Commandaria, the sweet dessert wine from Cyprus, is the oldest manufactured wine in the world and holds the record for the oldest “Appelation d’origine”. In the year 1223, King Phillipe of France called it “The Apostle of wines” and it soon became famous all over Europe as “Commandaria”, taking the name of the area where it was produced. This part of Cyprus took its name at the time of the Crusades, when in 1210 the Knight of the Order of St. John built the Kolossi castle and called the area “Grande Commanderie”.
Cyprus is known for its sunshine, its ancient ruins and its delicious halloumi cheese, but one thing that is less well known is that it is also home to the oldest named wine in the world.
Commandaria is a dessert wine with a flavor as rich as its history. It is produced in the fertile high-altitude slopes in the south-west of the island that became known as “La Grande Commanderie” during the Crusades. It is originally believed to have been given its name by crusading knights in the 13th century, but to have first been made way earlier. However, around this time, the Knights of the Order of Saint John renamed the local wine after their new protectorate. Throughout the following centuries, stories of the wine abound. According to legend, King Richard the Lionheart of England was so taken with Commandaria that at his wedding he pronounced it “the wine of kings and the king of wines.” Equally struck by the intoxicating liquor was the French King Philippe Augustus who is said to have declared it to be “the Apostle of wines”.
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. A dried grape wine from Cyprus was first known to be described in year 800 before Christ by the Greek poet Hesiod and was known, by much later, as the Cypriot “Manna”.
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 even held the first ever wine tasting competition. The event, branded The Battle of the Wines (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 sweet wine from Cyprus widely believed to be Commandaria. The Commandery region itself fell into the control of his descendant Philip IV in 1307, after the suppression of the Knights Templar.
Another legend has it that the Ottoman sultan Selim II invaded the island just to acquire Commandaria; also that the grapes used to make this wine were the same grapes exported to Portugal that eventually became famous as the source of port wine.
Ancient heritage, modern interpretation
Archaeological digs, conducted over the past decade, have unearthed evidence that the history of wine in Cyprus stretches back not just hundreds, but thousands of years. Some believe that Cyprus may even have been the site of the earliest wine harvests in Europe, stretching back 5,000 years. These days, alongside the mainstream labels producing Commandaria in Cyprus, there is a new generation of winemakers now trying to look to the more distant history of their local viniculture to make something they call “Nama” – which is according to Cypriot winemakers what they believe the more ancient name was for what the crusading knights of the 13th century came to call Commandaria.
History goes on and so does the production of wine in Cyprus. So, does this wine taste the same as the Nama that was being enjoyed in Cyprus 5,000 years ago? While historians can tell stories about the old and can give you an idea about the past, senses can unfortunately not be transmitted through history; and so, we cannot know how the ancient Nama smelled or tasted like. It would be nice to think that it did.