October 4 - 10, 2015: Issue 234

An Ancient Wine - From 1927 with Lineage to Cyprus in 1292 and Methods of Production to Greece in 800 B.C.


An Ancient Wine - From 1927 with Lineage to Cyprus in 1210/92 and Methods of Production to Greece in 800 B.C.

A while ago a dusty gift was made in the form of this bottle with its curious label stating that it is the same as one made during the crusades by the Knights Hospitaller of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem.

Now, while we imagined portly monks of the Middle Ages in cassock and hood, cherubically smiling while tenderly handling dark grapes in a sunny vineyard, or cast our imagination further back, see the white background and red cross of Knights Templar or the cross of St John on fluttering pennant and shield as a knight a’glint in burnie thunders across a desert plain, long blade brandished in one hand, bottle of Commanderie in the other, bellowing in a strange half French, half Scottish accent ‘let me put a bandaid on ye!’ prior to one enormous….HICCUP! …it may be better to start at the beginning, and find out how or why crusading knights had time to plant a vineyard, harvest the grapes…make wine…drink it.

An examination of the label may provide further clues…

Atop, on either side of the ‘Since 1927’ claim are the words ‘ Solera Wine’.Solera is a blending and maturation technique used for heavier styles of wine, particularly sherry, to create a consistent product. A typical solera consists of tiers of barrels stacked in such a way that the lowermost barrel acts as the source for the final blend. Each time an amount of liquid is drawn out, of it, the wines in the upper barrels are used to replenish it, thereby creating a fractional blend.

And, from  Answers.com, a website filled with information for those of us who like to find old vintages, sup them:

'the brand name being KEO Commandaria St. John. It's a mixture whose base wine was 1927, and younger wine was added to top up the mixture up until (I'd presume) the early to mid 40's. While it's got a single 90's-plus nonprofessional rating on CellarTracker, that's similar to the next so-called 'vintage' dating produced, 1947. The releases of the last few years, since about the 1990s, have had no 'Vintage' date to avoid the above confusion with vintage wines. 

[These wines, because of the mistaken idea that they are vintage wines, have often been sold for far more than they are actually worth.] 

As a collector faced with a bottle of this wine in appropriate condition for age, I'd offer about $50-100 for it. It's not commercially available at present.

ahh, before we crack that label we better ensure we’re not spending the kiddlewinks inheritance…as other CellarTracker research states:

Commanderie St. John 1947 Solera is a sweet wine which is assembled according to the solera system; the oldest components of this wine dates from 1947. Bottled in the 1970’s by KEO which is by far the most sought-after producer of this type of wine. The solera system was only available for 1927 and 1947 versions. The current wines are non-vintage and considerably younger.

Our vintage, ‘Since 1927’ which is from at least the 1970’s commands: 

Commanderie St John - White Wine From Cyprus: $123.00 Australian

• KEO Veritable Liqueur de la Commanderie - 1970s: A$262.82

• KEO Commanderie St. John - 1970s: A$219.01

But what of  'commanderie'? What does this mean…:

The word came from French commanderie, from medieval Latin commendaria, meaning "a trust or charge".  Originally, commandries only existed for the Order of Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, but later also for the Order of Teutonic Knights and other orders. Commandries of the Teutonic Knights were known as Komturei. Equivalents for Knights Templar were preceptor and preceptory. 

So finding out whom were these wine makers were leads to finding out that this is possibly the most ancient wine on the planet:

Commandaria is considered as a holy wine, used by many religions for ceremonial purposes. Commandaria (or Commanderia; Greek: κουμανδαρία or κουμανταρία) is an amber-coloured sweet dessert wine made in the Commandaria region of Cyprus on the foothills of the Troödos mountains. Commandaria is made from sun-dried grapes of the varieties Xynisteri and Mavro. While often a fortified wine, through its production method it often reaches high alcohol levels, around 15%, already before fortification. It represents an ancient wine style documented in Cyprus back to 800 BC and has the distinction of being the world's oldest named wine still in production, with the name Commandaria dating back to the crusades in the 12th century.

