Commandaria

Commandaria

Troodos mountains
Take the high road – the stuff at the top always tastes better

Commandaria is a venerable, usually fortified, wine made in Cyprus – especially up in the Troodos mountains where it can often be bought at the roadside (and hasn’t always been entirely legal). The sellers will tell you that it’s an aphrodisiac. Improbable as this may sound don’t be too quick to scoff…

They tell you the same about their distilled spirit – Zivania – and that definitely is an aphrodisiac – leave the Viagra at home this is all you’re going to want trust me – Zivania for him and Commandaria for her.Commandaria label

Remember – Aphrodite was born from the surf on one of Cyprus’s wilder southern beaches and Cyprus first enters recorded history as a land prized for its wines (okay, and copper – try that if you prefer but don’t send me any pictures). In fact Cyprus was the ancient world’s first major wine exporter and the place from where wine growing most probably spread to all the other parts of Europe. This is often forgotten, until you’ve tried some of the country’s wonderful roadside contraband.

roadside-commandaria-and-zivania
His and Hers

According to legend, it is the mythical (or possibly legendary) Dionysus who first introduced the vine to Greece from Cyprus for the very first time – and from there Greek settlers spread them to the rest of Europe. In any event Dionysus certainly raised the piss-up to its highest form – building a veritable religion out of it. Dionysus is also known as Eleutherios, the Liberator, and through the mystic state of eleutheria (madness, ecstasy, drunkenness and orgy) one is freed from ones normal earthbound condition. So they definitely brewed a good drop of jollop back then.

Dionysus
It’s amazing what can happen after a few bevvies

Official export quality Commandaria is, in my personal opinion, not as exciting as the fresh home brewed stuff from the small farms, nevertheless it’s a very pleasant drink and for some strange reason little known outside of Cyprus itself. Its obscurity is entirely undeserved, and much as I’d like to keep it a secret so I can keep it all for myself – you should treat yourself by trying a bottle, preferably direct from the mountains.

To guarantee the aphrodisiac effect – do what we did and take a 4×4 round some of those mountain roads to get there. You’ll be so glad to still be alive when you get to the booze it’s bound to work!

Troodos-map
Troodos: the roads are never straight, there’s nowhere safe to stop and the maps are rubbish.

The long pedigree of Cyprus wines

Cyprus was exporting its wines wholesale far back in pre-history. We know this because in 1999 a shipwreck still loaded with amphorae was discovered – more than two and a half thousand of them! The wreck dated to 2,300 BC. Then in 2005, residues in some old broken pottery found on land was identified as wine – and dated to 3,500 BC. Although this is not quite as old as a wine-press discovered in Armenia (dated to 4000 BC), there is no evidence of cultivated grapes in Armenia – because vines naturally grow wild there – but the huge production in prehistoric Cyprus definitely required cultivated vineyards (it also has a frost-free winter – unlike Armenia).

An 1863 Commandaria
vintage 1863. After you, I insist!

At first, wines were traded eastwards into the old Middle Eastern cultures like Babylonia. The oldest laws governing the sale of alcohol are found in the Code of Hammurabi in about 2000 BC – they prescribe the punishment to be meted to any publican serving wine to a customer who is already unruly from intoxication – removal of a limb, unless it’s a repeat offense in which case execution. (To be fair, they were more reasonable about it back then than they are today – now they don’t even have to be drunk).

Babylonians on the razzle
The good old days

Watering down the beer was also a capital offence. It was a bloody tough life being a publican back then. However it was quite normal to get your customers drinking from a communal jug through long straws – saving all that glass collecting.

Vines reached France no earlier than 500 BC – brought by Greek merchants to Marseilles – but vineyards didn’t burgeon throughout France until the 15th Century. Cyprus wine is therefore about eleven times as old as the more famous wines of France.

The first ever (recorded) wine tasting competition in history was organised by the crusader King Philip Augustus in 13th century France – and it was won by a Cyprus wine – probably Commandaria (because the Knights Templar were at this time importing it on a large scale).
The words recalling it are “Premiers manda le vin de Cypre,” –written in the form of a poem by Henri d’Andeli circa 1240.

In an even earlier story, another crusader king, Richard the Lionheart, is said to have greatly enjoyed Commandaria at his wedding in Cyprus and pronounced it “The wine of kings and the king of wines.

Lionhearts endorse commandaria
The Lionhearts served Commandaria at their wedding reception (guests got poleaxed)

Commandaria existed as a strong sweet wine before the art of creating distilled brandy to fortify it with was available, but its tradition is unbroken and it is the oldest named wine in the world. Today it may be sold fortified or not fortified – it can still be called Commandaria. We definitely prefer ours hardcore.

Strangely, Cyprus has been most famous in recent history as a producer of an entirely different, and not indigenous, fortified wine – sherry. This came to a messy end after the Spanish campaigned ferociously to control the name – which finally became EU law in 1996. So whether you loved it or hated it, “Cyprus Cream Sherry” is no longer a thing. Why was it ever a thing when they have Commandaria?

Vines in Cyprus

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Daddio

posted by Daddio

Writer and philosopher

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