Jorge Mario Bergoglio is no stranger to wine. His grandfather, Giovanni Angelo Bergoglio, was a winemaker from the Italian Piedmont region of Asti, typically known for its sparkling wines. Jorge’s grandfather, however, made a still red wine from an obscure grape known as grignolino.
Love of this red wine was passed on to Giovanni’s grandson Jorge, formerly known as Cardinal Bergoglio of Argentina before becoming Pope Francis. It is said that Cardinal Bergoglio ordered many bottles of Italian grignolino while serving in Argentina.
The subject of wine comes up often in the Pope’s sermons and teachings. In one weekly Catechism lesson, he discusses the first miracle performed by Jesus at the wedding feast at Cana, where Jesus changed water to wine when the wedding party ran out of wine.
Pope Francis says, “Water is necessary to live, but wine expresses the abundance of the feast and the joy and celebration. And a wedding party which lacks wine — the newlyweds feel ashamed of this. Imagine finishing a wedding party drinking tea — it would be shameful! There is no celebration without wine.”
More recently, Pope Francis has turned his attention to the type and quality of wine used in the Eucharistic feast, calling for the wine to be made natural, pure and incorrupt.
Such wines do not have to be red, according to the Vatican. They can be red or white, sweet or dry, but they must be fermented naturally from grapes and not mixed with anything else.
“Naturally made” opens up another whole can of worms. There is no legal definition for natural wine. It is loosely defined as wine made with minimal chemical intervention, both in growing grapes and winemaking.
Grapes for natural wine must be grown without chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Grapes must be picked by hand and are sometimes stomped by human feet.
Further, such wines ferment on their natural yeasts in tanks or cement amphorae. These natural wines cannot be altered in any way, and that includes aging in oak barrels. They are unfiltered and unfined, with minimal or no sulfites added to prevent spoilage.
Natural wines can be quite murky in appearance as they are unfiltered, but many wines on the market today are unfiltered and they are not cloudy. This is because before they are bottled, clear wine on top of the barrel is siphoned off from the sediment at the bottom of the barrel.
After the clear wine is siphoned off, it may be clear enough so as not to require fining, the process of adding egg white, certain dairy products, fish bladders or bentonite clay to the wine. This causes errant particles in the wine to attach themselves to these substances, enabling the winemaker to further clarify wines. Such intervention would not be allowed in natural winemaking.
For wines made organically, biodynamically or sustainably, there are certifying boards and seals for these designations. Natural wines have no such certifying boards. It is not unusual to see wines that indicate on their labels they are unfiltered and unfined, but this does not mean they are natural.
Most winemakers follow the credo that superior wines are made in the vineyard by practicing good farming practices with as little intervention as possible. They may practice some or all organic, biodynamic, sustainable or natural farming practices, but by and large their wines would not be considered natural according to the thinking of some, including the Pope.
Most wines benefit from some intervention, like oak aging and malolactic fermentation. Both practices add smoothness to wines, making them more palatable. My limited experience with natural wine has not been pleasant. I prefer wines that have been made with some intervention.
When it comes to communion wine, perhaps further clarification is needed from the Pope. Personally, when it comes to communion wine, I will suffer through watered-down domestic Port that could never be considered natural — although I do think it is made from grapes.
Pat Kettles writes about food, wine and spirits every other Wednesday. Contact her at email@example.com.