The wine is said to date back to the time of the ancient Greeks, where it was a popular drink at festivals. A dried grape wine from Cyprus was first known to be described in 800 BC by the Greek poet Hesiod and was known, by much later, as the Cypriot Manna

During the crusades, Commandaria was served at the 12th century wedding of King Richard the Lionheart to Berengaria of Navarre, in the town of Limassol; it was during the wedding that King Richard pronounced Commandaria "the wine of kings and the king of wines". Near the end of the century he sold the island to the Knights Templar, who then sold it to Guy de Lusignan, but kept a large feudal estate at Kolossi, close to Limassol, to themselves. This estate was referred to as "La Grande Commanderie". The word Commanderie referred to the military headquarters whilst Grande helped distinguish it from two smaller such command posts on the island, one close to Paphos (Phoenix) and another near Kyrenia (Templos). This area under the control of the Knights Templar (and subsequently the Knights Hospitaller) became known as Commandaria. When the knights began producing large quantities of the wine for export to Europe's royal courts and for supplying pilgrims en route to the holy lands, the wine assumed the name of the region. Thus it has the distinction of being the world's oldest named wine still in production. 

Although today it is produced and marketed under the name Commandaria, it has been referred to with several similar names and spellings in the past. In 1863, Thomas George Shaw in his book Wine, the vine, and the cellar refers to this wine as Commanderi whilst in 1879, Samuel Baker refers to it as Commanderia. In 1833 Cyrus Redding in his book "A history and description of modern wines" makes reference to the wine of the "Commandery".

Legend has it that in the 13th century Philip Augustus of France held the first ever wine tasting competition. The event, branded The Battle of the Wines (fr. La Bataille des Vins), was recorded in a notable French poem written by Henry d'Andeli in 1224. The competition which included wines from all over Europe and France, was won by a sweet wine from Cyprus widely believed to be Commandaria. The Commandery region itself fell into the control of his descendant Philip IV in 1307, after the suppression of the Knights Templar.

Another legend has it that the Ottoman sultan Selim II invaded the island just to acquire Commandaria; also that the grapes used to make this wine were the same grapes exported to Portugal that eventually became famous as the source of port wine. (1.)

And who were, and still are, the Knights of St. John?

The Order of the Knights of Saint John, also known as Order of Saint John, Order of Hospitallers, Knights Hospitaller, and the Hospitallers, were among the most famous of the Roman Catholic military orders during the Middle Ages. The Hospitallers may have arisen as a group of individuals who were associated with an Amalfitan hospital in the Muristan district of Jerusalem, which was dedicated to St John the Baptist and founded around 1023 by Blessed Gerard Thom to provide care for sick, poor or injured pilgrims coming to the Holy Land (Some scholars, however, consider that the Amalfitan order and Amalfitan hospital were different from Gerard's order and its hospital). After the Latin Christian conquest of Jerusalem in 1099 during the First Crusade, the organisation became a religious and military order under its own Papal charter. It was charged with the care and defense of the Holy Land.

Foundation and early history
In 603 AD, Pope Gregory I commissioned the Ravennate Abbot Probus, who was previously Gregory's emissary at the Lombard court, to build a hospital in Jerusalem to treat and care for Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land. In 800, Emperor Charlemagne enlarged Probus' hospital and added a library to it. About 200 years later, in 1005, Caliph Al Hakim destroyed the hospital and three thousand other buildings in Jerusalem. In 1023,merchants from Amalfi and Salerno in Italy were given permission by the Caliph Ali az-Zahir of Egypt to rebuild the hospital in Jerusalem. The hospital, which was built on the site of the monastery of Saint John the Baptist, took in Christian pilgrims travelling to visit the Christian holy sites. It was served by Benedictine monks.

