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Commandaria



A legendary wine

Taste Commandaria, just for once and you could become a passionate and romantic lover of this great wine. Each wine drop traps in it a multitude of flavors and aromas, enough to cover the full spectrum of human senses. Its color is warm, golden to ruby, its aroma is complex and passionate, its taste is sweet, its aftertaste is everlasting. A wine so old and unique that Cypriots traded it for centuries to the most demanding consumers of the known world and which other winemakers attempted to copy on many occasions. This wine carries with it the centuries old culture of the Cypriot rural society and is closely tied to the commercial activities of the island’s traders who loaded it on ships for export to the most demanding European markets of the time. Commandaria thrived during the Middle Ages, suffered under the dark period of  the Ottoman rule, became a forgotten wine during the latter part of the 20th century but survived, remaining unspoiled by all foreign cultural influences, standing out today as the flagship of our vine and wine heritage.

 

Commandaria is a legendary-wine, a statement verified by the selection of vintage 1223 among the top ten wines of the past 1,000 years. The competition, BBC – one thousand years best wine competition ), characterized Commandaria as ‘a powerful sweet wine from Cyprus that won the first wine competition, La Bataille des Vins, organised by the French king, Philip Augustus. Where is it now?’ It is about time that Commandaria reveals itself once more to the world markets, gaining the fame and place that it rightly deserves among the elite of the world’s wines.

 

 

Commandaria, an age-old story

Although the name "Commandaria" came into use after 1192 A.D., with the settlement of the Lusignans on the island and the arrival of the religious-cum-military order of the Knights of St John, it would be naive to believe that this famed sweet wine of Cyprus was not produced much earlier than that.

 

In fact, ancient poets and historians have a lot to say on this subject. Stasinos (who lived shortly after Homer), Pliny, Strabo, Seneca and others extol the island for its top-quality sweet wine, the wine that some two thousand years later was given the name Commandaria – a name that is, indisputably, the oldest for a wine which exists to the present day. The following extract from Hesiod’s "The Works and Days" bears testimony to the fact that Commandaria was in production thousands of years before the Crusaders. Hesiod lived in the 8th century B.C., not long after Homer’s time, and in this extract he describes the technique of drying the grapes in the sun (before going on to the winemaking process).

 

When Orion and Sirius are

at the meridian

and rose-fingered Dawn looks at Arcturus,

then pick all your grapes

and bring them home.

For days and nights ten expose them to the sun,

shade them for five,

and on the sixth

place Dionysos’s

pleasure-giving gifts in pots.

 

In view of what has been said above, Commandaria must be regarded as the wine with the oldest tradition in the world, both as regards the method of its production and the origin of its name. It could rightly be said that Commandaria is the forerunner of the classification of wines according to place of origin, an institution applied centuries later in countries with developed wine-producing industries to signify high quality.

[AOC or AC = Appellation d’ origine contrôlée (controlled name of origin)].

 

 

The oldest name for a wine in the world

Richard the Lion Heart, while sailing for the Holy Land to participate in the 3rd Crusade planned his invasion of Cyprus, with the excuse that bad weather had forced him to seek anchorage at Lemesos. It did not take Richard long to get into a quarrel with Isaac Comnenus, the devoted 'anti-crusades' king of Cyprus, and in 1191 Richard occupied the island and subsequently sold it to the Templars, a religious order of knights founded by French Crusaders in 1118 to provide military protection of the Holy Sepulchre from the infidels. The Templars soon realized that they would not be able to keep Cyprus under their control, cancelled the agreement and departed. So Richard ceded the island to Guy de Lusignan, the French "King of Jerusalem" who became the founder of the Lusignan dynasty which ruled Cyprusfor three centuries (1192-1489). Thus, 1192 marked the beginning of a new era in the social and political history of Cyprus. The Lusignan period together with the Venetian rule (1489-1570) constitute the Frankish Era in the history of Cyprus.

