Cypriot Wine: Commandaria and the Crusades


Through the lens of modernity, the Crusades look quite strange. In military history, they are scoffed at as poorly planned adventurism with a veneer of religious fervor. In popular thought, a crusade is synonymous with an ill-advised, passionately executed effort to impose one’s ideas on another. They are often thought of as having more enthusiasm than refinement. Yet, the Crusades were massive undertakings, and the circumstances that produced them were as diverse as the Crusades themselves. Of all the Crusading kings of the middle ages, few were as tactically and strategically brilliant as Richard the Lionheart.

The Crusades were, on the surface, a religious affair. In 1096 Pope Urban II called for the Christians of Western Europe to expel the Seljuk Turks who occupied the lands where Jesus and the early Christians had lived, particularly Anatolia, Palestine, and most importantly, the city of Jerusalem. In 1095, after a stunning series of defeats at the hands of the Seljuks, the Byzantine emperor pleaded with Urban II for help. The pope certainly recognized the Seljuk Turks as a political threat. Their expanding territory and defeats of the Byzantines caused alarm in the Vatican. Urban realized that his power and authority were threatened not just by the increasing status of monarchs internally, but by the advance of the Seljuks externally.

Urban realized a military expedition would indebt him to his Byzantine rival, check the Seljuk advance, and relocate monarchs’ armies and efforts away from internal struggles. To launch the expedition, Urban used his political and religious authority to offer indulgences — a medieval idea that allowed the rich a “shortcut” around penance for their sins. Urban also cited the need to protect European pilgrims who were occasionally caught in the chaos as the Seljuks, Abbasids, and Fatimids fought for control of the Middle East. The religious appeal to the warrior class of Western Europe was undeniable. The defense of their sacred sites and European pilgrims had a broad emotional appeal. There were also secular influences as well. The pope decreed that crusaders were immune from accruing interest on debts, and neither they nor their families could be taken to court while on a crusade. It was also seen as an easy way to gain favor with a lord or king.

The first true crusade proved unexpectedly successful, retaking Jerusalem and establishing a number of fiefdoms that came to be known as the “Latin Kingdoms.” Once Jerusalem was seized, many crusaders departed, their religious duty fulfilled. With the crusading army gone, the Seljuks fought back and took territory from the tenuously held kingdoms. Another crusade was organized, but internal politics caused it to collapse. So a third crusade was launched, this one headed by two of Europe’s most powerful kings: Phillip Augustus of France, and Richard I of England.

Richard I, also known as Richard the Lionheart, was born in 1157 and ascended to the throne in 1189. His father had pledged to conduct a crusade in 1188, a year before his death, and Richard assumed the mantle from his father. Phillip Augustus, the monarch of France, also intended to “take the cross,” as crusading was then called. In an effort to prevent the other from seizing territory, both men agreed to campaign jointly.

Richard had little regard for the administrative role of king, and was allured by the prospect of fighting in foreign lands. He liquidated the royal treasury, levied new taxes, and sold royal offices to raise and equip his army.

Richard and Phillip soon set out for their first stop: Cyprus. The island kingdom of Cyprus was valuable territory for lengthy campaigning. To sustain a robust invasion force in the Middle East, the crusaders needed to be able to stage supplies and reinforcements. Cyprus also promised to be a naval port, which could ensure that sea lanes to the contested kingdoms remained open. The decision to take Cyprus reveals Richard’s strategic brilliance.

Cyprus was not just the home of Richard’s first victory; it was also the site of his marriage. His fiancé, Berengaria of Navarre, was the daughter of Sancho VI of Navarre. The marriage was a politically beneficial one. Some scholars believe that Richard and Berengaria were actually romantic lovers, since they had met many years prior, and Richard married Berengaria despite his betrothal to the Countess of Vexin. Regardless of the reason for the marriage however, Richard threw a party worthy of a king. Richard, who was unfamiliar with Cyprus, had the local wine variety served at his nuptials. Upon tasting the wine, legend has it the king proclaimed that it was, “The wine of kings and the king of wines.”

