Many times in my books I had to give a definition for Commandaria, which is not easy because it is a complex wine with a huge history. But I thought it was right to try and do it, because it is necessary and useful for each filognosist and wine lover to create an image for Commandaria through a simple and brief definition. So I would say that “Commandaria is a naturally sweet wine from sun-dried grapes, made since the ancient times in Cyprus and which took its name from the manor of the Great Commandarie, where it was being produced during the Frankish period”.
Today, during the time of the European Union, Commandaria has joined a class of wines, in which wines from almost all over the world with a history by far poorer than the history of Commandaria are found. In fact many of them are a copy of Commandaria. but they happened to have a great successful path and became famous. All these related dessert wines are found under the category of “Fortified Wines” or “Liqueur Wines”. According to the European legislation, liqueur wine is the product that has an actual alcoholic strength of 15% vol and not exceeding 22% vol., and a total alcoholic strength of at least 17,5% vol. It is produced from partially fermented grape must or wine or a mixture of these two. It has an initial natural alcoholic strength of 12% vol (with some exceptions of liqueur wines with a designation of origin or a protected geographical indication) and with the addition of neutral alcohol of at least 96% vol or a distillate of wine or raisins (52 to 86% vol) or concentrated grape must or a mixture of the above.
The most important liqueur wines are naturally sweet wines of 15 to 22% alcoholic volume. Naturally sweet wines are wines that have sugars over 45 grams per litre, which come only from the grapes, while part of the alcohol that they contain is added with the help of wine alcohol. To achieve this, the natural sugars contained in the grape should be condensed with a physical process, so that after the alcoholic fermentation, unfermented sugar will remain, which will give sweetness to the wine. There are several methods for concentrating the sugars in the grapes before vinification. These methods are very important because they give to the wine a more individual aromatic character.
The production of sweet wines could generally be divided into three different methods. In the first, wines are produced from overripe grapes or grapes containing many sugars (sun-dried grapes, grapes with noble rot caused by botrytis cinerea, frozen grapes). In the second method, during the alcoholic fermentation alcohol is added, resulting in stopping the fermentation and wines retain their high sugar content. These wines are called fortified wines. Finally, the third process involves adding alcohol before the start of alcoholic fermentation, which complicates the alcoholic fermentation, leading to the creation of sweet wines, which are also called mistelles. It is worth noting that in order for a wine to belong to the category of sweet wines it is legally enforceable to contain more than 45g. sugar per liter.
Every nation that has been producing grapes and wine has developed over the centuries their own way of condensing the grape must and making sweet wine.
The French dehydrate the grapes on straw, Germans and Canadians produce icewine with concentration using frost. The French, Hungarians and others use the fungus botrytis cinerea etc. Mediterranean folks however chose other means to approach wine production. Anything available in large quantities was chosen: arid land and rich hot sun. This explains the ancient roots of the Cypriot sweet wine which became famous and greatly prized at various times. Hesiod himself in his book “Works and Days” describes the production of the wine from sun-dried grapes without reference to a specific source. But the production of wine described is identical to that of Commandaria that allows us to say that when he wrote these lines he was aware of the sweet wine of Cyprus. Hesiod says:
And so the Orion culminates and SiriusAnd the rosy-fingered Dawn smiles at Arcturusharvest and bring home, O Persian, the grapes •and ten nights and days leave then under the sunand another five in the shade, on the sixth putjovial Dionysus gifts in the jars
The sweet straw wine of Cyprus was though produced long before the time of Hesiod, as recent archaeological researches date it back to 3500 BC. The excavations of Porfyrios Dikaios (1932-1935) and the work of Maria Rosaria Belgiorno (2005), brought to light amazing new information as the residue from very ancient flasks that were found in Erimi, come from wine and in fact from sweet wine. This classifies Cyprus and Erimi as the cradle of European wine. The sweet wine of Cyprus was maintained through the millennia, it was enjoyed since prehistoric times and was glorified by great poets, such as Homer, Hesiod, Euripides and others. Due to its exceptional quality it hasn’t changed much through the years. So, during the Middle Ages the Frankish Knights recognized the major benefits of this wine, they dealt with this intensively, planted vines in the Great Commandarie, improved its production and marketed it throughout Europe, where it became known as Commandaria, due to its origin from the Great Commandaria, a name it retains to this day.
So, Commandaria is undoubtedly the oldest wine in the world that exists until today and certainly the most impressive in both history and quality of all the wines in its class. Although during the Middle Ages Commandaria was one of the best known and most famous wines in the world, the Ottoman occupation that followed, reduced both the production and export of this beloved wine. In the global market, while the Commandaria slept in its glory, other wines began to be created based on its model and began to occupy the hearts of sweet wine lovers.
With the accession of Cyprus to the European Union Commandaria faces many and renowned wines within Europe itself. The promotion becomes even more difficult, due to the restrictive rules. Nonetheless, Commandaria keeps gaining gold medals in international wine competitions where it has to face all these bitter rivals.
Its quality is undeniable. The bouquet consists of a series of amazing flavours, where depending on vintage, composition and aging, we can recognize the following scents: Medlar (mespilia) blossom Perfume, Honey Perfume, Currant Perfume, dried fig Perfume, dried plum perfume, coconut flavour, aroma of cinnamon, cloves Perfume, carob (locust) Perfume, coffee aroma, caramel flavour, barrel essence, vanilla flavour.
When it comes to taste, it is so amazing that it is difficult to describe in words. To get the best picture I quote below a typical organoleptic analysis of Commandaria:
Colour: Amber to dark gold, sometimes golden-brown with red highlights, bright and clean, intense. A slightly greenish sheen due to aging in barrel is seen at the ring on the surface of the wine in the glass.
Aroma: Complex bouquet consisting of bold flavours. The predominant flavour is raisins and honey. Impressive also is the aroma of oak, while in the background one can detect dried figs and carob aroma.
Taste: Sweet and sultry, full body that fills the mouth. Perfect balance of sweetness and acidity with gentle alcohol yet powerfully sensual-passionate and fully harmonized with the aromatic substances present in the aftertaste, which has long endurance and magnitude!
The search of fine tasting balances and shades of wine can many times prove to be a difficult task for anyone who makes his first steps in the game of understanding the personality of wine. But it is certain that when the wine follows ‘sweet trails’ it seems more intimate since it recalls religious references in Holy Communion, or childhood memories of easily digestible dishes that can easily fit in a glass of wine.
Sweet as honey and fragrant like ripe summer fruits, wrap the mood with warmth and smile. Wines eminently dessert can accompany selective and some more dishes, other than desserts. The tasting personality of sweet wine is a result of specific winemaking techniques that distinguish it from other categories. In our country two sweet wines with excellent flavour interest of indigenous and international varieties, Commandaria and Muscat are produced. The best way one finding what they like most is to simply try. However, for Cyprus the most important of these are part of our tradition and our culinary culture, their taste is deeply imprinted in our memory. When the festive table is filled with sweets, the dessert wines must brighten the mood and decorate with their sparkle the festive wishes. Unfortunately, we Cypriots ignore it.
Kyriakos D. Papadopoulos
Oenologist and author of technical and historical books.