Under the name “Commandaria” comes the sweet dessert wine of Cyprus from the time of the Knights of St. John and the Knight Templars who came to Cyprus from Jerusalem in 1192 after purchasing Cyprus from Richard the Lionheart, King of England (1189-1199). Richard the Lionheart in his Crusade captured Cyprus, in 1191 he married the fair Berengaria and celebrated his victory and his rejoicing with the sweet wine which from his successors onwards came to be known to all the civilized world as “Commandaria”.
The Knight Templars and Knights of St. John established their headquarters on the southern side of the Island at Kolossi, near Limassol. At Kolossi they built their castle and their stores. Kolossi was the centre of an immense area which was the Feud of the Knights and called “La Grande Commanderie” to distinguish it from two other small areas of Paphos (Phoenix) and of Kyrenia (Templos).
The sweet wine was mainly produced in the Grande Commandaria area and thus the oldest known wine in Europe came to known as “Commandaria”.
28 Centuries ago Hesiod the great Greek poet refers not only to this wine but also to the way of its preparations. In his book “Feats and days verse 604” he writes:
“…When I rouse I feel either to massacre or to
Put out my thirst by drinking Cyprus wine…”
Referring to the preparation of this wine he says:
“…Leave the grapes ten days to the sun, and then ten nights and then five days under shadow and eight days in the pot..”
In the time of the Knight Templars and the Knights of St. John “Commandaria” was exported to all the civilized countries and was placed on the tables of kings and rulers as King of Wines.
“Commandaria” was the favourite sweet wine of the Plantagenet Kings of England. The wine merchants of England had great liking for Commandaria and it seems that they made a good profit out of it and so gave a banquet in honour of King Peter I and four other kings at the Vintners Hall in 1362 at which undoubtedly “Commandaria” was the main means of refreshment. In course of time the demand for “Commandaria” gradually increased and its greatest consumption during the reign of Elizabeth I, who gave the monopoly of sweet wines to her favourite, Sir Walter Raleigh.
Outside England “Commandaria” was exported to the main centres of the civilized world until the occupation of Cyprus by the Turks in 1571. Great quantities of “Commandaria” were sent to Venice because the “Most Respectable Democracy” waived all duties because it was used as a tonic. In Genoa, at Leghorn, at Trieste, in Constantinopel, the Islands of the Archipelago, Smyrna, Syria and Egypt, “Commandaria” was in great demand among its connoisseurs.
Many tourists and scholars who passed through Cyprus at different times and came to know the Cyprus wines make a point of referring to it as being one of the noteworthy characteristics of Cyprus; others wrote hymns of praise about it. Much was written, and many, about the Cyprus wine but in this note only a few and little can be written.
Stephen Lusignan (1573) and Tomaso Porcacci (1576) wrote that the wines of Cyprus were perfect in taste and aroma, that they had such therapeutical powers that they gave it to their sick as a medicine and were held in great esteem in Venice and in Rome. The Frenchman de Villamont (1588) finds them superior to the Malvoisie and other wines of the East.
In Cyprus the Dutchman Van Bruyn (1683) finds “Commandaria” a hundred years old wines of such age are available today-“as superb and very strong wines”.
The Reverend Clarke, professor at Cambridge (1801) writes about the great fame of the Cyprus Wine-Commandaria – which can give life to the dying and finds it resembles the famous Hungarian Tokay. Dr. Kotschy who visited Cyprus with Dr. Unger in 1862 in the book “Island of Cyprus” mentions the famous “Commandaria” produced from the vineyards on the slopes of Olympus in the district of Limassol.
Not only by prose-writers but also by a great number of poets have the praises of “Commandaria been sung.
Lamartine in 1832, when in Cyprus, enjoys Commandaria. Alfred de Musset in 1833 celebrates his amours with Georgia Sandy in Venice by getting drunk every night with Commandaria, at the safe “Jacomuzzi”. Arthur Rimbaud was overwhelmed by “Commandaria” when he came to Cyprus in 1880, “Commandaria” inspired the English poetess Elizabeth Browning to write one of her best songs “The Wine of Cyprus”, a poem great in inspiration and in writing, comprising twenty-two octets.
“The Cyprus wine” writes Elizabeth Browning “is as sweet as the Lyre of the Muses. It has the colour of a lion or Rea and shines much better than ever did the eyes of the Papho Goddess; it is as light as her step, and the honey produced by the swarthy bees of Hymettos cannot surpass the sweetness of the wines of Cyprus”.
The fame of Commandaria had the misfortune to reach Sultan Selim II (The Sot) who seemed to have much rather preferred Bacchus and Aphrodite to Mohammed. A certain Jewish wine-merchant of Portugal gave the Sultan samples of Commandaria which so greatly pleased him that he ordered his commander in Chief Lala Mustafa and commanded: “We must capture Cyprus. Within this island there is a treasure which only the king of Kings is worthy of possessing”. And thus Cyprus was conquered by the Turks in 1571.
The knights and in general the crusades started a new era for Cyprus which became the cross-road in the adventures of the capture of the Holy Sepulchre. With their passage through Cyprus the knights and Crusaders took with them to their countries among other things vines and knowledge of the preparation of Commandaria which they tried to copy.