 

During the Lusignan reign, Cyprus was swarmed with Western European settlers, mainly Catholic crusaders who took up residence on the island, and on whom were bestowed extensive areas of land, as well as rights and privileges, and thus the feudal system was set up. Among these settlers were the Knights of St John, the ecclesiastical military order of St John (the Baptist) of Jerusalem. These knights had their administrative headquarters - the Commanderie or Commandaria - in a castle west of Lemesos, known today as "Kolossi Castle". The castle was situated in a large fertile area of land with extensive plantations of wheat, cotton, sugar cane and vineyards. The area was known as "Grande Commanderie" to distinguish it from two smaller commanderies, Phoenix of Paphos and Templos in Kyrenia. This Grande Commanderie covered a total of 40 villages situated within the Limassol District including those that today make up the 14 Commandaria wine-making villages.

 

The Commandaria wine of today still bears the name of this area, for the Knights of St John gave this name to the wine not only because it was produced in the villages that constituted the Order’s fief - the Commanderie - but also because knighthood was then held in high esteem among the Catholic countries of Western Europe and among pilgrims who, on their way to the Holy Land, stopped at Cypriot harbors for provisioning - which of course included the sweet Commandaria wine. The knights of St John, who knew the secrets of good wine making took the local know how and upgraded its production techniques, improving its quality and elevating it to the wine in greatest demand at the time. Commandaria acquired world fame, for the knights traded it with enviable success and at considerable profit for themselves. Because of its exceptional quality, Commandaria was much in demand in the trading centers of the Mediterranean. In Venice, for example, it could be imported free of tax because it was categorized as a tonic.

 

 

Praise in abundance for Commandaria

There are several references in historical texts through the centuries that extol the grandeur of the quality of Commandaria. Wilbrand von Oldenburg, count of Oldenburg, who visited Cyprus in 1212, was highly impressed by the sweet wines of the island. He writes: "The wines of this island are so thick and rich as if they are meant to be consumed like honey on bread."

 

It is also true that during a symposium held in 1363, which came to be known as "The Feast of the Five Kings" and which was organized by the Lord Mayor of London in honor of Peter I, then king of Cyprus, and four other kings (Edward III of England, David II, king of Scotland, John II, king of France and Valdemar IV, king of Denmark) Commandaria was served and it was very much appreciated by all. A painting at the Royal Exchange, London, portrays very vividly the splendor and the color of the symposium.

 

References to Commandaria’s fame are found in writings of many foreign travelers who have shown their appreciation for the wines of Cyprus, referring most often to Commandaria. Tomasso Porcacchi, an extremely voluminous writer, best known for his descriptions of the most famous islands of the world, entitled "L’ Isole piu famose del mondo", published in 1576, writes about Cyprus: "The island is rich in all the fruits of the earth, and its more useful products. Its wines are very luscious and wholesome; as they grow old they turn from black to white, they are fragrant and of pleasant taste. One finds wine of 80 years and more, and a vintage that had graced a grandee’s table, gets fresh honor as a medicine, for its health-giving and preservative virtues, which are those of a balsam."

 

Estienne de Lusignan wrote in 1580 that Cyprus wine is ‘the best in the world’.

 

Dutchman, Cornelis Van Bruyn, who visited the island in 1683, gives his own testimony: "Of all the island’s products, Commandaria is by far the best. It is an exceptional wine. I have drunk wine that is more than 30 years old here and it has a very pleasant taste, exquisite colour, and it was so thick that it stuck to the walls of the glass. You could get hold of even older Commandaria, up to one hundred years old."

 

An extremely interesting view on Commandaria is that of the Reverend Edward Clarke, fellow of Jesus College, who visited Cyprus in 1800: "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 - because of its therapeutic properties - for the sick and those coming to the end of their life."

 

Of the many travelers who wrote about Commandaria, Giovanni Mariti’s book stands out as the most complete reference to Cyprus wine making of the 18th century. His book, Del Vino di Cipro (1772), translated later under the name ‘Wines of Cyprus’3 makes extensive reference to Commandaria wine ‘which is deservedly so prized in Europe that still today it takes pride of place on tables bearing the choicest wines’. The book describes in great detail the vine culture and commandaria production techniques, the trading patterns and the transportation routes from the wine villages to the export markets. He also praises the wine for its therapeutic attributes especially for comforting people from fever and for its wound healing properties.

 

An extensive review of the praise for Commandaria by foreign travelers throughout the centuries, is available in the book "Commandaria, a legendary wine" by K. D. Papadopoulos2.

