Grapevine: A Brief History of Wine’s Role and Influence in Christianity

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Nick Antonaccio
Nick Antonaccio

As a Roman Catholic — and a wine writer — I haven’t given much thought to the wine that is consumed at Mass during the sacrament of the Eucharist. Shame on me.

I first began thinking about wine in the context of my column while I was chatting with our parish priest a few years ago about the wines at mass. I decided to add this topic to my list of future columns.

This week I recalled our conversation and decided to offer my thoughts to you.

For Christians, one of the fundamental precepts underlying their faith is the transformation during mass of bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus. This transubstantiation has formed the basis of Christian faith since Christ performed this miracle at the Last Supper.

However, the history of the underlying wine used in this consecration is not widely discussed. Certainly, there are certain religious laws that define how a particular wine qualifies for this sacrament of the Eucharist, but over the course of the last two millennia, there have been many different varieties of grapes utilized by Christian priests to perform this sacrament.

The history of wine is as old as the history of civilized man. The first mention of wine was the planting of grapes and the production of wine by Noah after the Great Flood. Numerous historical records exist since that time of wine being consumed as a beverage of choice.

Ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans cultivated grapes and produced wine as an alternative to contaminated water in their daily lives and as a celebratory beverage for special occasions. Each civilization created wine to conform to their particular palates. Several added water to wine to dilute the bitter taste; others added honey and herbs for the same reason. Ancient wine bore no resemblance to the refined wines we consume today.

And so it was for centuries. Then the perspective of wine for Christians changed forever at Christ’s Last Supper. It became a religious focal point of Christians as they and their religion spread across the ancient world. The wine itself did not improve much; the respect for it grew, as a religious symbol of the underlying tenet of Christianity.

And so the quality of wine remained unchanged for centuries as dutiful Christians received both species at mass. Until the European monks came on the scene in the Middle Ages, especially in France and Spain. They became experts in cultivating a more refined and pure wine that was pleasing to them and their spiritual subjects. They owned and developed what today are considered several of the premier wine growing regions in the world. The French monks toiled in Burgundy, the Loire Valley and the Rhone Valley. The Spanish monks ventured to the New World, planting grapevines and cultivating wine production in South America and all along the Pacific Coast as far north as northern California. The highly regarded wines produced in these regions today are rooted in the toil and sweat of those European monks.

All of this for the sake of having ample supplies of sacramental wine for masses.

For some reason, along the way, the participation of church congregations in receiving consecrated wine at mass declined and then disappeared. Also along the way, another sea change occurred – the Reformation. This schism divided Christianity and the beliefs in the role of wine.

It wasn’t until Vatican II in 1962 that Roman Catholics once again were permitted to partake of both the body and blood of Christ at mass.

Here in the 21st century, Christians of the Western and Eastern churches, as diverse as they may be, continue to consume wine in their celebration of Christ’s sacrifice.

This now brings me to a more specific focus of my discourse. What wine did Christ likely consume at the Last Supper? What type of wine do we consume at mass in the 21st century? But alas, the limitation of space on this page requires me to defer discussion until next week.

Nick Antonaccio is a 35-year Pleasantville resident. For over 15 years he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at or on Twitter @sharingwine.




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