Commandaria is an amber-coloured sweet dessert wine. It is made from sun-dried grapes of the varieties Xynisteri and Mavro. While often a fortified wine, through its production method it often reaches high alcohol levels, around 15%, already before fortification.
It represents an ancient wine style documented in Cyprus back to 800 BC and has the distinction of being the world’s oldest named wine still in production, with the name Commandaria dating back to the crusades in the 12th century. 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 800 BC by the Greek poet Hesiod and was known, by much later, as the Cypriot Manna.
During the crusades, Commandaria was served at the 12th century wedding of King Richard the Lionheart to Berengaria of Navarre, in the town of Limassol; it was during the wedding that King Richard pronounced Commandaria “the wine of kings and the king of wines”.
Near the end of the century he sold the island to the Knights Templar, who then sold it to Guy de Lusignan, but kept a large feudal estate at Kolossi, close to Limassol, to themselves. This estate was referred to as “La Grande Commanderie”.
When the knights began producing large quantities of the wine for export to Europe’s royal courts and for supplying pilgrims en route to the holy lands, the wine assumed the name of the region. Thus it has the distinction of being the world’s oldest named wine still in production.
Commandaria is made exclusively from two types of indigenous Cyprus grapes: Xynisteri and Mavro. The grapes are left to overripe on the vine and when sugar content reaches acceptable levels (corresponding to high must weight) they are harvested. More specifically, Xynisteri is picked when at around 12 degrees Baumé (°Bé) and Mavro at 15-16 °Bé.
The grapes are then laid out in the sun to further increase the sugar density through evaporation. When the must weight reaches 19 to 23 °Bé the juice is extracted thorough crushing and pressing. Fermentation takes place in reservoirs and will arrest naturally due to the high levels of alcohol achieved at around 15%. The above process has to take place within the confines of 14 designated villages that lie in the Commandaria Region (see below).
Commandaria, by law is aged for at least four years in Oak Barrels but this can take place outside the above designated area within Cyprus under strict control and under the conditions laid down in Cypriot legislation.
Once fermentation has been completed, at a minimum alcohol level of 10% (which is often exceeded), the alcoholic strength of Commandaria may be increased by the addition of pure 95% grape alcohol or a wine distillate of at least 70% alcohol. However, after this addition, the wine’s actual alcohol content may not exceed 20%, while its total potential alcohol (including its sugar content) must be at least 22.5%. Thus, Commandaria may be a fortified wine, but fortification is not mandatory.