When one dealing with Commandaria, it is as if dealing with a world between myth and reality, so they should not in any way be surprised with everything heard or read. This is my view recrystallized since my last research around this ancient Cypriot wine. Besides no one would believe that for one single wine a whole book consisting of 260 pages could be written. And yet Commandaria has such a rich history, that the book “Commandaria, the Legendary Wine of Cyprus” of 260 pages, it is constantly enriched with new elements, so do not be surprised if in the next edition of the book the pages will eventually overcome three hundred.
To be more specific I am referring to the discovery of a poem written in 1224 by the French poet Henry d’Andeli and entitled “Battle of the wines.” Henri d ‘Andeli is actually the author of the famous works “The fall of Aristotle» (Lai Aristote), for which we may deal some other time, “the battle of the seven arts» (de la Bataille des VII Ars »and the battle of wines (la Bataille des Vins), a poem of two hundred and four octosyllabic rhyming lyrics.
Out of all these, at the moment we are interested in presenting the battle of wines. This poem basically refers to the first wine competition ever held and which begins at the table of King Philip II of France, that of Philip-Augustus, as usually called, and who, like many witnesses say was a fan of drinking. The king, who preferred wine for breakfast rather than anything else, he sent messengers to collect everywhere from around the world, the finest white wines, which the poet enumerates in detail in his poem. Before proceeding, however, I would like to inform that King Philip II is he who along with Richard the Lionheart of England and the German Barmparoza led the Third Crusade, which, as you know, has brought a lot of suffering to our country. But what connects King Philip with Cyprus is that eventually, the island came under the Frankish kings, to whom Commandaria owes its name. Indeed, following the referral of the Knights Templar as heretics, the area of Commandaria, “La Grande Commandarie”, finally fell in 1307 in the possession of one of the descendants of Philip-Augustus, Philip IV King of France.
The organizer then of this first wine competition was not entirely foreign to Cyprus, on the contrary his ties to the island were important. And here the king to prove his seriousness and impartiality in the review of the wines had appointed a foreign specialist, non-French, to judge which of all wines is the best, and he was none but an English priest, who was a master in wine drinking.
The English priest, then, wearing a stole and whose pidgin French of English accent would probably cause comical situations, excommunicated the bad wines or turned them down with hits with his stick. Those remained could claim now a good place and, as the poet says, they would begun to quarrel among themselves, if the wines themselves were the way to do so. The title, “Battle of the wines”, reminds of course other poetic battles of the same poet, and especially the “battle of the seven arts.” These battles come from the work «Psychomachies », of which the first and most famous is that of prudence, and which is one of the great successes of Latin vernacular literature.
Nobody knows if the content of the poem “Battle of the wines” is true or myth, however, as a myth it is a great success of Cypriot wine. The poet himself admits at the beginning that this is a myth, but no one can know when the poet is telling the truth and when he is not, because his passion for rhyming leads him constantly in controversial situations. Anyhow the significance of this poem for us is twofold. First of all, a first reference to an international wine competition and on the other hand first in order is the Cyprus wine. However, as mentioned above, this is a poem that has no great literary value, as for the sake of rhyme the essence is sacrificed, resulting sometimes in silly expressions. The connection of Cypriot wine to beer can not be explained otherwise, despite the fact that in French Cyprus (Chypre), rhymes with the word beer d’Ypres, as shown below in the original verse in French:
D’abord manda le vin de Chypre
Ce n’était pas cervoise d’Ypres
At this competition of wines from all over Europe and France, the first place was won by the Cypriot wine that I’m sure that this is the Commandaria. The poet himself calls the Cyprus wine «manda», a name that resembles very much the name of Commandaria, so having in mind the so many mistakes found in this poem, for the sake of meter and rhyme, and on the other hand the relationship of King Philip with Cyprus, then we can comfortably say with confidence now that the Cyprus wine that took part in the competition was Commandaria.
Below I quote a few pieces of the poem, translated from the French, a rather difficult task, because the poet often uses metaphors and folk expressions, which greatly hampers double translation.
The poem begins with the presentation of King Philip-August:
Do you want to hear a great myth
Who do you think set up table the day before yesterday?
Uncle King named Philip
Who immediately cooled his throat
with a great wine, a white wine.
And since he found it great and good,
He extolled the virtues
About the flavour and the body,
that the wine had in the mouth.
And he drank, even when not thirsty, he do not waste time.
It seems that great attention was paid to this event, because many represantatives were invited to attend to this contest. The poet says:
Our extremely noble and wise king
and the whole world present by representatives
is preparing the best wines to find,
of all that exist on earth.
After this the presentation of all the wines that will take part in the international contest begins with first the wine of Cyprus:
First begins Commandaria, the Cyprus wine
attention, it is not beer that looks like wine
Wines of Alsace and Moselle,
Wines Aunis and of Rosiele
the sacred wines, and of Taillebourg,
From Milan and from Trenebourg,
Wines from Palma, wine of Plaisance,
Wines Espag of Provence,
He continues listing and naming all the wines gathered from around the world, roughly around forty four. After providing a bit of discussion about the merits and flaws of the different wines, in a way resembling war, eventually the priest wine critic declares the best wine, but which the king himself rewards, as the poem says:
The king then rewarded the good wines
gave each one and a title to carry.
The Cypriot wine made by a priest
first shone like a star.
So this is it for our Commandaria, that here in Cyprus many still do not appreciate and they honour, by ignorance or interest, foreign wines, like when a Cypriot who is considered an ace in cooking and wine knowledge, wrote the following in a magazine for the drink recommended to accompany the his brownies recipe: “Serve with ice cream and accompany them with port wine or Mavrodaphne”, while below he recommends to escort the chocolates with “… aged cognac or port.” Unfortunately I can not even laugh. So much ignorance and so much xenomania!
Kyriakos D. Papadopoulos
Oenologist and author of technical and historical books.