Paul Lewandowski on the quite distinctive wine of Cyprus and its place in history:
Cyprus was not just the home of Richard [the Lionheart]’s first victory; it was also the site of his marriage. His fiancé, Berengaria of Navarre, was the daughter of Sancho VI of Navarre. The marriage was a politically beneficial one. Some scholars believe that Richard and Berengaria were actually romantic lovers, since they had met many years prior, and Richard married Berengaria despite his betrothal to the Countess of Vexin. Regardless of the reason for the marriage however, Richard threw a party worthy of a king. Richard, who was unfamiliar with Cyprus, had the local wine variety served at his nuptials. Upon tasting the wine, legend has it the king proclaimed that it was, “The wine of kings and the king of wines.”
Wine in the middle ages was generally awful. The logistical difficulty of preserving wine meant that additives must be used to preserve the wine. This could include marble dust, lye-ash, or pitch. Of course, this made wine awful by today’s standards. To make it slightly palatable, the wine would sometimes be cut with honey, dried fruit, or even salt water. Wine in the middle ages was valuable not only because it could render the drinker intoxicated, but because it was also a source of potable water. Wine only began to improve when it became a commodity, a tradable good that competed with beer and tea. For someone used to a saltwater-and-pitch concoction, an authentic, Cypriot dessert wine must have tasted truly amazing. It comes as little surprise that after the crusader’s time in Cyprus, the island and its wine were deemed valuable.
Richard would go on to sell the island to the Knights Templar not long after departing for the Middle East. In 1192, the Templar Order resold the island to another nobleman. However, the Templars were so smitten with the local wine, they retained a feudal estate where wine could be produced. They named their estate La Grande Commanderie, which roughly translates to “the main command post.” The region soon became known as Commandaria. Wine production increased as the Knights Templar sought to fund their operations through the export of wine. The Templars also provided the wine to pilgrims journeying toward Jerusalem. Soon the wine assumed the name of the region, and Commandaria became famous throughout Europe. Its popularity remained high for centuries, as late as the 1870s, when the region was producing 230,000 liters of wine annually for export to Austria alone.
Commandaria is made from two strains of native Cypriot grapes: Xynisteri, a white grape, and Mavro, a red. Both are dried partially in the sun before fermentation and pressing. This concentrates the sugars, giving the wine its sweet character. Following fermentation, the wine is aged a minimum of two years in oak barrels, but high-end Commandaria is often aged longer. The result is a sweet dessert wine with honey, fruit, and toffee flavors. It is often fortified, but even unfortified Commandaria can exceed 15% alcohol by volume.
Commandaria is the world’s oldest continually cultivated wine. Descriptions of the wine and its unique manufacture appear in accounts as early as 800 BC. Some scholars claim the wine is over 3,000 years old. Its long history makes it the stuff of legend. It is supposedly the winner of the first recorded wine tasting in history, held in France in 1224. The Ottoman Sultan Selim II is said to have invaded Cyprus just to get the wine. Still another legend is that the grapes from Cyprus were exported to Portugal and were used in some of the earliest port wines. Before assuming the name Commandaria, it was known as “Mana” because it was considered a divine gift.