Wine in the middle ages was generally awful. The logistical difficulty of preserving wine meant that additives must be used to preserve the wine. This could include marble dust, lye-ash, or pitch. Of course, this made wine awful by today’s standards. To make it slightly palatable, the wine would sometimes be cut with honey, dried fruit, or even salt water. Wine in the middle ages was valuable not only because it could render the drinker intoxicated, but because it was also a source of potable water. Wine only began to improve when it became a commodity, a tradable good that competed with beer and tea. For someone used to a saltwater-and-pitch concoction, an authentic, Cypriot dessert wine must have tasted truly amazing. It comes as little surprise that after the crusader’s time in Cyprus, the island and its wine were deemed valuable.

Richard would go on to sell the island to the Knights Templar not long after departing for the Middle East. In 1192, the Templar Order resold the island to another nobleman. However, the Templars were so smitten with the local wine, they retained a feudal estate where wine could be produced. They named their estate La Grande Commanderie, which roughly translates to “the main command post.” The region soon became known as Commandaria. Wine production increased as the Knights Templar sought to fund their operations through the export of wine. The Templars also provided the wine to pilgrims journeying toward Jerusalem. Soon the wine assumed the name of the region, and Commandaria became famous throughout Europe. Its popularity remained high for centuries, as late as the 1870s, when the region was producing 230,000 liters of wine annually for export to Austria alone.

Commandaria is made from two strains of native Cypriot grapes: Xynisteri, a white grape, and Mavro, a red. Both are dried partially in the sun before fermentation and pressing. This concentrates the sugars, giving the wine its sweet character. Following fermentation, the wine is aged a minimum of two years in oak barrels, but high-end Commandaria is often aged longer. The result is a sweet dessert wine with honey, fruit, and toffee flavors. It is often fortified, but even unfortified Commandaria can exceed 15% alcohol by volume.

Commandaria is the world’s oldest continually cultivated wine. Descriptions of the wine and its unique manufacture appear in accounts as early as 800 BC. Some scholars claim the wine is over 3,000 years old. Its long history makes it the stuff of legend. It is supposedly the winner of the first recorded wine tasting in history, held in France in 1224. The Ottoman Sultan Selim II is said to have invaded Cyprus just to get the wine. Still another legend is that the grapes from Cyprus were exported to Portugal and were used in some of the earliest port wines. Before assuming the name Commandaria, it was known as “Mana” because it was considered a divine gift.

Richard the Lionheart, despite his love for the wine and his new bride, was still a warrior at heart. He consolidated his holdings on Cyprus and took his crusading army onward, to the Middle East. His bride stayed with him briefly, but soon turned back for England. Richard quickly set about retaking the city of Acre, Israel. He commenced a siege operation, and fought bitterly to keep Seljuk relief armies at bay. Acre soon collapsed, and Richard set his sights on Jaffa and Ascalon. The Seljuk army attempted to stop him at Arsuf, but Richard’s military brilliance won the day handily. He took Jaffa and Ascalon and then moved on to the ultimate prize for any crusading army: Jerusalem.

It was not to be, however. Twice Richard fought his army to within sight of the city, but each time he was forced to turn back. He knew that without control of the surrounding lands, he would never be able to hold the holy city. His crusading army became irate at his unwillingness to take Jerusalem, and the already uneasy multi-nation coalition began to crumble. Phillip Augustus, who had returned to Europe months prior, had begun to encroach on Richard’s lands. Clearly, the crusade was falling apart. Richard sued the Seljuks for peace, and obtained a 3-year accord that saw crusader rule maintained along the coast north of Jaffa, and Ascalon returned to the Seljuks.

Richard would depart for England in 1192, but he would struggle to make his way home. The king would be shipwrecked, be held hostage for a time, confront insurrection from within his kingdom, and wage war with Phillip Augustus of France. Richard would meet an ignoble end, as he would be struck in the shoulder with a crossbow bolt, fired by a boy during a minor siege operation. He died of his wounds in April 1199.

The Crusades are a difficult historical event to pin down. They took place over a span of nearly 200 years. They are often used as examples of religious folly and violence, and in many cases, rightly so. Yet, as the wine of Commandaria shows, they also opened up new trades and products to Europe that were never available before. The opening of the East to trade and knowledge would have massive implications years later, as the Middle Ages would give way to the Renaissance. We have, at least in part, Cypriot wine to thank for that.


Paul Lewandowski is a graduate student, veteran and writer. He prefers a good gin gimlet to just about anything else. America is his favorite country and his favorite color is a tie among red, white, and blue.


Photo credit: El Pantera