 

 

The lean years in the history of Commandaria

During the long years of Turkish domination 1571-1878, the production of Commandaria faced serious difficulties because of the intolerable taxation imposed by the Turkish conquerors on the production and marketing of wines: There was a 20% duty on grape production, a 10% duty on wine production and an 8% on exports. All this forced many vine-growers to abandon their vineyards. The result of this abandonment was a continual dramatic reduction of the annual production of Commandaria as evidenced by the statistical data of the period 1790-1877. The data show that the 1790 production of 390,000 gallons dropped to 169,000 gallons, on average, for the period 1802-1815, and even lower in the years 1855 (110,000 gallons) and 1877 (130,000 gallons). The reduction in annual production continued during the British rule (1878-1960) dropping from 88,025 gallons per year in the period 1887-1891 to 67,614 gallons per year in the period 1935-1939. After 1950, the coming into force of the "Appellation Protection Law", protecting the names of wines, created the necessary conditions and inducement for a real regeneration in the production and marketing of Commandaria.

 

These measures by the colonial government induced the traditional Commandaria producing villages and the big wine companies of Lemesos (ETKO, KEO, LOEL and SODAP) to enter into long-term cooperation agreements, whereby the wine companies undertook to buy all the Commandaria produced in the said villages provided it fulfilled certain specifications which aimed at maintaining the tradition in relation to the place of origin and to the method of production. Commandaria is still made the old, traditional way and for more than six decades their production is in the hands of the major Co-operatives of the wine villages. Finished commandaria is then sold to the major wineries for maturing, bottling and sale.

 

Despite the many efforts to bring Commandaria back to its fame, these proved unsuccessful for a number of reasons and the downward trend of production continues. During the period 1965-1980 volumes averaged at 1.2-1.4mln liters but since the early 1990s these fluctuate around 200-450.000 liters annually. Among the many reasons for the downfall of this special wine is the very high cost involved in its production and the labour intensive processes required.

 

 

Vindication and recognition of Commandaria

Vindication for Commandaria did not come until 1990 when this wine, which claims the oldest history in the world, was finally recognized as a wine with a controlled name of origin. The region defined as "Commandaria" includes 14 villages and it is the first vine region in Cyprus to receive AOC (Appellation d’ Origine Contrôlée) status. The 14 communities of the Commandaria zone are the villages of Ayios Georgios, Ayios Constantinos, Ayios Mamas, Ayios Pavlos, Apsiou, Gerasa, Doros, Zoopigi, Kalo Horio, Kapilio, Lania, Louvaras, Monagri and Sylikou - all lying on the southern slopes of the Troodos mountains some 30 kilometres north of Lemesos.

 

Production of commandaria wine at the designated villages (lt)

 

2001

2002

2003

2004

2005

2006

Kalo Chorio

84.928

53.515

31.906

115.981

114.180

105.000

Zoopigi

18.916

11.215

19.109

43.206

41.200

40.000

Yerasa

15.967

8.245

11.712

20.292

36.000

20.000

Ay. Constantinos

35.253

23.479

13.544

49.000

50.043

25.000

P. Karseras (Doros)

73.275

29.709

45.460

106.500

25.872

50.000

Ay. Mamas

-

-

40.828

124.060

87.840

60.000

Menargos Winery

-

-

-

-

11.000

10.000

Dimishion (Lania)

39.098

38.339

30.245

81.540

48.521

42.500

Total

267.437

164.502

192.804

540.579

414.656

352.500

Source: Wine Product Commission, Annual Report 2006

 

Commandaria is made from the blend of two indigenous varieties, Mavro and Xynisteri and it is by no chance that only these varieties are suitable for its making. These grapes posses such characteristics, among which relates to their suitability for prolonged maturity on the vine and drying in the sun. Regulations demand that only these two traditional varieties may be used in Commandaria and that the grapes must come from vineyards where the plants have the traditional low bush form, with a minimum of 2750 plants per hectare (for vineyards planted before 1969) or 2000 plants per hectare (for vineyards planted after 1969). Vine yields are set at 4,500 kgs per ha or 17 hectoliters. The plants must be at least four years old before their grapes can be used in the making of Commandaria, and the grapes must not be carried outside the Commandaria zone for vinification. Best commandaria is made from vines that are more than 10 years old. Bearing in mind that in the Commandaria region there exist vines of more than 100 years old, one can imagine the excellent wine these vines can achieve. It has also been observed that better commandaria is made from vines that are located at higher altitudes.

