surpassing 100 years of age. In addition, vine-training must use the “goblet” method, and no watering is permitted.
The wine is aged in oak casks for at least two years in underground cellars. In a system similar to Sherry’s “solera,” Commandaria employs the “manna” system, the distinction being that in “manna,” the aging occurs within one barrel, with one-third of the wine being harvested each year before new wine is added to the barrel.
Since 1990, Cypriot law requires that wine labeled “Commandaria” be produced in 14 villages situated on the foothills of the Troödus Mountains of Cyprus. And use of the term “Commandaria” enjoys Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status in the European Union, the United States, and Canada, thereby requiring that wine marketed as “Commandaria” in those regions be made in Cyprus per production standards and regulations.
The wine—which must be aged on the island of Cyprus, though not necessarily within the 14 villages where the grapes that produce it must be grown—is aged under strict regulations. The result is a sweet, rich, amber- or ruby-colored dessert wine.
Commandaria is best served well-chilled, between 42-48° F and 6-9° C, in a small, stemmed glass. Thus, in February of 2006, the Wine Products Council of Cyprus, a team of sommeliers, and the Riedel company collaborated in the selection of a House of Riedel glass excellent for the enjoyment of Commandaria. The wine is traditionally paired with chocolate and chocolate-flavored desserts.