I RECEIVED a plaintive email recently from a clergyman who was bewailing the state of the wine that is currently being used for communion in his part of the world. In one church, there was non-alcoholic fruit juice in the chalice, and the next Sunday he noticed that communicants scarcely moistened their lips. “I was left with almost as much wine to finish off as I had started with — and what a poisoned chalice it was,” he said.
On returning to the vestry, he discovered that it was Tesco ruby “wine”. (The inverted commas are mine, as I take this to be so-called British wine which is created by fermenting concentrated grape juice.)
It seems that part of the problem is that communion wine has, for a long time, been sourced from church suppliers who are better known for their chasubles, copes, and candles than for their wine. Many of these are now able to sell altar wines only by the case of 12 bottles, which is a year or more’s supply for most parishes.
The Church of England is surprisingly pragmatic about what is served as altar wine, while the bread must be “such as is usual to be eaten; but the best and purest Wheat Bread that conveniently may be gotten.” For Roman Catholics, altar wine comes with a certificate of purity; sadly, for we Protestants, anything goes.
What should we seek for our chalice? The essential thing is that it has to be a wine that is appealing to the communicant. I think that this should be sweet, and, I would suggest, be at a high degree, from 18 to 20 per cent. When you take into consideration the fact that water is added to the chalice, the final strength lies in the hands of the priest.
There are two other reasons why a higher strength wine might be desirable: first, it is a matter of hygiene. A higher strength wine will have better disinfectant properties than one at a lower strength, and my correspondent was wary of inadequate wiping of the chalice between communicants, besides the hazard of the transmission of germs at the moment of intinction.
Also of importance is the fact that higher-strength wines will keep much longer than lower strength. Although the Prayer Book says “And if any of the Bread and Wine remains unconsecrated, the Curate shall have it to his own use,” I imagine that the bottle lingers for months in the vestry cupboard.
What do I suggest is the ideal answer to this problem? Currently, our parish is using Sainsbury’s Ruby Port, but I am sure that the equivalent from any supermarket would be just as good. At a cost of about £8 a bottle, it will be scarcely more expensive per bottle than altar wine bought by the case. It is at a higher strength, it is readily available, and it should satisfy most palates.
For those churches who have a golden communion wine, I have no answer. White Port might be the solution. If you are charitably minded, I would suggest Poterion Fairtrade South African Communion Wine, which comes as either golden or ruby, and is available from Whitebridge Wines, Stone, in Staffordshire (phone 01785 817229). Sadly, however, it comes by the case, and is only 15 per cent.