Commandaria: The oldest wine in the world?

Story highlights

  • Commandaria is recognised as the oldest named wine in the world
  • The sweet wine has been grown in Cyprus for over 5,000 years
  • in 1191, King Richard the Lionheart called it 'the wine of kings and the King of wines'
Cyprus is known for its sunshine, its ancient ruins and its delicious halloumi cheese, but one thing that is less well known is that it is also home to the oldest named wine in the world.
Commandaria is a dessert wine with a flavor as rich as its history. It is originally believed to have been given its name by crusading knights in the 13th century, but to have first been made up to 5,000 years ago.
It is produced in the fertile high-altitude slopes in the south-west of the island that became known as "La Grande Commanderie" during the Crusades. Around this time, the Knights of the Order of Saint John renamed the local wine after their new protectorate.
Throughout the following centuries, stories of the wine abound. According to legend, King Richard the Lionheart of England was so taken with commandaria that at his wedding he pronounced it "the wine of kings and the king of wines." Equally struck by the intoxicating liquor was the French King Philippe Augustus who is said to have declared it to be "the Apostle of wines".
Over time production continued to grow. By 1879 the British explorer Sir Samuel White Baker recorded that Cyprus was annually exporting 155,000 "okes" (a Turkish measurement that translates roughly to 230,000 liters) of commandaria to Austria alone.
All the elements of Cyprus
In the coastal town of Limassol, on the sunny southern coast of Cyprus, the most popular brand of commandaria -- KEO St. John -- is produced to a recipe that is now protected by a legally enforced appellation, the only one held by Cyprus.
Xynisteri grapes on the vine
Dimitris Antoniou, senior oenologist at KEO, believes the wine they produce is very special. "In it you have all the elements of Cyprus: you have honey, herbs, vanilla, spices, and dried fruits such as plums ... it is very complicated," he says.
One distinguishing feature of commandaria is that after the grapes are picked, they are left in the sun for ten days, which increases the density of their sugars.
The grapes are then pressed, the wine is fortified (usually with a high percentage grape-based alcohol) and then it is aged for at least two years in oak barrels before being bottled. As the years roll by, the amber liquid intensifies in both viscosity and sweetness.
Dimitris, together with George Metochis, senior winemaker at KEO, oversee the vast operation where annually over 130,000 liters of wine are produced, largely for market within Cyprus, but also exported to Russia, Scandinavia, France, the United States and Australia.
The cavernous KEO vaults currently house 400,000 liters of commandaria with a range of vintages; the oldest batch dates back over a century.
Ancient heritage, modern interpretation
Archaeological digs,