Commandaria, The Wine of Kings

Food & Drink

Text: Christina Skordi

Multiple titles and descriptions have been linked to Commandaria through the centuries; Cypriot Nama, the Wine of Crusaders, the Apostle of Wines, sweet as a muse, pure wine, sun-kissed wine, treasure, and just as many legends.

Having put Commandaria under scrutiny by master sommeliers, one will detect notes of honey, dried fruits, carob, coffee, caramel, wood and vanilla. It is a dense wine with a velvety texture, well-balanced flavours, and an impressively long-lasting, aromatic aftertaste that is appreciated like few others.

The origins of Commandaria can be traced back to 3500 BC. Around 800 BC, the Greek poet Hesiod made a full analysis concerning the production of Cypriot Nama in his poem, Works and Days. He spoke of wine “that was always present at the symposiums of the Pharaoh and the tables of Mediterranean Kings.” In 1191, having sampled Commandaria at nuptials to Berengaria of Navarre, Richard the Lionheart was said to remark that the wine was “the Wine of Kings and The King of All Wines.” So it seems that Commandaria has always held a special place on the noblest tables in Europe and the East. Commandaria was further perfected during the Frankish occupation of 1192 AC, when the Knights Hospitaller, having already extensive knowledge of winemaking and its secrets, settled on the island. They refined Commandaria into the wine that it is today, singing its praises and spreading its reputation across many of the major centres of commerce in the Mediterranean at the time. The wine's namesake is attributed to the area in which the Hospitallers produced it, La Grande Commanderie. According to history, three Commanderies were in operation at the time. The largest and most influential of these was based in the village of Kolossi in Limassol province, where the highest quality vineyards were said to have been cultivated. Later, Commandaria’s reputation was such that it won the first recorded wine-tasting competition, the “Battle of the Wines,” hosted by King Philippe Augustus of France in the 13th Century.

A drive through the region of Commandaria today will lead you southeast of Troodos in Limassol province. The fourteen Commandaria villages (Commandarochoria –Lania, Doros, Monagri, Silikou, Ayios Georgios, Ayios Mamas, Kalo Chorio, Kapilio, Ayios Pavlos, Louvaras, Zoopigi, Ayios Constantinos, Apsiou and Gerasa) are located at altitudes between 500 to 900 meters, and consist of vineyards growing the local grape varieties Black and Xinisteri respectively. Commandaria can be a mix of these two varieties, or of one individually. Based on strict regulations governing wine production in areas under the protected designation of origin (PDO), Commandaria is made exclusively in the Commandarochoria. At the end of the harvest season, grapes are exposed to the Mediterranean sun for up to ten days to dehydrate. This increasing their sugar content imparting Commandaria with its distinctive, sweet taste. The raisins are subsequently compressed, the effluent collected, then fermented in large tanks or pots. After their vinification, Commandaria must age in oak barrels for at least two years before being placed on the market.

The picturesque Commandarochoria have something unique to offer, most notably the opportunity to enter into the world of Commandaria and learn the history of Cypriot winemaking. There are four operating wineries in the area; Menargos Winery in Monagri, the Revecca Winery Museum in Ayios Mamas, Panayiotis Karseras Winery in Doros, and the Synergatiki Etairia Ampelourgon (Associated Company of Viticulturists) in Kalo Chorio, all of which are open to visitors.

Two more important locations must be noted on your map. The first is the Historic Museum of Commandaria at Zoopigi. This houses a collection of ancient Cypriot wine pot replicas along with paintings, pictures and visual media showcasing the history of Commandaria. The second is the Thematic Museum of Commandaria Storage in Lania, arguably the most beautiful village among the Commandarochoria. There are  a collection of large pots where the wine used to be stored, as well as tools and other items once used in the production process.

Photos: Cyprus Wine Museum

Today, Commandaria is regaining its former glory thanks to the wineries in Cyprus that still carry on with the traditions established by the Hospitallers. Traditionally served as a dessert wine, we hope that this sweet conclusion to an evening meal will be cherished by our guests for a very long time to come.

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