History of Commandaria Wine: Cyprus Wine Known As the Oldest in the World

In the Troodos Mountains of Cyprus, a sweet wine known as Commandaria wine is only made in 14 villages. This wine stands out due to its long, rich history dating back to Homeric times. It is believed this dessert wine has been produced since 800 BC, as it was first mentioned in the text during this period.

This delicious wine was the star of many festivals in this period, as it was a top beverage option as it was consumed to celebrate Aphrodite’s beauty as she emerged from the sea at Paphos. This same celebrated image can be viewed via the famous “the birth of Venus” painting created by Botticelli. [1]

So, is Commandaria wine the oldest wine in the world?

While the first mention of this dried grape wine is by Homer, the ancient Greek poet, it is believed the wine has been consumed for even longer. However, there is yet to be proof of how long this wine has been consumed. As such, many people believe this to be the oldest wine.

We know that the oldest variety of wine was produced in Georgia due to findings in 2017. Until more evidence is discovered surrounding the original period of wine production in Cyprus, Georgia will continue to hold the title as the “birthplace of wine.”

Vineyards in Cyprus

However, this Cypriot wine holds another title as the oldest continuously produced wine. Since its known origins about 3000 years ago, it has continued to be produced without a break in the Troodos Mountains. [2]

Commandaria Wine and Its History

While Commandaria wine was not new to the area, it saw a spike in popularity during the Middle Ages after the French king, King Richard I (aka the Lionheart), took refuge in Cyprus due to bad weather. He conquered the island and planned his wedding there, where this Cypriot wine was served during the celebration. After tasting the wine, he was greatly impressed, noting that this wine was “the wine of kings and the king of wines.”

Soon after, the Knights Templar took over ownership of the island, setting their headquarters in Kolossi. It was here that they established shops and a castle. The Knights quickly took over the production of Cyprus wine, centering production in the Commandaria region. During this time, the wine was shipped to civilized countries. Once it arrived, it was distributed and served to rulers and royalty as the “King of Wines.” It even became the favorite wine of multiple kings throughout England.

Over the years, the demand for Commandaria wine increased slowly, with the largest consumption occurring around 1550 – 1600. At the time, large quantities of this wine were exported to various countries, including Constantinople, Syria, and Egypt. These shipments ceased in 1571 when the Turkish people took over the island.

Some people believe that the wine grapes produced in Commandaria were shipped to Portugal, then later became the basis for Portugal’s beloved port wine. However, there is a lack of sufficient evidence for this theory. [3]

How Commandaria Wine Got Its Name

The first mention of wine in Cyprus was via the name of “Cypriot manna” by the Greek poet Hesiod. At this point, the wine had already had its name altered from mana to manna. The direct translation of mana is mother, which refers to this wine’s creation process.

Instead of oak barrels, these sweet wines from Cyprus were placed in large jars for fermentation. When each batch was removed from the jar, a small amount of wine would be left in the bottom. This leftover wine in the bottom aided in fermenting and maturing the next batch of wine poured into the earthenware jar. Thus, the old wine became the “mother” of the newly developed wine.

However, the name changed again during the crusades after the Knights Templar purchased the island from King Richard I. They settled into a location named Kolossi, nearby Limassol. Kolossi is situated in the Feud of the Knights area, also known as “La Grande Commanderie.” As This Cypriot wine was mainly created in this island section, the knights renamed this fortified wine Commandaria. [4]

Did you know? Many Commandaria vintners use a traditional bush-vine method to grow their grapes. This method was used before the creation of structured trellises.

The Making of Commandaria Wine

Part of the appeal of this wine is that those who taste it are likely drinking the same wine as Homer and King Richard I, as the same Mavro and Xynisteri grapes are used for production in the same 14 villages. The other aspect of the appeal is the distinctive taste that is produced through the specific processes used to make the wine.

It begins with grapes picked when very ripe or overripe, providing a sweet base for the wine. This high sugar content continues to rise as the same grapes are dried in the sun for 1-2 weeks. These sun-dried grapes are pressed and fermented, often for 2-3 months. This process section varies, as some vintners use grape spirits to fortify the wine. It’s important to note fortifying the wine is not a requirement for it to be considered Commandaria wine.

The final step in this wine-making process includes two years inside a wooden barrel, where the wine will age to perfection. Once aged, the typical Commandaria wine has a 15% alcohol content. Some Commandaria varieties have up to 20% alcoholic content. [5]

When sipping on a glass of this wine, you can expect to taste various dried fruits alongside caramel notes. The wine is a beautiful amber color and has a rich, sweet taste. It’s often consumed as an after-dinner drink or a pairing with a rich chocolate dessert.

Commandaria Region

The Commandaria region is situated in the southwest part of Cyprus, featuring an elevation of 500-900. The 14 villages producing Cammandaria wine lie on the Troodo Mountains’ side. These villages mentioned above include Ayios Constantinos, Ayios mamas, Yeerasa, and Dios.

