Commandaria, an amber-colored sweet dessert wine from Cyprus, has the prestigious distinction of being the oldest named wine still in production today.
The name dates back to the arrival of the Crusaders in Cyprus in the 12th century, but the wine itself is far older, dating back to the ancient Greek presence on the island.
Today, Commandaria is still produced in Cyprus with two types of grapes indigenous to the island. It is exported beyond the borders of Cyprus as far as Australia and is enjoyed by wine lovers worldwide.
History of Cypriot wine
Evidence from archaeological findings and historical sources suggests that the tradition of winemaking in Cyprus may date back as far as 5,000 years, making the island the oldest site of viticulture in Europe.
The ancient Greek poet Hesiod, who lived between the 8th and 7th centuries BC, left instructions for the production of Cypriot-style wine, saying “Leave the grapes ten days to the sun, and then ten nights and then five days under shadow and eight days in the pot.”
Pliny, a Roman author and philosopher of the 2nd century AD, also wrote in praise of Cypriot wines, claiming that they were superior to all other wines in the world.
The Origins of Commandaria
The exact character and flavor profile of these ancient Cypriot wines is uncertain, although it was probably the same or similar to Commandaria, which gained its name in the late 12th century during the Crusades.
The wine was enjoyed by the most powerful members of Medieval society. When King Richard III, ‘Richard the Lionheart’ of England married Berengaria, the first-born daughter of King Sancho VI of Navarre in Limassol in 1191, Commandaria was served at the wedding.
King Richard was so impressed by the wine that he is said to have proclaimed it “the wine of kings and the king of wines.”
Another monarch, the French King Philippe Augustus also fell in love with Commandaria and claimed that it was “the Apostle of wines”.
The name Commandaria is itself derived from the administrative headquarters – called the commanderie – of the Knights of Saint John, also commonly called the Knights Hospitaller. The knights administered a region of Cyprus called the Grande Commanderie, encompassing a total of 40 villages, including the 14 Commandaria wine-making villages that exist today, all located within the Limassol District.
In Limassol, Commandaria is produced with a particular recipe and its name is protected as a unique product of Cyprus worldwide.
The recipe includes honey, herbs, vanilla, spices and dried fruits, which produce a complex, sweet flavor. The distinctive element in the production of Commandaria is that after harvesting the grapes, the producers leave them in the sun to dry for 10 days in order to partially dessicate them and concentrate the sugars.
The wine produced is then aged for two years in oak barrels and bottled. As the years pass, the liquid takes on an amber color, and its sweet taste and thick consistency are intensified.