Ancient Cypriot wine enters vintage major league

NICOSIA (Reuters Life!) - Cyprus’s ancient dessert wine Commandaria is going upmarket from early 2010, with a selection of its more mature vintages in stylish bottles aiming for a more discerning consumer.

This undated handout photo shows wine jugs on display in a vineyard in Erimi, Cyprus. REUTERS/Ho New

Thought to be the world’s oldest wine in continuous production, Commandaria was first described in 800 BC by the Greek poet Hesiod as a popular tipple with the ancient Greeks. Its present name was bestowed by 12th century crusaders.

“The aroma of Commandaria cannot be made just anywhere, the specific altitude and the limestone soil are what make it unique,” said Andreas Panayides, who organizes an annual fair on Cyprus to honor the wine.

A sweet wine, Commandaria is still produced on the Mediterranean island in the same way as in antiquity.

Made from two types of indigenous Cyprus grapes -- Xynisteri and Mavro -- the overripe grapes are laid out in the sun to further increase the sugar density before the wine is aged in oak barrels for at least three years.

Traditionally found in a squat, brown bottle, the amber-colored drink will soon be sold in a variety of stylishly designed bottles by the four main wine distilleries on the island.

“The style of the bottles used have been the same for the past 30 years at least. We need to do something to bring Commandaria on a par with other European wines,” said Giorgos Hadjiafxentis, senior officer for the promotion of export of agricultural products at the Commerce Ministry.

A starting price of 50 euros ($71) for a 10-year vintage is anticipated compared to the modest 12 euros ($17) for a 75 ml (2.640 fl oz) bottle at present.

With a Protected Designation of Origin, Commandaria must have a 22.5 percent total potential alcohol level.

It is produced exclusively by 14 villages some 400-800 meters high on the southern slopes of the Troodos mountain range, which formed the headquarters of the Knights Templar, known as the “Grand Commanderie.”

Legend said Commandaria was the wine of choice at the momentus 1363 Feast of the Five Kings in the City of London.

King Richard the Lionheart of England, who married in Cyprus, is said to have enjoyed it so much at his wedding feast in 1191 that he pronounced it the “wine of kings and the king of wines.”

“Our aim is to boost Commandaria’s image,” Panayides said.

Some 1.4 million liters (369,800 U.S. gallons) of Commandaria was produced in 2008, with exports as far as Japan and Australia. Data from the Cyprus Wine Products Council showed that last year Sweden topped the export list at 22.806.00 liters.

“Consumption has risen by over 80 percent since 2002 across Cyprus,” Panayides said, mainly due to a growing awareness and appreciation of local produce.

Editing by Paul Casciato