Update – The Commandaria from my trip in 2012 is not only bottled, but I am fortunate enough to have received one from Norman, personally delivered to my home this week! We sampled it and it was fantastic! Let it sit 10-20 minutes, and it is even better!
The Troodos mountains tower high above the island and tiny nation of Cyprus where for centuries, the fiercely patriotic Cypriots have been raising families, raising animals, and farming for centuries.
One of the native crops in this Mediterranean climate are of course, grapes. Not just any grape, but grapes said to be 3000+ years old…yes you heard me right…wine makers BC, as in before Jesus turned water into wine.
Like many Mediterranean cultures, the Cypriots have a connection to their terroir, meaning, the earth that their grapes (and other crops) come from. They believe that this earth adds to the taste, texture, and ultimate flavor of the fruit. The Xynisteri grape is said to be such an ancient fruit, full of unique flavor, strong, and full of richness, coming from the rocky, hardened earth of this ancient island.
The Cypriot earth, and exclusively 14 villages in these Troodos mountains, produce a grape, and a wine-making process that is as rich in history as the grape and terroir itself. Commandaria is a sweet, rich wine that literally cannot be made in any other part of the world (and be called Commandaria), much less any other part of Cyprus outside of these 14 quaint villages. The exclusivity is likened to Parmigiano-Reggiano, and San Marzano Tomatoes, and other such ingredients where the earth, the wind, the sky, and the sun can only happen in a certain place, or else it can not be named as such.
Commandaria is made rather simply. The vineyards that surround these 14 villages, up in these mountains, produce a beautiful grape. The grapes are harvested (usually a little later in the harvest season), placed out to soak up the sun for about 4 days so that the grapes’ sugar content becomes concentrated, even as the grapes themselves shrivel up to almost raisin-like consistency. These grapes are then pressed, fermented and so on, bringing out an amber, almost cloudy, syrupy-like wine that makes a Washington Riesling seem rather mild. Said to be the forerunner to Port, and with an alcohol content of around 15%, Commandaria is as much a part of this region of the world, as Prosciutto de Parma is to the Parma region of Italy.
The name Commandaria, perhaps is even more interesting. During the Crusades, Richard the Lion Hearted came through Cyprus as more of a conqueror than an evangelist and the story goes that he married a woman from the then-rulers family as a matter of convenience to keep his hands on the island, its treasures, its unique proximity to the Middle East, and this newly discovered wine. My history is a tad shaky from here, but essentially it goes like this. Richard brings this sweet wine back throughout Europe and it is said that it was served at the tables of Royalty throughout Europe. The Knights Templar become involved, as part of the Crusades biggest and baddest soldiers and protectors, in that several were stationed on Cyprus, during this time as “Commanders” over the island and the wine-making process. These “Commanders” are where the name, Commandaria derive. Commandaria means the “wine of kings and the king of wines” and is thus, the wine of the commanders of the Knights Templar and have been so named for the past 800+ years.
Personally, not my absolute favorite wine, but the history is what propels itself over the Atlantic and to this bit of writing. I love that a limited group of people, attached to a specific region of a specific island, have the rights and passion, to continue making wine in a way that is connected not only to their earth, but to their rich, sometimes destructive history.
Cheers! Salute! Opa!