Venture back in Cypriot history to the island’s most ancient and famous wine, coined by the ancient Greek poet Hesiod as Cypriot Nama. Commandaria, has been praised and renowned worldwide for centuries and it thoroughly deserves its reputation.

Koumantaria as it known in Cyprus and internationally as Commandaria, has over the course of history gone by many names over the centuries and even in present day Cyprus and here in the diaspora the dessert wine is written differently by different bodies and wineries.  This obviously does provide some confusion but the one thing that they all agree on is its amazingly unique taste.

Famous throughout the Middle Ages even then known as one of the most ancient wines, its reputation grew, and at the time was one of Cyprus’ biggest exports, consumed by the elite all over Europe. ‘The Wine of Kings and the King of Wines’ a term coined by Coeur De Lion, otherwise known as King Richard the Lion Heart, served and praised Commandaria during his wedding feast. The Knights Templar, the Knights of St. John and the Hospitallers played an active role in the development and production of the wine, even winning the first recorded wine tasting competition, the ‘Battle of the Wines’, which took place in the 13th century, hosted by the French king Philip Augustus.

In Cyprus and here in the diaspora of Great Britain – Commandaria is the choice of wine to be blessed for communion.  Simply known in the community as ‘Church wine’ this Cypriot wine is as, if not more ancient that the Orthodox religion and did lack the acknowledgement it deserves, thankfully the course of history is changing, and many boutique wineries are producing some fantastic Koumantaries.

In her book ‘Kolossi Castle Through The Centuries’ Dr Ekaterini Ch. Aristidou records that during the middle ages sugar and Commandaria were the two largest Cypriot exports outlining that the largest quantities were sent to England as it was a favourite of the Plantagenet Kings. Kolossi castle takes its name from the Kolossi region of Lemesos, this fortified building played a major role in the etymology and the growing the reputation of Commandaria. When the Knights Templar established their base at Kolossi the connection between the two became synonymous as by 1310AD it was established as the headquarters of military command or La Grande Commanderie and hence forth this most the desert wine became known as Commandaria earning its place in the Guinness World Records as the oldest wine in the world.

The Commandaria region in the south west of the island, through 14 Commandaria villages by the foothills of the Troodos Mountains where it can only be produced, goes back to 1192 AD when the Knights of St. John were perfecting its production. Commandaria is still produced in the traditional way of sun shriveling two indigenous grape varieties the black skinned and descriptive name of Mavro and the white Xynisteri grape.  Ageing is two years by law as it is designated as a product of protected origin, however many different wine makers produce different taste varying in the ratios of the blend and the number of years the wine is aged for.  Mavro and Xynisteri grapes may be fortified but most modern producers tend not to. Dr Caroline Gilby presented a very clear and concise description of the process, she has outline in her blog ‘Cyprus – sun, sea and altitude’ that KEO’s St. John Commandaria and SODAP’s St. Barnabas is are among the best examples, which are aged much longer.

“The grapes are picked late in the season and dried in the sun to intensify their natural sweet flavours, giving the drink its distinctive taste. The dried grapes are then pressed, with the run-off collected and fermented in tanks or huge earthenware jars – much like those used in bygone times.”

Commandaria production continues to grow stemming from its ancient times origins and later as part of the Byzantine empire the wine continued to flourish and was always associated with divinity, this King of Wines continues to grow, and its legacy will continue far into the future.

 

Credit: Dr Caroline Gilby MW /

Dr Ekaterini Ch. Aristidou

 

George Charalambous

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