It has been ascertained that in the 15th century vines from Cyprus were planted in Madeira by the Portuguese, whence the Madeira wine has been produced, similar to the Cyprus “Commandaria”. Something similar is the case of the Hungarian Tokay wine which is similar to a good “Commandaria”. The Marsala wine also seems to be a copy of “Commandaria”. Thibaut IV the most renowned Count of Champagne, returning from the Crusades came to Cyprus to visit his cousin, Alice, Queen of Cyprus. In Cyprus it seems he was overwhelmed by its vineyards, its wines and its roses because it was looked upon as the most acceptable and covered present to be given, vine and roses. The vines were planted in the area of the Marne and from these grapes the world-famous Champagne was produced.
The present of Cyprus to Thibaut reminds one of the offerings to the Cyprian Goddess. Wine was one of the most lavish offerings because it is natural that Dionysus, God of Nature, Mirth, the vineyard, wine and drunkenness is adored side by side with Aphrodite. In Cyprus every year long feasts were held in honour of the Paphian Goddess to which her admirers came from all parts of Hellenism. In these banquets great consumption of the wine assumed named “Cypriot Nama”, judging from the ancient Greek epigram which mentions someone trying quenching his thirst with “Cypriot Nama”, was made. “Cypriot Nama”, in all probability may have been the name given before that of “Commandaria”.
The history of the Cyprus wine is mingled with the worship of Aphrodite, Goddess of fertility and love, and of Dionysus. Also mingled with the history of the Cyprus wine in Greek Mythology. The Cypriot poet Stasinos in his “Cyprus Epics” mentions the myth of Anios who had three daughters, Oeno, Spermo and Elaida and each had the magic powers of producing wine, wheat and oil respectively: this myth being based on the poet’s country. Stravon (65B.C. – 23 B.C.) confirms this and praises the fertility of the island of Cyprus by writing:”Plentyful in wine and oil and self-sufficient in wheat”. The history of the Cyprus wine is also bound together with the history of the Cyprus wine.
Ancient coins of Paphos depict stairs consisting of single branch of a Cyprus vine with large grapes leading to the temple of Artemis in Ephesus. Similarly, Aponios remarks on Cyprus vine producing larger bunches of grapes than any other elsewhere. Pliny (23 A.D.-79 A.D.) finds Cyprus wines superior to all others in the world. Dioskourides and Synesius praise the splendid Cypriot wines. St Geronimo describes Cyprus as a budding vineyard. St Gregory says “as the wines of Cyprus are superior to any other wine in the world, so the love of the wise for wine surpasses love towards woman”. And generally writers and tourists of that time pompously praised Cyprus wines and above all “Commandaria”, the mythic Nectar which Ganymedes offered Zeus, father of the Gods and Mortals.
It is therefore proved historically that Cyprus wines were superb and in great demand in olden days too, and were an essential part of official banquets. At such banquets Antonio who wished to the impersonation of Bacchus must have got the idea of giving Cyprus to his beloved Queen Cleopatra as the most expensive gift, to make. Cyprus purveyed the best wines to the famous and lavish banquets which Shakespeare has immortalised.
There is a school of thought who mingles the history of the grape and of wine with the history of mankind; this principle finds full application in Cyprus whose history is “Kneaded” with vines and wine.
It is not without foundation that because of its climate and fertility, vines and wines, Cyprus should be the ideal place for the adoration of Aphrodite, Dionysus and Bacchus. The beauty and Nature-loving world of old wished Cyprus and the Temple of Aphrodite to be the focus of the world. The tragic Euripides imagined the “Kindly slopes” of the Cyprus Olympus as the home of the Muses, the Graces and also of Bacchus, ready for every celebration and feast.
And Cyprus history is written and continues step by step with the trade of grapes and wines.
With the increase of its wine trade Cyprus becomes rich; forms fleet and become a sea-faring country and renowned for its high standard of living.
The Knights monopolise the trade of wines, they thrive and build fleets for the Crusades and leaving Cyprus take with them and spread the Cyprus vine and the method of preparing good wine throughout the world.
Under the Turks who captured Cyprus in 1571 the produce and trade of “Commandaria” and wines was practically extinguished. The heavy taxes, the damage, bad government, all brought in their results. In 1574 Alexander Drummond British Consul at Aleppo wrote: “The productivity and export of Cyprus is only one tenth of what it would be”. Many others besides Drummond also remarked on the miserable condition of Cyprus.
Nearly seven centuries passed by, since the British Crown had Cyprus and in 1878 it was once more added by Disraeli as a bright pearl to the Crown of Queen Victoria and remained as such to the crowns subsequent, British Kings and Emperors, until 1960 when it became fully independent and consequently master of its own destiny.
“Commandaria continues to be produced as in days gone by, improved only by the selection of grapes and a better treatment and with its name and quality protected by an appellation d’origine. The preparation of Commandaria is a very old lesson which is handed down from generation to generation but is always made from the grapes of the same vineyards, and same “Malvoisie” variety of grapes. The production of these vineyards is very small in quantity but excellent in quality. Practically all the labour is manual and that is why costs are high. But as for the quality of this wine-the king of wines- no words can express it.
Every glass of Commandaria is also a dose of strength and energy which is given to you by the Cyprus earth and the bright Cyprus sun. The civilized people of all the centuries have unquestionably certified the great value of this wine as a healthy and refreshing tonic. Even today in Cyprus it is used as the most efficient tonic.
Commandaria, this praiseworthy King of wines which has been present at so many royal and other official banquets is longing to spread everywhere to the civilised world and to give them joy, happiness, health and strength.