 

Harvesting starts around mid-September when the grapes have over-matured on the vine. After picking, the grapes are laid out in the sun for about 7-10 days   and at the end of this drying period (during which the grapes lose a great amount of water) their sugar content increases. They are then pressed and the extracted juice is stocked in fermentation tanks, a process that can last for 2-3 months. The next step involves the transfer of wine to large oak tree casks where it matures for more than two years, a period determined by the appropriate regulatory framework. This is done in the underground cellars of four wine industries, using old oak casks of a minimum capacity of 500 liters. The method used in Cyprus (called manna) is theoretically similar to the solera method used elsewhere. The difference lies in the fact that here in Cyprus ageing takes place in only one large cask from which one-third of the wine is tapped off, and then the cask is topped up with fresh wine. This of course does not mean that any one bottle of Commandaria is a blend of only three different vintages because the stocks currently available in the cellars of these wineries are older than three years.

 

After maturing in the cask for more than the minimum of two years, Commandaria is bottled in a distinctive kind of carafe and the labels commonly carry themes from the Crusades period or the Kolossi Castle.

 

 

Serving Commandaria

Commandaria is a sweet, desert wine, characterized by a high alcoholic content of 15% and a notable richness in natural sugars derived exclusively from the grapes used. The critical factor in the serving of Commandaria is temperature. Commandaria brings out all its aroma and flavour when drunk well chilled at 6 - 9°C. Within this temperature range, ideal for most dessert wines, Commandaria reveals all its merits and at the same time conceals any likely "flaws", such as the presence of a high alcohol content and its volatile acidity — which are more easily discernible when the wine is served at temperatures exceeding 9 - 10°C.

 

Like all sweet wines, Commandaria is served in small stemmed glasses with a comparatively short stem and a long cup, with inwardly sloping sides to retain the wine’s rich bouquet. In February 2006, the Wine Products Association of Cyprus along with a group of top international wine experts and sommeliers selected a beautiful crystal glass that was the specific winner of a selection process and which can now be reffered to as the Commandaria Glass. The glass belongs to the Riedel Vinus Extreme series, Code no 444/55, manufactured by Riedel, the well known Austrian wine glass company.

 

 

Tasting Commandaria

Colour: The colour of Commandaria is directly related to the age of the wine, which is the time the wine was matured in casks plus the time it was aged in bottles. On the whole, the colour of Commandaria is within the colour range of honey with yellowish-goldish tones, made lighter or darker depending on its age. Young Commandaria has lighter honeyish hues which become darker with age. An important factor in the ultimate colour is the proportion of the grape varieties used. Commandarias with a high percentage of the white Xynisteri variety are usually lighter in colour tone and are almost always within the various shades of the colour of honey. It cannot easily be said that Commandaria is distinguished for the clarity of its colour, for it is often more cloudy than any dry wine. This does not affect adversely either its aroma or its taste. Although to some it might be aesthetically off-putting, this turbidity points to the fact that what the drinker is tasting a matured wine which, in the course of time, has naturally acquired a not so transparent colour.

 

Aroma: Three main factors actively contribute to the aromatic profile in Commandaria: these are the grape variety, the addition of alcohol, and, naturally, the duration and quality of ageing. Regarding the variety, after several decades of experience, it is now clear that Xynisteri gives the wine greater aromatic finesse and intensity - even though a small quantity of Mavro can add some complexity to the nose. The addition of wine alcohol after the completion of alcoholic fermentation plays an important role in the aromatic structure of Commandaria and raises the potency of the alcohol content from about 10-12 degrees (achieved through fermentation) to 15 degrees. This additional alcohol content stabilises the wine and increases its life span but at the same time could neutralise to a greater or lesser extent, depending on circumstances, its original bouquet. However, good specimens of Commandaria are not only immune to aromatic deterioration through increased alcoholic content, but, on the contrary, the presence of alcohol results in greater aromatic complexity.

