Commandaria, The Wine of Kings
For those of you that haven’t yet tried it, a treat is in store. It’s usually made, according to the original recipe which dates back nearly a thousand years, from a precise blend of white Xynisteri and black Mavro grapes. These are allowed to ripen fully on the vines before being laid out in the sun to dry for up to ten days to increase the ratio of sugar to juice. A day trip around the villages of the Commandaria region in early autumn rewards your senses with the sight of vast areas of black and white grapes laid out in the sun drying whilst the rich scent of raisins and early fermentation lingers in the air. Fermented until the alcohol level kills off the yeast at around 15%, the wine is occasionally fortified with grape spirit to increase the alcohol level further before being matured for four years in oak barrels. This gives the wine flavours and aromas that range from walnut, dry apricot and figs to carobs and raisins to coffee and peppermint. Others notice chocolate and freshly ground coffee flavours or light caramel. It keeps well and is known to age well for at least 100 years.
So what is the story of this wine? Mentioned by Homer and Hesiod as the ‘sweet wine of Cyprus’ or ‘Cyprus manna’ it received the oldest name of any wine still produced today from the Knights of St John when they set up their ‘Grand Commandery at Kolossi castle in the 12th Century. They liked the local sweet wine and recognising its commercial viability, set out strict rules for its production, calling it Commanderia. Such was its quality and worth that it was served at the wedding of Richard the Lionheart to Berengaria of Navarre. The king is said to have toasted it as the ‘wine of kings and the king of wines’. Legend even has it that the Ottomans invaded Cyprus to gain control over its production and distribution. In the early 13th century Commandaria is believed to have won the first ever wine tasting competition.
Today the wine is produced as a strict ‘appellation’ in fourteen villages of the Commandaria region around Limassol and must, by law, be aged for four years in oak barrels.
Like many of the fine wines of Cyprus, Commandaria has yet to reach its full potential in appealing to serious dessert wine connoisseurs outside of the island and to this day remains a delicious secret known mostly to visitors of the sunny island of its birth. Whilst you’re here, why not accompany a rich chocolaty dessert with a glass or try it over ice as an aperitif. If you find, like many that have tried it before, that you love the richness and complexity of flavours, visit one of the producers and perhaps invest in a vintage Commandaria – you’ll find it will at least rival, if not beat the best fortified wines from around the world.
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