This region’s warm climate has been beneficial in creating wine through the centuries. The weather is a major contributing factor to the sweetness of the grapes and wine. Additionally, a few other factors impact the flavor and aroma of the wine.

For example, the Troodos Mountains’ soil is filled with limestone bedrock. Limestone has been a highly coveted soil characteristic for many wineries, as it adds acidity to the wine. Another factor that impacts Commandaria wines is the altitude at which the grapes grow. These factors, combined with the traditional methods, have helped this dessert wine become legendary in the wine industry. [6]

Commandaria Wine vs. Wine from the Same Period

As mentioned, no other wines from the same period were continuously produced. This leaves Commandaria wine with a unique characteristic that other wines do not share. As with many findings concerning wine, experts have been able to use ancient wine jars to determine various factors of wine from various cultures and civilizations.

This method was used to infer that ancient Cypriot people were likely producing red wines. Additionally, these red wines had a thicker consistency and a higher alcohol content. Thus, it’s suspected that the wine was mixed with water to create a similar consistency and alcoholic content as modern Commandaria wines. [7]

Commandaria Wine Tasting Competition

It seems this wine will never go out of style, as an annual competition pits local winemakers together to produce their version of the best Cyprus wine. This competition has been occurring for 12+ years and is organized annually by the Ministry of Agriculture, Rural Development, and Environment. This impressive event takes a full year to organize, culminating in the competition itself, which lands at the end of April.

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This wine competition requires all wine entries to maintain a Protected Designation of Origin or Protected Geographical Indication. Each wine entry must be made from indigenous Cyprus grapes, though the entries can consist of any type of wine, including whites, reds, champagne, etc. Many people travel to the island during the competition to taste and evaluate the wine offerings. By continuing this annual event, Commandaria wine can remain relevant in the wine industry. [8]

Commandaria wine has managed to withstand time against modern wines, and for a good reason. The wine production techniques passed down for 3000 years have provided a unique flavor to this dessert wine that cannot be matched. Whether you’ve tried the sweet wines crafted in Cyprus or simply want to broaden your wine knowledge, we hope you’ve enjoyed learning about the oldest named wine.

You can learn more about wine by reading other articles on This Day in Wine History, which include topics ranging from cultures that impacted the wine industry to new winery technology. You’ll find articles such as the History of Mechanical Harvesters and Robots in Wineries as the Next Generation to dive into. We also have helpful tips for wine drinkers, including gift ideas for wine lovers.

This Day in Wine History

800 BC – Hesiod first wrote about the sweet wine of Cyprus, making it the first time Commandaria wine was documented.

August 2018 – The first Commandaria wine-tasting competition is held, allowing the island to garner more press and continue its wine-making traditions. The festival helps determine the best offerings by awarding the local wineries that stand out.

Want to read more? Try these books!

Stowell's Guide to the Wines & Wineries of Cyprus Cyprus in the prehistory of wine

References

[1] Commandaria St. Nicholas: 4,000 years of History in a Bottle… www.guildsomm.com. https://www.guildsomm.com/public_content/features/articles/b/kdrougos/posts/commandaria-st-nicholas-4-000-years-of-history-in-a-bottle

[2] McNicoll A. Commandaria: The oldest wine in the world? | CNN Business. CNN. Published December 13, 2013. https://www.cnn.com/2013/12/13/business/commandaria-the-oldest-wine-world/index.html

[3] Commandaria St. Nicholas: 4,000 years of History in a Bottle… www.guildsomm.com. https://www.guildsomm.com/public_content/features/articles/b/kdrougos/posts/commandaria-st-nicholas-4-000-years-of-history-in-a-bottle

[4] Commandaria St. Nicholas: 4,000 years of History in a Bottle… www.guildsomm.com. https://www.guildsomm.com/public_content/features/articles/b/kdrougos/posts/commandaria-st-nicholas-4-000-years-of-history-in-a-bottle

[5] Karlsson P and B. A Legendary Wine: Commandaria From Cyprus. Forbes. Published Summer 1, 2017. https://www.forbes.com/sites/karlsson/2017/01/22/a-legendary-wine-commandaria-from-cyprus/

[6] Commandaria – Cyprus Wine Region. Wine-Searcher. Published February 1, 2023. https://www.wine-searcher.com/regions-commandaria

[7] Strom C. Commandaria: The Oldest Wine in Production, Praised By Homer, and Richard the Lionheart’s “King of Wines.” Ancient Origins Reconstructing the story of humanity’s past. Published March 14, 2019. https://www.ancient-origins.net/history-ancient-traditions/commandaria-0011615

[8] Cyprus wine competition reflects island’s vibrant industry | Cyprus Mail. https://cyprus-mail.com/. https://cyprus-mail.com/2017/05/18/cyprus-wine-competition-reflects-islands-vibrant-industry/

Categories: This Day in Wine History | Articles, Wine RegionsTags: , , By Published On: March 27, 2023Last Updated: February 28, 2024

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