 

Naturally, ageing is a catalytic, if not the overriding, factor in the aromatic evolution of Commandaria. Those who have been lucky to taste properly aged Commandaria that has remained "undisturbed" in a good oak barrel and then in a bottle for, say, a hundred years, cannot but admit that what they encountered was nothing less than a myth or, if you prefer, the nectar of the Olympian Gods. Out of a glass of aged Commandaria you can expect to emerge, all at once, multifarious intense aromas - typical of Commandaria - that remind you of raisins, grape-juice syrup, walnut kernel, coffee, chocolate, quince-pulp jelly, honey, dried figs and apricots — the list is endless. This of course is not true of young samples of wine that are rushed on the market before going through the cycle of at least ten years of mellowing in a cask and ageing in a bottle — a minimum period if we are talking about quality Commandaria.

 

Taste: What does one expect from a dessert wine? What else but a sweet taste due to its unfermented sugars? Except that in the case of Commandaria this sweetness that every lover of dessert wine expects goes rather beyond that of many other dessert wines. This increase is due partly to the greater quantity of natural unfermented sugars in the wine and partly to the wine’s comparatively reduced acidity, which is in fact quite low, especially in Commandaria whose composition includes a fair amount of grapes of the Mavro variety. The concentration of taste in the wine is closely linked to the length of the ageing period it has gone through. A wine’s age is equally important as regards its aftertaste. Young Commandarias that have been aged for no more than two or three years have a rather short aftertaste that lacks intensity, whereas older wines wind up with a long, intense and complex aftertaste. The aromas that diffuse inside a taster’s mouth are similar to those that reach the nose, and often remind one of grape-juice syrup, raisins, dried fruits (figs, apricots), nuts, quince-pulp jelly, coffee and chocolate.

 

 

Commandaria, the perfect epilogue

It would be frivolous to suggest, by any stretch of the imagination, that Commandaria will match any food. Commandaria is a dessert wine and it should be used as such. It plays a final role in the course of a meal, writing the epilogue, so to speak, and culminating in a perfect gustatory crescendo.

‘Commandaria is a romantic, noble wine capable of maturing for so long as no other wine in the world. Mature stocks of 100 years old support and prove Commandaria’s fame and name as the Apostole of Wines’

(K. Papadopoulos)

 

Commandaria can by itself constitute a grand finale to a gastronomical experience, in the same way that a sequence of dinner dishes can come to an end with an appropriate dessert whose composition includes such ingredients as raisins, caramelized nuts, coffee, honey or even chocolate (a substance which can hardly accompany any wine). The traditional Cyprus sweets, made from grape-juice, such as soutzioukos (must-jelly-and-nut sausage = threaded nuts dipped in grape-juice jelly) or kiofteria (dried grape-juice jelly) are perfectly "suited" to Commandaria for they share similar aroma and flavour characteristics. In terms of taste Commandaria can also be harmoniously accompanied by the traditional preserved sweets, prepared from fruits, such as figs, quinces (including jellified quince-pulp), bitter oranges and others. And then there is the astonishing, almost exotic matching of Commandaria with a great variety of mature full-fat cheeses, especially of the type known as "blue cheeses", such as Roquefort, Stilton or Gorgonzola, whose taste can only be matched by very sweet, intense and fatty dessert wines.

 

 

 

 

Prize Winning Commandarias

KEO St John – Silver Medal in International Wine and Spirit Competition 2006

ETKO St Nicholas – Best Value wine by the Wine Spectator 2003

 

 

References:

1. Commandaria, in the Cyprus Wine Guide 2006 by Yiannos Constantinou

2. Commandaria – the legendary wine, by K.D.Papadopoulos (2004)

3. Wines of Cyprus, by Giovanni Mariti (1769) translated by A. Nicolas, Athens 1984

4. Wines Product Commission - Annual Report 2006

5. Commandaria - the leader of Cyprus wines - Wnes Product Commission

 

 

Did you Know that?

German Chancellor Otto Von Bismark (1815-1898) was a great fan of Commandaria and that he had contracted a supplier from Larnaca to supply him regularly with the drink.

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