Grapevine: The Wines Consumed by Christians From Ancient to Modern Times

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Nick Antonaccio
Nick Antonaccio

Last week, I attempted to follow the history and antecedent practices leading to today’s Christian celebration of the Eucharist, the celebration of Christ’s Last Supper. This week I address the two questions left unanswered: 1) What wine did Christ likely consume during his life on earth and 2) what type of wine do we consume at mass in the 21st century?

Christ’s wine? The four gospel writers don’t mention a specific varietal, vintage or producer. That is not unusual. In all likelihood, it was the house wine that was served in that upper dining room as Christ and his disciples reclined at the table — Christ’s last supper. Fast forward to today’s restaurant dining experiences. Do you remember the wine served to you the last time you ordered “a carafe of the house red?” Wine was a natural accompaniment in Christ’s time, not a separate course.

There were a number of grape varietals growing in the Mideast in Christ’s time. The Greeks and Romans had occupied these lands for centuries, introducing their culture and traditions to the local populace. They planted grapes locally for winemaking and imported finished wines from their vast domains for local consumption.

Archeological discoveries in the Mideast in the last two years may hold the secret of grapes grown in Christ’s time. Remnants of a winery, wine-stained vessels and 1,500-year-old seeds are being analyzed to unlock their DNA.

So what wine did Jesus drink? There is no documented proof of a particular grape, but speculation is boundless. Several researchers have posited that it was likely a grape with origins in ancient Greece – and which was transplanted to the fields around the region of Judah where Jesus lived. It is the Assyrtiko grape, a red grape still cultivated in Greece today. Yet speculation should not blur our focus on the symbolism of partaking of sacramental wine, rather than its oenological DNA.

The 21st century offerings at masses bear little resemblance to ancient wines. Across the globe, modern wines are of a higher quality, with more discerning taste and aroma profiles.

Except in church.

For Catholics, the prescripts for the production of sacramental wines are codified in the Code of Canon Law. Published in 1983, it dictates that the wine for the Eucharist must be natural and pure, from the fruit of the vine, and not corrupt…to which a small quantity of water is to be added (my paraphrasing).

What is served might be termed “ecumenical wine.” No particular grape is specified. The grape may differ in each locale across the globe, but the essence and spirit of the wine is the same.

Here in the United States, two wine companies supply more  than 80 percent of “sacramental wine” (made in accord with the Code of Canon Law) to churches. They offer a number of choices, yet names printed on the bottle labels tend to be more brand-related than varietal. Names such as Tokay, Burgundy and Port are generic descriptors not alluding to the contents, which are rarely disclosed.

There are three basic categories: dry, light and sweet (the latter being the most prevalent). These wines typically are a proprietary blend of California grapes that result in a red or orange or yellow or amber or brown or pink wine. The most widely grown blending grapes are Chenin Blanc, French Colombard, Chardonnay, Petit Syrah, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon — and in many instances an underpinning of Thomson seedless grapes. Many are fortified with natural brandy or alcohol (as a preservative); the limit mandated for alcohol content is 18 percent. They typically are screw-cap bottles costing under $7 per bottle, but don’t look for them in your local wine shop; they’re generally sold only to churches.

Christians seeking the certainty of consuming a natural, organic wine with no additives and a long history of ancient practices and symbolic legacy need look no further than their local church. One caveat: Whether it meets your personal preferences and taste should not be a criteria.

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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