The monastic hospitaller order was founded following the First Crusade by the Blessed Gerard, whose role as founder was confirmed by a Papal bull of Pope Paschal II in 1113. Gerard acquired territory and revenues for his order throughout the Kingdom of Jerusalem and beyond. Under his successor, Raymond du Puy de Provence, the original hospice was expanded to an infirmary near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Initially the group cared for pilgrims in Jerusalem, but the order soon extended to providing pilgrims with an armed escort, which soon grew into a substantial force. Thus the Order of St. John imperceptibly became military without losing its eleemosynary character. The Hospitallers and the Knights Templar became the most formidable military orders in the Holy Land. Frederick Barbarossa, the Holy Roman Emperor, pledged his protection to the Knights of St. John in a charter of privileges granted in 1185.

The statutes of Roger de Moulins (1187) deal only with the service of the sick; the first mention of military service is in the statutes of the ninth grand master, Afonso of Portugal (about 1200). In the latter a marked distinction is made between secular knights, externs to the order, who served only for a time, and the professed knights, attached to the order by a perpetual vow, and who alone enjoyed the same spiritual privileges as the other religious. The order numbered three distinct classes of membership: the military brothers, the brothers infirmarians, and the brothers chaplains, to whom was entrusted the divine service. 

The order came to distinguish itself in battle with the Muslims, its soldiers wearing a black surcoat with a white cross. In 1248 Pope Innocent IV (1243–54) approved a standard military dress for the Hospitallers to be worn in battle. Instead of a closed cape over their armour (which restricted their movements), they should wear a red surcoat with a white cross emblazoned on it. 

Many of the more substantial Christian fortifications in the Holy Land were built by the Templars and the Hospitallers. At the height of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the Hospitallers held seven great forts and 140 other estates in the area. The two largest of these, their bases of power in the Kingdom and in the Principality of Antioch, were the Krak des Chevaliers and Margat in Syria. The property of the Order was divided into priories, subdivided into bailiwicks, which in turn were divided into commanderies.
Krak des Chevaliers, Syria - photo by Bernard Gagnon

As early as the late 12th century the order had begun to achieve recognition in the Kingdom of England and Duchy of Normandy. As a result, buildings such as St John's Jerusalem and the Knights Gate, Quenington in England were built on land donated to the order by local nobility. An Irish house was established at Kilmainham, near Dublin, and the Irish Prior was usually a key figure in Irish public life.

Knights of Cyprus and Rhodes
After the fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1291 (Jerusalem itself had fallen in 1187), the Knights were confined to the County of Tripoli and, when Acre was captured in 1291, the order sought refuge in the Kingdom of Cyprus. Finding themselves becoming enmeshed in Cypriot politics, their Master, Guillaume de Villaret, created a plan of acquiring their own temporal domain, selecting Rhodes to be their new home, part of the Byzantine empire. His successor, Fulkes de Villaret, executed the plan, and on 15 August 1309, after over two years of campaigning, the island of Rhodes surrendered to the knights. They also gained control of a number of neighbouring islands and the Anatolian port of Halicarnassus and the island of Megiste.

Following the conquest of the Holy Land by Islamic forces, the Order operated from Rhodes, over which it was sovereign and later from Malta, where it administered a vassal state under the Spanish viceroy of Sicily.

Right: Stone Cross of the Knights Hospitallers - photo by Thomas Shackleton

The Order was weakened in the Reformation, when rich commanderies of the Order in northern Germany and the Netherlands became Protestant (and largely separated from the Roman Catholic main stem, remain so to this day). The Order was disestablished in England, Denmark and elsewhere in northern Europe. The Roman Catholic order was further damaged by Napoleon's capture of Malta in 1798 and became dispersed throughout Europe. It regained strength during the early 19th century as it redirected itself toward humanitarian and religious causes. In 1834, the order, by this time known as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta (SMOM), acquired new headquarters in Rome where it has since been based. (1.)

