What is Commandaria?
First-time visitors to Cyprus will eventually be introduced to Commandaria. So what is it?
Commandaria is an amber-coloured, sweet, dessert wine exclusively made in the Commandaria region on the foothills of the Troodos mountains.
Using sun-dried Xynisteri and Mavro grapes the wine-making process takes the grapes and from the ‘must’ achieves an initial wine strength of around 15%.
The wine is then aged for four years in oak barrels.
The resulting wine may then be fortified, lifting the strength even higher. Fortification may be achieved in a variety of ways. One route is with the addition of 70 – 95% pure grape distillate, raising the alcoholic content to the permitted maximum of 20%.
Commandaria production is highly regulated and controlled. The history of the product provides some clues to the significance of the brew.
During the Crusades, Commandaria was served at the 12th-century wedding of King Richard the Lionheart to Berengaria of Navarre.
Richard pronounced Commandaria “the wine of kings and the king of wines”.
Near the end of the 12th century, Richard sold the island of Cyprus to the Knights Templar, they, in turn, sold it on to Guy de Lusignan. The Knights Templar chose to retain a large feudal estate at Kollosi near Limassol, referred to as “La Grande Commanderia” from which they brewed and exported large quantities of wine to European courts. Using the name of the region, Commandaria has the distinction of being the world’s oldest named wine still in production.
As befits its heritage, Commandaria holds a protected designation of origin (PDO). The whole business from location, to planting, to harvesting, is highly regulated – some might see this as being quite novel for Cyprus.
If you plan on going Commandaria hunting you should head for the Southern slopes of Troodos. Specifically the villages of Agios Georgios, Agios Konstantinos, Agios Mamas, Agios Pavlos, Apsiou, Gerasa, Doros, Zoopigi, Kalo Chorio, Kapillom Laneia, Lovaras, Monagri and Sillikou which collectively form the Commandaria region. These fourteen villages are found at an altitude of between 500 and 900 metres. The vines share the landscape with thick, wild-growing bushes battling for survival on one of two soil types, volcanic sandy soils or limestone. This terroir coupled with limited rainfall makes for tough, dry, growing conditions in which no irrigation is permitted. That the vines survive and deliver is a testament to their durability. These qualities feed through into the final product. That amber colour and delicate aroma exemplify what can be achieved when addressing the challenge of obtaining a quality finished product.
All that remains is to try your first. St John Commandaria, the offering from Keo (the major producer of alcoholic beverages on Cyprus) is readily available.
Producers to look out for include – Tsiakkas, one of the leading independent family firms. Then there are versions from St Nicholas, Alasia and Ambelis to name but a few.
Enjoy the journey!