Drinking Outside The Box

With Simon Woods – wine for people who have a life

Communion Wine – for all who are thirsty February 27, 2009 at 12:04 pm

Published by 5 Comments

Someone I know has been asked to do an article for a Christian temperance magazine on non-alcoholic beers and wines, and is struggling to muster any enthusiasm for the task. I don’t blame him – there are some passable beers, but I can’t remember any of the so-called ‘wines’ I’d want to pass my lips a second time. If you want something wet and fruity, fruit juice is far better – wine without alcohol is a like a honeymoon for one.

A bit more of what I think about God & wine is this piece from the archives….

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‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ 1 Corinthians 11:25

At St Thomas’s Church in Delph in the 1970s, Sidney Orme went by the title of Reverend. However, in the ecclesiastical fashion stakes, it was Eric Clarke, lecturer in textiles at Manchester Poly, and costumier to the great and good of Saddleworth, whose robes hung down in truly reverential fashion. And at every communion service, it seemed to be the immaculate Eric who was given the task of draining the chalice. No wonder then that on such occasions, he wore a somewhat relaxed air as he shook your hand on the way out of church.

When the time came for my first communion, soon discovered that Mr C’s chalice-draining exploits were not entirely painful. The Reverend Orme’s sense of the divine did not extend as far as that of the late Brian Brindley who, when celebrating his first communion as a newly ordained priest, used Château d’Yquem, ‘because I felt it was a particularly special occasion, and only the best is good enough for God.’ However, to an impressionable 13-year-old palate, Harvey’s Communion Wine seemed a more satisfying drop than the same company’s Bristol Cream.

Following the demise of that once-great name of Bristol, Harvey’s Communion Wine has ceased to be. However, for communicants who developed a taste for it, all is not lost, says Paul Playford of the Church Purchasing Scheme, which provides church requisites to various Christian denominations. ‘Harvey’s used to be the main supplier of communion wine in Britain, but when the company was taken over a few years ago, the new owners Allied Domecq had no interest in making it any more. However, they did give us an introduction to its producer in Valencia, and today we still get them blended to the same recipes that Harvey’s developed. The red version is the most popular, but we also do a white version – its makes for fewer stains on the altar cloths.’

What lies behind the recipes is the 1983 Code of Canon Law, and specifically Canon 924 part 3. Punch ‘Canon 924’ into Google or Yahoo, and after discovering that it is a type of camcorder, you eventually find the following:

Canon 924 §3 The wine must be natural, made from grapes of the vine, and not corrupt.

So, Paul Playford, how does that translate into how the wines are made? ‘Errr, I’m not too sure.’ For clarification, I contacted Brother John May, who is the chief winemaker for Sevenhill in Clare Valley, South Australia. The winery is run by Jesuit priests (see below), and has been making sacramental wine for over 150 years, as well as ‘normal’ wine.

‘Sacramental wine regulations are that it is made from grapes, with no artificial additives other than those made from grapes such as tannin and tartaric acid, no sweetening and minimal sulphur dioxide. Where fresh grapes are unobtainable, altar wine may be made from dried grapes or raisins, but not from any other fruit.’

And how is the ‘corrupt’ bit interpreted? ‘Altar wine is not valid material for Mass if more than a third has become vinegar, or if added substances make up a notable part of it. Fortification with grape spirit can be used, providing the addition does not approach one-third of the final mixture, and should be done in one operation. The normal practice for sherry style wines is to halt the fermentation with the addition of minimum alcohol and then top up to the required strength later. However, the Canonists were not winemakers!’

While there is no obligation for altar wine produced under Canon Law to be fortified, most of it is, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it gives longevity, an important factor in smaller churches where a bottle could be open for a matter of months. Secondly, it makes the wine more palatable. The fortification leaves the wines with residual sugar, and as Mary Poppins was keen to point out, a spoonful of sugar etc. etc.

But fortification does bring its own problems. At Mission Winery in Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand, which like Sevenhill has been making wine for the Eucharist for more than a century and a half, a 2002 hike in duty rates for all wines between 14% and 23% alcohol meant that the price of a bottle of its traditional (fortified) sacramental wine leapt by NZ$4.45 a litre. Rather than carry on making the traditional style, the winery took the decision to reduce the alcohol level so the wine came in a different tax bracket. Communion ‘Lite’ anybody?

CPS’s Playford has also come up against the tax issue. ‘The fortified wine costs considerably less than the non-alcoholic version at the winery, but by the time it gets into the UK and all the various taxes are added, it’s more expensive.’

