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Commandaria (or Commanderia; Greek: ???????????) is an amber-coloured sweet dessert wine made in the Commandaria region of Cyprus on the foothills of the Troodos mountains. Commandaria is made from sun-dried grapes of the varieties Xynisteri and Mavro.
While often a fortified wine, through its production method it often reaches high alcohol levels, around 15%, already before fortification.
It represents an ancient wine style documented in Cyprus back to 800 BC and has the distinction of being the world's oldest named wine still in production, with the name Commandaria dating back to the crusades in the 12th century.
The wine has a rich history, said to date back to the time of the ancient Greeks, where it was a popular drink at festivals celebrating the goddess Aphrodite. A dried grape wine from Cyprus was first known to be described in 800 BC by the Greek poet Hesiod and was known as the Cypriot Nama.
In the 12th century, during the crusades, Richard the Lionheart is said to have enjoyed it greatly at his wedding in Cyprus and to have pronounced it "the wine of kings and the king of wines."
Near the end of the century he sold the island to the Knights Templar, who then sold it to Guy de Lusignan, but kept a large feudal estate close to Limassol to themselves.
This estate was referred to as "La Grande Commanderie". The word Commanderie referred to the military headquarters whilst Grande helped distinguish it from two smaller such command posts on the island, one close to Paphos (Phoenix) and another near Kyrenia (Templos). This area under the control of the Knights Templar (and subsequently the Knights Hospitaller) became known as Commandaria. When the knights began producing large quantities of the wine for export to Europe's royal courts and for supplying pilgrims en route to the holy lands, the wine assumed the name of the region. Thus it has the distinction of being the world's oldest named wine still in production.
Although today it is produced and marketed under the name Commandaria, it has been referred to with several similar names and spellings in the past. In 1863, Thomas George Shaw in his book Wine, the vine, and the cellar refers to this wine as Commanderi whilst in 1879, Samuel Baker refers to it as Commanderia. In 1833 Cyrus Redding in his book A history and description of modern wines makes reference to the wine of the Commandery.
Legend has it that in the 13th century Philip Augustus of France held the first ever wine tasting competition. The event, branded The Battle of the Wines (fr. La Bataille des Vins), was recorded in a notable French poem written by Henry d'Andeli in 1224. The competition which included wines from all over Europe and France, was won by a wine from Cyprus widely believed to be Commandaria. The Commandery region itself fell into the control of his descendent Philip IV in 1307 after suppression of the Knights Templar.
Another legend has it an Ottoman sultan invaded the island just to acquire Commandaria. And the grapes used to make this wine were the same grapes exported to Portugal that eventually became famous as the source of port wine.
Commandaria is made exclusively from two types of indigenous Cyprus grapes: Xynisteri and Mavro. The grapes are left to overripe on the vine and when sugar content reaches acceptable levels (corresponding to high must weight) they are harvested. More specifically, Xynisteri is picked when at around 12 degrees BaumÃ© (Â°BÃ©) and Mavro at 15-16 Â°BÃ©. The grapes are then laid out in the sun to further increase the sugar density through evaporation. When the must weight reaches 19 to 23 Â°BÃ© the juice is extracted thorough crushing and pressing. Fermentation takes place in reservoirs and will arrest naturally due to the high levels of alcohol achieved at around 15%. The above process has to take place within the confines of 14 designated villages that lie in the Commandaria Region (see below). Commandaria, by law is aged for at least four years in Oak Barrels but this can take place outside the above designated area within Cyprus under strict control and under the conditions laid down in Cypriot legislation.
Once fermentation has been completed, at a minimum alcohol level of 10% (which is often exceeded), the alcoholic strength of Commandaria may be increased by the addition of pure 95% grape alcohol or a wine distillate of at least 70% alcohol. However, after this addition, the wine's actual alcohol content may not exceed 20%, while its total potential alcohol (including its sugar content) must be at least 22.5%. Thus, Commandaria may be a fortified wine, but fortification is not mandatory.
The origins of the production method are not definite. In his poem Works and Days, written in the 7th century BC, Hesiod, writes:
Forget not next the ripen'd Grapes to lay, Ten Nights in Air, nor take them in by Day; Five more remember, e're the Wine is made, To let them ly, to mellow in the Shade; And in the sixth briskly yourself employ, To cask the Gift of Bacchus, Sire of Joy."
In his account Samuel Baker describes the production in 1879
'...the commanderia grapes are collected and spread upon the flat mud-plastered roofs of the native houses, and are exposed for several days, until they show symptoms of shrivelling in the skin, and the stalks have partially dried: they are then pressed"
Interestingly he claims that the evolution of this method was more out of necessity than choice.
"It has been imagined by some travellers that the grapes are purposely dried before pressing; on the other hand, I have been assured by the inhabitants that their only reason for heaping and exposing their crop upon the house-tops is the danger of leaving it to ripen in the vineyard. None of the plots are fenced, and before the grapes are sufficiently ripe for pressing they are stolen in large quantities, or destroyed by cattle, goats, mules, and every stray animal that is attracted to the fields."
Commandaria is produced both by the large wine industries (SODAP, KEO, ETKO, and LOEL) and by small local producers of the Commandaria appellation zone (see below).
Data recorded by Samuel Baker in his book Cyprus - How I saw it in 1879 reveal that in the late 19th century Cyprus had an annual production of about 300,000 okes, equivalent to about 385,000 litres (data reflects only duty-paid production). Of this, Cyprus exported 180,103 okes from Limassol Port, of which the vast majority went to Austria (155,000 okes valued at UKÂ£2,075).
Official figures released by Cyprus Vine Products Commission show that there is a general increasing trend in the volumes produced. Much of Commandaria production is still targeted for export.
