When you first get told the story of Commandaria wine, you may think you’re having your leg pulled.
It certainly sounds like the usual mix of tall tales handed down the generations, served with a little overzealous marketing. What’s that - Richard the Lionheart? The Knights Templar? The island sold, and the island invaded, just to get hold of a type of wine? Okeydokey. What’s that - it’s the oldest wine in the world? Oh good grief, doesn’t every European country say that?
Don’t be fooled. And don’t be put off by someone garbling their facts a bit in their enthusiasm to convey how special Commandaria wine is. Because it really is that special.
As always with any type of food or drink, the history should come second to the experience of sampling it. Take a glass - but go slowly. Your first sip of the stuff will speak volumes, and every word on every page will be “sugar”.
This is alarmingly sweet stuff - and deliciously rich with notes of caramel, cocoa, raisins, figs, honey and just about every other sugary treat you can think of. This isn’t just a dessert wine - it’s the dessert itself. If you have a sweet tooth, it’s heavenly.
(Do go slow, though. Commandaria’s alcohol content is anything up to 20%. I’ll omit telling you about the hangover I had in 2006 the day after drinking half a bottle, before my hosts - who already knew I was a lightweight wine-drinker - saw what I was doing and gently steered me towards the Cypriot Delight instead.)
All this incredible sweetness isn’t as fashionable as it used to be. Go back a thousand years and it was a status-symbol, a sign of luxury and decadence - plus raw calories, which were another way of showing off to strangers that you were wealthy. In modern times where branding something “low-calorie” is a way of selling a lot more of it, rich and heavy tastes like this are more of a niche market than they ever were - which is why you’ll now find lighter Commandarias being made on the southern slopes of the Troodos mountain range.
Only there, though - and only on this island. Thanks to its EU-certified geographical protected status, it’s a drink only made within 14 villages of the Commandaria region of the island, and as of late 2020, it’s one of only 4 products (including the aforementioned Cypriot Delight and the island’s brand of ouzo) that are officially recognised by China as a Cyprus-only produce. This should give it international protection against copycats for decades to come.
You can’t mistake the grapes that go into a Commandaria wine. They’re bulging. The two varieties, Mavro and Xynisteri, are indigenous to Cyprus, and are left to ripen on the vine a lot longer than you’ll see elsewhere, until they’re swollen with sugar. Then they’re laid out in the sun for a couple of weeks, until the sugar density is even higher - and during fermentation makes things even stickier. The result is a dark amber liquid with a body so full it will remind you of Port - which may explain the legend that ancient Cypriot grapes were exported to Portugal for this very reason. There’s no actual evidence of this being true.
There’s also a total lack of evidence that Commandaria is the oldest wine in the world (that’s almost certainly Georgia) - but it is indeed the oldest named wine that’s still being bottled. The first mention of the drink itself is in the writings of the 8th-Century BC Greek poet Hesiod, who called it Nama - but the modern name is from the time of the Crusades.
This part of the tale may sound like a bit of inebriated embellishment - but it’s all true.
It’s 800 years ago, and England’s absent king, Richard Plantaganet - better known as Richard Cœur de Lion, or Lionheart - is typically desperate for cash. In his quest to recapture the Holy Lands for Christendom, he has almost accidentally conquered Cyprus by deposing a local despot with all the might of his assembled armies. Lacking the time (and presumably the inclination) to govern the island, he quickly raises outrageous taxes to fill his pockets, then sells Cyprus to the Knights Templar for even more profit - and sails east, towards his true goal.
There are no direct accounts of what the native Cypriots think about all this, but they can’t have been happy. Then the Templars make as much a ridiculous hash of governing as Richard had. Rebellions flare up everywhere. Exasperated, the Templars beg Richard to take Cyprus off their hands - and he does so, only to gift it to one of his vassals, the French knight Guy de Lusignan, who rules as Lord of Cyprus for three years until his death in 1194. Guy’s brother now takes over - and this newly-established Kingdom of Cyprus endures uneasily under Lusignan rule until the 15th Century.
(When you read potted histories like this, it’s not hard to understand how so many eastern Mediterranean countries came to regard the British as greedy, bumbling agents of international chaos.)
However, the Templars didn’t surrender the entire island back to Richard. The estate they shrewdly retained, close to Limassol, they called La Grande Commanderie (roughly “the larger military outpost”) - and it was from here that they started supplying large amounts of the local wine to the royal courts of Europe and to pilgrims heading east. They named the wine after the estate - and the name stuck.
Richard served Commandaria at his wedding in Cyprus, toasting it as “the king of wines and the wine of kings”. You can imagine the kind of myths that spring up around something affixed with a label like that - which include the unproven story that when Ottoman Selim II conquered the island in the 16th Century, it was to secure production of the wine, not to take control of one of the most important strategic territories in the eastern Mediterranean during a period of expansion and conquest. Bit of a stretch, to say the least.
Nevertheless, Commandaria is special stuff, and any hype around it is understandable. The best and truest description I’ve read of it is “like purified English Christmas cake” - that rich, fruity loaf soaked in alcohol that leaves most British people feeling so devastatingly drowsy in front of the Queen’s speech on TV.
And if that sounds just a bit too much for you, keep an eye out for the new wave of lighter Commandaria wines that are edging into the market - they favour a mix of grapes that makes a lighter-bodied, fresher drink that might leave you capable of keeping exploring the island after a long lunch. (No promises, though.)