Hang on a moment. Non-alcoholic communion wine? ‘Yes, not all churches adhere to Canon Law. Roman Catholics do, and so do some Anglicans of the higher persuasion, so they’ll always buy the specially produced alcoholic versions. However, many non-conformist churches have teetotal backgrounds, and they want non-alcoholic wine – grape juice.’

There has been, of course, extensive theological debate as to whether this should be allowed. The traditional position is that it shouldn’t be, but with concerns over alcoholism among the clergy, opinions are changing. Then there is the matter of what happens to the wine during the Eucharist. For Catholics, the wine becomes the actual blood of Jesus. Anglicans don’t go as far as this, but for them, the wine becomes sanctified – set apart as holy – and as such cannot be poured away. Hence Eric Clarke’s emptying of the chalice – and hence the number of ministers who fail the breathalyser test after a Sunday service. [although see Seth’s comment at the end]

But for this believer, such concerns miss the point that Jesus was trying to make. In New Testament times, practically the first things to appear on the typical Middle Eastern table at mealtimes would have been a basket of bread and a jug of wine. I reckon Jesus was telling his followers to remember him as often as they ate bread and drank wine – in other words twice a day, not just on the second Sunday of the month.

And at Sandy Lane Community Church in Dobcross, one of my roles is provider of wine for our twice-monthly communion services. Blandy’s Madeira and Taylor’s port have featured in recent months, and we’re currently on the Familia Zuccardi Malamado fortified Malbec. Truly a wine fit for a King.

The missionary position
It is often assumed that missionaries were the ones who established wine production in countries outside Europe, due to the necessity of providing wine for the Eucharist. This is only partially true – Cortes and the conquistadors who first planted grapes in South America in the 16th century were not renowned for their religiosity. However, Jesuits and others did develop several vineyards in the Peru, Argentina and Chile. Franciscans were the first to plant grapes for winemaking both in the Baja California district of Mexico in the late 17th century, and a few decades later in what is now the state of California. Their main grape was the variety known in Argentina as Criolla and as Pais in Chile. In its new home, it became known as Mission.

Religion also played a part in the development of the wine industries of Australia and New Zealand. In South Australia, as well as Sevenhill (see above), the influence of 19th century religious settlers is evident in wine names such as Hill of Grace, Church Block and The Vicar. Missionaries also planted New Zealand’s first vineyards in 1819, and today, the oldest surviving winery in the country is Mission in Hawke’s Bay, which was founded in 1851.

Can holy wine be good wine?
If communion wine isn’t always as palatable as it could be, that is down to practical considerations rather than the winemaking requirements of Canon Law (see text). But Christianity isn’t the only faith where wine plays a major part, or where rules govern the production of that wine. The regulations for kosher wines are particularly stringent, even when the local rabbinate doesn’t insist on the wines being subject to pasteurisation. The grapes and wine can only be handled be Sabbath-observing Jews, and only 100% kosher equipment can be used for winemaking. Non-orthodox winemakers can work in such wineries, but they have to ask orthodox Jews to take tank and barrel samples for them. Even so, the standard of kosher wines has soared in recent years, both in Israel and other countries. Look out for wines such as Primavera from the Capçanes co-operative in Montsant, Israeli producers such as the Golan Heights Winery, Clos de Gat and the excellent Castel (kosher since 2002), Baron Herzog in California and the kosher wines from Bordeaux châteaux such as de Francs, La Gaffelière, Giscours and Yon-Figeac.

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5 Comments

  • Seth Belgard says:

    Actually, many of us Anglicans believe it is truly the Holy Blood. At the very least, we believe Christ is objectively present under the species of wine–something of far greater magnitude than just being set aside as holy.

  • Simon says:

    Thanks for that Seth – have referenced your comment in the piece.

  • Bob says:

    I get the question a lot, about why sacramental wine has the restrictions placed on it that it does.

    Like so much of canon law and other church regulations, the restricitons are there often because someone (I’d say me if I believed in reincarnation!) pushed the envelope and “forced” the Church to impose order/a rule.

    If the Church adopted the “anything goes” mentality for sacramental wine (and bread for that matter), we’d be having pizza & beer Masses by this Sunday for sure.

    Which would then lead to longer communion lines, “2nd helpings”, and on the whole not much “Remembrance of Me” by the next morning anyways.

  • Simon says:

    Nice one Bob!

  • Tim Carlisle says:

    A lot of churches I’ve been to (I’ve worked for some, travelled, been a student and all that) just buy whatever is cheap in the local garage / coop….

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