Currently Commandaria holds a protected designation of origin (PDO) within the European Union, the United States] and Canada. By Cypriot legislation passed on March 2, 1990, it is only produced in a collection of 14 neighbouring villages: Agios Georgios, Agios Konstantinos, Agios Mamas, Agios Pavlos, Apsiou, Gerasa, Doros, Zoopigi, Kalo Chorio, Kapilio, Laneia, Louvaras, Monagri and Silikou. The designated area has assumed the name of the Commandaria Region and is located on the south facing slopes of the Troodos mountains at an altitude of 500-900m within the Limassol District. Only grapes from vineyards that have been planted for at least 4 years are allowed. Vine training must follow the goblet method and watering is prohibited. The grape harvest may only commence after the vine products commission of Cyprus has given the green light, based on the average sugar content of the grapes. Xinisteri grapes must demonstrate a sugar content of 212 g/L whilst Mavro can only qualify with a reading of 258 g/L and above. The sugar concentration is then raised by laying the grapes in the sun, usually for 7-10 days, to a strict window of 390 to 450g/L.
The monastic Hospitaller Orders, which undertook both religious duties and the protection and care of travellers, became very influential. The Knights of St. John of Jerusalem were founded as early as 1048 and as their name â€œHospitallersâ€ indicates, they provided medical care and hospitality to pilgrims.
The King of Cyprus Hugh I conferred on the Hospitallers special privileges, such as the right to acquire land, exemption from customs dues on their exports and imports, free milling, estates and houses and, above all, Kolossi which became their Grand Commandery. Kolossi was considered the richest of the Commanderies and extended over a wide area that included 40 villages. On the fruitful land of the Grand Commandery, the Hospitallers cultivated wheat, cotton, sugar cane, olive trees and vines.
Since ancient times the Cypriots produced a sweet wine from sun-dried grapes, observing traditional methods. This wine acquired great renown in the west through the Crusaders themselves, while Cyprus was still under Byzantine rule. The vineyards of Kolossi produced wines which had already become famous as "nectar" and "strong and thick". They were resistant to the hazards of being transported in casks to other markets which put them at the risk of exposure to air. The wines inspired by the special Cyprus yeasts were capable of remaining in good condition long after ordinary table wines of lower strength would have faded and become virtual vinegar.
The Hospitallers were connoisseurs of good wine and experts in production techniques. To this day, the label on wines from the Bordeaux region is adorned with the motto "Ancient Domaine des Hospitaliers", for they originate from estates which once belonged to the Knights Hospitallers of Saint John.
Vin de la Commanderie
It is therefore not surprising that the Knights of St. John adopted and perfected the production of the sweet Cyprus wine. The Venetians and Genoese who dominated sea trade routes, attached to the wine the designation Commandaria, not merely because it was produced in the Commandery of the Hospitallers, but also because of the esteem the knighthood had acquired among the pilgrims, who anchored off the ports of Cyprus on their way to the Holy Land.
Thus, reports began to circulate by word of mouth about this rich and powerful wine, produced in vineyards associated with a highly respected, even revered, religious order. In Venice Commandaria was even exempt from import tax because it was considered a tonic drink.
The Dutch traveller Cornelis van Bruyn who visited the island in 1683, was particularly impressed by the wines of Cyprus.
Among the products of Cyprus are first its wines. They are excellent and when drunk on the spot are very different from the same wines after export to other countries. For though they come straight from the island, and they bear transport well, yet on the journey they acquire a certain taste of pitch which partly helps to preserve them. I have drunk wine here over thirty years old: It had a very pleasant taste and a beautiful colour.
Archbishop Constantius of Sinai referred in 1819 to the great fame of Commandaria in Europe.
One product of the island has been up to this time fostered with great zeal and care and is still one of the chief articles of export â€“ this is its delicious wine. This fragrant nectar of Zeus, expressed and flowing from the vines which are abound in this shrine of his beloved son Bacchus, is drawn from a part of the island called Comanderia, for here was the lot and inheritance of the Commandery, the order of the Templars and Knights of Malta which lies between Mount Olympus and the town of Nemesos and Paphos. This excellent wine is one of the things greatly in request in Europe.
Reverend Edward Clarke, fellow of Jesus College, who visited Cyprus in 1800 considered Commandaria to have therapeutic properties.
Limassol produces the best Muscat of Cyprus, however Commandaria wine is definitely the most important product for the inhabitants. This wine is famous in the entire Latin world, and it is said that it has the power to bring back youth in aged people and offer regeneration to those nearing death. We tried a 40-year-old wine that indeed was like balsam, and it was rightly kept â€“ because of its therapeutic properties â€“ for the sick and those coming to the end of their life.
The Feast of the Five Kings
In 1363 in the City of London there took place the now famous Feast of the Five Kings. This was the occasion when Alderman Sir Henry Picard, at that time Master of the Vintnersâ€™ Company, hosted a dinner to a highly distinguished group of guests. According to tradition, the Mayor of London sumptuously feasted King Edward III of England, King John II of France, King David II of Scotland, King Valdemar IV of Denmark and King Peter I of Cyprus and many other noblemen. It was the time when Peter Lusignan was travelling around Europe in an attempt to assemble an army for a new crusade.
There is no record of the fare that the wine trader Picard offered to his guests, but legend maintains that Commandaria which would withstand the hazard of rough handling and changes of temperature during transport, actually flowed in rivers. The Vintnersâ€™ Company to this day drink their traditional toast with five cheers to commemorate what was a memorable occasion. A painting by Charles Taylor in the Royal Exchange of London depicts vividly the magnificence and grandeur of the Feast of the Five Kings.