When I attended my godson Dante’s First Communion in Modena years ago, he nearly dodged his inaugural sip of sacramental wine, an unthinkable offence bordering on blasphemy in the ancient Duomo. His mother – a deliciously naughty woman much given to japes – told him she once saw spittle floating on the wine’s surface and had forsworn it ever since. Luckily, Dante caught his father’s stern eye and took the chalice.
Although both wine and bread have been part of the communion since the Last Supper, the use of the former has been patchy. This is partly because wine is more expensive and less widely available than a lowly loaf; Holland and Ireland are not renowned for their viticulture. As a result, the more northern regions tended to restrict the communion wine to the celebrating priest. Wine has also been subject to liturgical changes. In 1963, Vatican II encouraged the wider adoption of wine: offering the laity the Precious Blood would give them “a more perfect form of participation”. The added bonus not mentioned then by the Papal See is that any lay member – even those who are gluten-free or alcohol-free – could take communion. These days gluten-free wafers and alcohol-free communion wine are regular Sunday fare.
Communion wine’s use also decreased, and was sometimes forbidden by certain dioceses, for reasons that will be uncomfortably familiar – disease. Perhaps the first academic study into contamination was carried out by Howard S Anders of Chicago university in 1897. Found in the dregs of the chalice was tubercle bacilli – the cause of TB and leprosy – pus and, perhaps less surprisingly, mucus. During the 1980s, when people still didn’t understand how HIV was transmitted, many Catholics decided against taking communion wine for fear of contagion. Sometimes concerns are well-founded, however: during the Spanish flu epidemic, hundreds of thousands of people died as a result of drinking from the common chalice.
The Vatican rules on the taking of communion wine are specific. The vessel from which the wine is drunk, unlike in other Christian denominations, must be made from “a precious metal”. The nature of the wine itself is also subject to strictures: it has to be “natural, from the fruit of the grape, pure and incorrupt”, therefore the fining agents and preservatives that are added to table wine cannot be used. Sulphites, however, are allowed, as is fortification with grape-based spirits to no greater alcohol content that 18 per cent (as defined in the Code of Canon Law by Pope John Paul II in 1983). This helps prevent the wine from turning into vinegar. Since red wine is favoured, this is effectively port. As a result, communion wine is often diluted with water: apart from helping to counteract the cloying sweetness, this may reduce any incidences of over-indulgence.
Altar wine comes in many forms: red or white, sweet or dry, alcoholic or non-alcoholic, cheap or sometimes extraordinarily expensive. Frank Wright Mundy’s non-alcoholic communion wine is £10.99 a bottle, and is conveniently resealable, allowing you to “easily take the bottle with you when you share the Lord’s Supper off-site”. Mirroring market enthusiasm for meals for one, sacraments for one are available at revive.com in the form of the Fellowship Cup of 100 pre-filled Communion Wafer and Juice cups (£36.99). These surely quell any fears relating to Covid-19, as well as satisfying the teetotallers.
For congregants with more sophisticated or alcoholic tastes, there is the Sanctifex Medium golden communion wine at 15 per cent, which can be bought in a very handy ten-litre dispenser for £106.80. Usual communion wine costs between £6 and £12 a bottle, but one particularly well-heeled priest is rumoured to treat his (admittedly tiny) congrega- tion to Chateau Haut-Brion.
Some may feel these references to priests’ and popes’ supposed love of the bottle is undeserved, but the figures make interesting reading. The Vatican City (the world’s smallest state with a population of 825) has the highest consumption of alcohol per capita in the western world, seven times the amount drunk in the US and twice that of the rest of Italy.
Pope Francis is certainly a fan. The Queen presented the pope with a bottle of Balmoral whisky when they met in 2014. A few years later Pope Francis was at the Scots College in Rome, where he brandished a bottle of scotch and proclaimed, “This is the real holy water”, before falling about laughing. He has also been made an honorary sommelier for his open and knowledgeable appreciation of wine. On accepting the honour, he advised that “there is no party without wine”. What a prudent man. It is in his genes, though: his grandfather was a winemaker in the Italian region of Piedmont. When Francis was a cardinal in Buenos Aires, he had this wine specially sent out.
Francis is not the only pope to enjoy wine. Vin Mariani, a mixture of Bordeaux wine and cocaine, was drunk by Pope St Pius X, and Pope Leo XIII even appeared in its advertising campaign. Wine producers give vast quantities of wine to the Vatican. They are then able to increase their sales by saying that it is drunk by the pope; special labels are printed to show off this, thus increasing its appeal, quality and price. Réserve du l’Abbé Cuvée du Vatican is a snip at £11.99 a bottle, with the strapline that it emits the aroma of wood, rather than white, smoke. At the other end of the spectrum is Trinitas Cellars, which sells its Two Popes wine at $80 (about £56).
Certainly, the various Christian denominations have hugely different attitudes to wine’s inclusion and meaning in communion. In the Anglican church, receiving the wine is purely symbolic. In the Catholic church, receiving it is optional but the wine actually becomes the precious Blood of Christ – hence the meticulous cleaning of the chalice by the officiating priest: no one would want Christ’s Blood in the sewer. As one might expect, in the Methodist church, alcohol is forbidden, so they drink grape juice instead.
But pity the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints: they are given plain water – and in individual cups, often plastic. They stopped using the common communion cup in the early 20th century when they discovered that by the time it had been taken by all, it was filled with flotsam and jetsam, including a lot of hair.