Almost all of the Order's property in the kingdom of England was confiscated by Henry VIII during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Although never formally suppressed, this effectively caused the activities of the English Langue to come to an end; in neighbouring Scotland, however, a few Scottish knights remained in communion with the Order's French Langue.

In 1831, a British Order was founded by European aristocrats claiming (possibly without authority) to be acting on behalf of the Order. This Order in time became known as the Most Venerable Order of St John of Jerusalem, receiving a Royal Charter from Queen Victoria in 1888, before expanding throughout the United Kingdom, the British Commonwealth and America; the British Order only received recognition from by the Sovereign Military Order of Malta in 1963.

Today the Order of St John's is best known for running St. John Ambulance Brigade and the St. John Eye Hospital in Jerusalem; the Most Venerable Order has maintained a presence in Malta since the late 19th century. (3.)

So it would seem that either 1210 or 1292 or thereabouts may have been the first vintage of this sweet Cyrpus wine, as with Cyprus lands came a castle:

Kolossi Castle is a former Crusader stronghold on the south-west edge of Kolossi village 14 kilometres (9 mi) west of the city of Limassol on the island of Cyprus. It held great strategic importance in the Middle Ages, and contained large facilities for the production of sugar from the local sugarcane, one of Cyprus's main exports in the period. The original castle was possibly built in 1210 by the Frankish military, when the land of Kolossi was given by King Hugh I to the Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem (Hospitallers). The present castle was built in 1454 by the Hospitallers under the Commander of Kolossi, Louis de Magnac, whose arms can be seen carved into the castle's walls. 

Right: Chypre - Kolossi - photo by Gérard Janot

Owing to rivalry among the factions in the Crusader Kingdom of Cyprus, the castle was taken by the Knights Templar in 1306, but returned to the Hospitallers in 1313 following the abolition of the Templars. The castle today consists of a single three-storey keep with an attached rectangular enclosure or bailey about 30 by 40 metres (98 by 131 ft). 

As well as its sugar, the area is also known for its sweet wine, Commandaria. It has been produced in the region for millennia, and is thought to be the oldest continually-produced and named wine in the world, known for centuries as "Commandaria" after the Templars' Grand Commandery there. (4.)

We had to open it and have a sip after all this research, and another sip - it's like a very fine, very sweet port. Although there was a fair amount of sludge in the base of the bottle, due to its age or the way it had been stored, the whole bottle went, we were merry, and no hangovers were produced.

On the grapes in this fine solera wine:

Commandaria is made exclusively from two types of indigenous Cyprus grapes: Xynisteri and Mavro. The grapes are left to overripe on the vine and when sugar content reaches acceptable levels (corresponding to high must weight) they are harvested. More specifically, Xynisteri is picked when at around 12 degrees Baumé (°Bé) and Mavro at 15-16 °Bé. The grapes are then laid out in the sun to further increase the sugar density through evaporation. When the must weight reaches 19 to 23 °Bé the juice is extracted thorough crushing and pressing. Fermentation takes place in reservoirs and will arrest naturally due to the high levels of alcohol achieved at around 15%. The above process has to take place within the confines of 14 designated villages that lie in the Commandaria Region (see below). Commandaria, by law is aged for at least four years in Oak Barrels but this can take place outside the above designated area within Cyprus under strict control and under the conditions laid down in Cypriot legislation. 

Once fermentation has been completed, at a minimum alcohol level of 10% (which is often exceeded), the alcoholic strength of Commandaria may be increased by the addition of pure 95% grape alcohol or a wine distillate of at least 70% alcohol. However, after this addition, the wine's actual alcohol content may not exceed 20%, while its total potential alcohol (including its sugar content) must be at least 22.5%. Thus, Commandaria may be a fortified wine, but fortification is not mandatory.

