THE eucharist holds an important place in all Christian worship, but the use and choice of communion wine varies between congregations.
Canon law in both the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church states that communion wine must be the fermented juice of the grape. These churches often serve alcoholic wine that has been fortified, which means that distilled spirit has been added to boost the alcohol volume. The high alcohol content helps to preserve the wine, reducing the risk of its spoiling.
In small congregations, where only a little wine is used, this is important, as a bottle may need to last for weeks. In the Roman Catholic Church, however, Canon 924 states that the wine must not be corrupt; so sugar, for example, must not be added.
The distilled alcohol (used to fortify and preserve wine for longer) is considered by some to be a corrupting addition to the fermented grape juice.
Other priests find it acceptable, as long as the spirit used to fortify the wine is distilled from grapes, that it is added during the process of fermentation, and that the overall alcohol content does not exceed 18 per cent.
In certain churches, such as the Methodist Church, alcoholic wine is not used. The United Methodist Book of Worship says that this is “an expression of pastoral concern for recovering alcoholics” which also enables “the participation of children and youth”. Unfermented grape juice or blackcurrant cordials are generally used instead.
Priests in the Roman Catholic Church who cannot drink alcohol (owing to medication, or as recovering alcoholics), may be permitted to use mustum — a grape juice in which fermentation has been prematurely suspended so it has a very low alcohol content.
SEVERAL suitable wines are available on the high street (see panel), but many churches source their wines from suppliers who sell wines specifically produced for the purpose.
Some are made by monasteries with long traditions of communion-wine-making, others by wineries with an understanding of what is suitable. These wines, however, can vary widely in quality: some, unfortunately, taste more like cough medicine.
More churches are now also choosing to buy ethically produced wines. Cremisan fairly traded wines, for example, are made in a beautiful monastery near Bethlehem, surrounded by terraced vineyards.
The monks started the winery in 1885 in order to fund their pastoral work, provide a livelihood for local families, and set up an agricultural school.
In 2008, because the community was dwindling, the monastery collaborated with an Italian NGO to send two promising young Palestinians to Italy to study wine-making.
The two men, Fadi Batarseh and Leith Kokaly, were provided with an opportunity not usually afforded in the occupied West Bank territories, as well as the skills to keep Cremisan’s tradition of wine-making alive.
They returned home in 2014, initially working under the guidance of the Italian wine-makers Daniele Carboni and Riccardo Cotarella, who continue to act as consultants.
The monastery’s processes have been modernised, and many international grape varieties have been replaced with those indigenous to the Holy Land, such as Hamdani and Jandali — similar varieties, perhaps, to the kind that Jesus himself would have drunk.
The winery also employs about 50 local families. Christian and Muslim Palestinians from the community hand-prune the vines and harvest the grapes without the use of pesticides or chemicals.
A percentage of the profits is also donated to support the mission of the Salesians in the Holy Land.
Cremisan altar wines are now widely exported. Messa White, favoured by RC and some High Anglican churches, is made from late-harvested (ripe and sweet) Riesling grapes blended with indigenous varieties. It is amber in colour, has sweet honey notes, and has an 11.5% alcohol content.
Messa Red is produced, by special request, for the Church of England. Blending local varieties with Carignan and Alicante, the wine is medium sweet, similar to a light Port, though unfortified. Alcohol 11%. Both are £102 per case (£8.50 per bottle), and are available from www.5thgospelretreats.co.uk/cremisan-wines/altar-wines
FAIR-TRADE communion wine is also increasingly sought after. One model supplier is Stellar Organics, in South Africa, founded in 2000 in the Olifants River Valley.
It employs more than 300 workers, on 13 farms, who hold a 26-per-cent share in the company. For every case of wine sold, 50p is split between the shareholding and social-development projects run by the Stellar Foundation.
The wines are organic — instead of using pesticides, Indian Runner ducks are used as a natural way to keep snails and other pests at bay — and also vegetarian and vegan, dispensing with animal products such as gelatine and egg, which are often used in fine wines.
Fortified to about 15% alcohol for longevity, the bottles apparently last about six months once opened, making the wines particularly suitable for smaller congregations.
Poterion Fair Trade Red Communion Wine is made from a blend of 82% Ruby Cabernet, and 18% Muscat d’Alexandrie. It is sweet, but not cloyingly so, making it smooth and easy to drink. It has ripe blackcurrant, Morello cherry, and plum notes.
Poterion Fair Trade White Communion Wine is made from 100% Muscat d’Alexandrie, with a sweetness consisting of apricot, marmalade, and peach flavours.
Both are £86.98 per case (£7.25 per bottle), and discounts are available when buying more than one case. They are available from www.poterionfairtrade.co.uk, and other church suppliers.
Anna Greenhous is a drinks journalist and qualified wine professional
High Street choices
A selection of wines that priests say they favour:
Mavrodaphne of Patras is a Greek, port-like, full-bodied, sweet, red dessert wine. It is made from Mavrodaphne grapes, and fortified with a grape-based spirit. Alcohol 15%. Prices vary from £5 (Tesco) to £6.69 per 75cl (Waitrose).
Palwin No.4 is an Israeli, red kosher wine, made from Carignan, Argaman and Petite Sirah grapes by Carmel, the biggest producer of wines in Israel. Alcohol 14.5%. Available for about £7.99 per 75cl. Other Palwin wines are available with varying degrees of alcohol.
British Fortified Wine is made from concentrated grape must (the freshly pressed fruit juice that contains the skins, seeds, and stems) of the fruit imported to Britain in bulk.
Water and yeast are added, and the wine is usually fortified and produced on an industrial scale, producing cheap, basic wines that resemble sherry or port, such as Sainsbury’s Winemakers’ Cream British Fortified Wine. Alcohol 15%. Priced at £5.50 per litre.
Port itself can also be used, fortified to between 19% and 22% alcohol. Entry-level, inexpensive Ruby Ports are suitable, such as Waitrose’s Ruby Port at £7.49 (per 75cl), although not for Roman Catholics, as the alcohol volume exceeds 18%.