Commandaria: The Oldest Wine in Production, Praised By Homer, and Richard the Lionheart's "King of Wines"
The first evidence of wine making is from the Caucasus Mountains bordering Eastern Europe and Western Asia around 6000 BC. From there it spread throughout the ancient Near East to gradually become the celebrated alcoholic drink associated not just with sophistication but sacred rituals that it is today. The first wines are no longer produced and have been long since supplanted by younger, more “advanced” wines. Not all ancient wines, though, have ceased to be produced. The Commandaria wine of Cyprus has been continually produced from the vineyards of the Troodos Mountains for three thousand years and still tastes as sweet as it did in the days of Homer.
Commandaria Wine and Its History
Commandaria wine is a considered a dessert wine that is made in only fourteen villages on the slopes of the Troodos Mountains of Cyprus. The name of the wine is related to the region in which it is located which is nearby an old Crusader fortress which used to bear the same name.
Sunset in the Troodos Mountains of Cyprus where the grapes for Commandaria wine are grown. (mrdenpol / Adobe)
Commandaria was first produced around 800-1000 BC. It was praised by the ancient Greek poet Homer. It was also mentioned by Hesiod. The antiquity of the production of Commandaria wine reflects the antiquity of wine in general in Cyprus. Cyprus is where the first Mediterranean wine was grown. The earliest evidence of wine production on the island dates to at least 2000 BC, and probably even earlier. This is several hundred years earlier than the earliest evidence of wine production on the island of Crete, a place also known for its early wine production. Cypriot wine was considered a delicacy during Classical antiquity and its reputation continued into the time of the Crusades.
In 1191, King Richard the Lionheart had his wedding in Cyprus and the wine now called Commandaria wine was served at his wedding. He was apparently so impressed with the wine that he proclaimed that it was “the wine of kings and the king of wines.”
In the 13th century, the Knights Templar chose to establish their headquarters, the Grand Commanderie, in the region near where this wine was made. From there, the Crusaders oversaw the production not just of wine but of other agricultural products, such as sugarcane, across the island which they shipped back to Europe to make a fortune. Because of the nearby fortress, the immediate region became known as Commanderie which later became Commandaria, which is where the wine gets its name.
After this, the wine became well known and popular throughout Europe. According to legend, it was also the primary wine consumed at the Feast of Five Kings in the City of London which took place in 1363. The crusaders have long since ceased to rule Cyprus but the Commandaria wine production remains as active and sweet as it always has been.
The Making of Commandaria Wine
Commandaria wine is made using two types of grapes, Xynisteri and Mavro. Overripe grapes are left out in the sun. This helps to increase the sugar density making them sweeter. After this process is finished, they are sealed in oak barrels, and aged for about three years. Some of the reasons for the uniqueness of the wine includes the altitude at which the grapes are grown and made into wine as well as the local soil derived from the limestone bedrock of the Troodos Mountains. These two factors combine to create a wine that is unlike any other.
Commandaria and Wines of Similar Age
No other wines of similar age to Commandaria are still in production, however, the nature of ancient wine can be inferred from examining residue left by the wine in potsherds from ancient wine jars. The earliest Cypriot wines dating to about 2000 BC were probably red wines. They were likely thicker and stronger. Because of this, they would have to have been watered down.
Legacy of Commandaria Wine
Wine has played an important role in the development of the cultures around the Mediterranean. Wine has always also played an important religious function. Wine represents some of the earliest offerings made at temples in Mediterranean world.
The state of mind induced by drinking wine may also have been associated with experiencing the divine. Some ancient Greek authors believed that drinking wine could elevate a person to a higher level of consciousness. In ancient Egypt, wealthy priests would typically own large wine cellars.
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Wealthy priests would typically own large wine cellars of Commandaria wine. (Shchipkova Elena / Adobe)
Also, the ancient Egyptians believed that wine was an essential for someone on their way to the afterlife. Other examples include the importance of wine in the cult of Dionysus and the role played by wine in Christianity where it represents the blood of Christ during communion. Part of what makes Commandaria wine interesting is that, because of its antiquity, it allows us to get a taste of the wine that had so much influence on the ancient world. To taste Commandaria wine is to get a taste of a lost world.
Old label of Commandaria wine. (JPS68 / Public Domain)
Top image: Commandaria wine was served at King Richard’s wedding in Cyprus. He proclaimed that it was “the wine of kings and the king of wines”. Source: LIGHTFIELD STUDIOS / Adobe.
By Caleb Strom
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