Mavro (Greek: μαύρο, meaning "black") is an indigenous red grape cultivated on the island of Cyprus. The grape takes its name from its dark colour. The Italian ampelographer, Count Giuseppe di Rovasenda refers to it in 1877 as Cipro Nero (Cyprus black). An ancient variety, its suitability to the hot Cypriot climate has made it the dominant cultivated vine on the island. It accounts for 70% of cultivated vines. Of note is that Mavro continues to grow on ancient rootstock unlike most mainland European grapes that are grafted on North American rootstock. This is a consequence of Cyprus’ escape from the phylloxera epidemic that had devastated most other European vineyards, in the 19th century. (2)

Right: Mavro grapes used in the production of Commandaria - photo by OgreBot

Xynisteri grapes (also spelled xynistery, xinisteri; Greek: ξυνιστέρι) is an indigenous white grape grown on Cyprus. Approximately 13% of Cyprus vineyards, or 500 hectares (1250 acres) on the south slopes of the Troodos mountain range are planted with this grape variety.

The origins of the production method are not definite. In his poem Works and Days, written in the 7th century BC, Hesiod, writes:
 Forget not next the ripen'd Grapes to lay, Ten Nights in Air, nor take them in by Day; Five more remember, e're the Wine is made, To let them ly, to mellow in the Shade; And in the sixth briskly yourself employ, To cask the Gift of Bacchus, Sire of Joy." 

Pliny the Elder describes similar methods employed by the Greeks for making a sweet wines,
“ The grapes are left on the vine to dry in the sun...It is made by drying grapes in the sun, and then placing them for seven days in a closed place upon hurdles, some seven Feet from the ground, care being taken to protect them at night from the dews: on the eighth day they are trodden out: this method, it is said, produces a liquor of exquisite bouquet and flavour. The liquor known as melitites is also one of the sweet wines 

In his account Samuel Baker describes the production in 1879
“...the commanderia grapes are collected and spread upon the flat mud-plastered roofs of the native houses, and are exposed for several days, until they show symptoms of shriveling in the skin, and the stalks have partially dried: they are then pressed……"

Interestingly he claims that the evolution of this method was more out of necessity than choice..…
"It has been imagined by some travellers that the grapes are purposely dried before pressing; on the other hand, I have been assured by the inhabitants that their only reason for heaping and exposing their crop upon the house-tops is the danger of leaving it to ripen in the vineyard. None of the plots are fenced, and before the grapes are sufficiently ripe for pressing they are stolen in large quantities, or destroyed by cattle, goats, mules, and every stray animal that is attracted to the fields…."

Commandaria is produced both by the large wine industries (KEO, ETKO, LOEL and SODAP) and by small local producers of the Commandaria appellation zone(see below). (1.) (3.)
Commendaria Wine Region

Data recorded by Samuel Baker in his book Cyprus - How I saw it in 1879 reveal that in the late 19th century Cyprus had an annual production of about 300,000okes, equivalent to about 385,000 litres (data reflects only duty-paid production). Of this, Cyprus exported 180,103 okes from Limassol Port, of which the vast majority went to Austria (155,000 okes valued at UK£2,075). 

Official figures released by Cyprus’ Vines Products Commission show that there is a general increasing trend in the volumes produced. (1)

So even though it's nice to hold onto some wines, and some definitely do get better with age, you cannot take them with you and an afternoon enjoyed sipping such a grape of thousands of years of lineage, is a memory that cannot be replaced.
Back down to the cellar we go.....to investigate more of our collection.
1. Commandaria. (2015, August 25). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Commandaria&oldid=677801323
2. Mavro. (2014, July 13). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Mavro&oldid=616803153
3. Knights Hospitaller. (2015, September 18). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Knights_Hospitaller&oldid=681684819
4. Kolossi Castle. (2015, April 6). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Kolossi_Castle&oldid=655251729

Kolossi Castle Ruins. (2015, April 6). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved  from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Kolossi_Castle&oldid=655251729

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An Ancient Wine - From 1927 with Lineage to Cyprus in 1210/92 and Methods of Production to Greece in 800 B.C. - article by A J Guesdon, 2015.