Wine has many links with religion. Here, Rupert Croft-Cooke, a wellknown authority on wine, embarks on a lively journey through their common historical traditions.
THE history of the Church and
the history of wine, says the French wine-grower and writer Alexis Lichine, are forever linked. There is scarcely a vineyard in Western Europe which has not at one time or another belonged to the Church and many thousands of acres, abandoned as better areas have been found, were planted by the monastic orders in the middle ages. It is significant that the largest wine-growing area in Great Britain was at Glastonbury, and the knowledge of vinegrowing in the open in this country perished with the dissolution of the monasteries.
The reason is of course a simple one. Wine was needed for the Sacrament. But vinegrowing and vintnery soon outgrew this need and contributed to the wealth of the great monastic foundations. It has even been said by one enthusiast that the Crusades were undertaken, in no small part, to bring back new varieties of vine, and they certainly gave to Europe the precious Pinot and the immensely productive Gamay grapes.
Particularly in Burgundy was this ecclesiastical vintnery notable. The first monks of the Cistercian Order, founded in 1098 by St. Robert under the motto Cross and Plough, found a swampy site for their first monastery named after the butrushes Citeaux, not far from Dijon. The bare hills above them were not encouraging to other forms of agriculture but they soon found that the Golden Slope was ideal for vines. They planted the Clos Vougeout while nuns planted the Clos de Tart at Morey, both of which still produce some of the finest Burgundies. Their schools of agriculture and viticulture gave the greatest spur to wine-growing since the Romans had first planted the vine there ten centuries earlier.
Their rulers in Burgundy gave them or bequeathed to them more vineyards. A century and a half after they had settled at Citeaux, the Duke of Burgundy renounced all proprietary rights in the Cistercian vineyards, and they had many other gifts of grape-growing land.
Of the original monastery the only building left is the castle and wine-press which stood within the great wall enclosing the 125 acres of the vineyard. The architect monk who designed this building was so proud of his plans that he signed them. an act considered a sin of pride by the Abbot who handed them to another monk to be revised. They were spoiled in the process, but the Abbot insisted that they should be used in their botched condition, whereon the architect monk is said to have fallen dead.
The building certainly has architectural flaws and costs vast sums in maintenance. It was used as a barracks by the Germans and as a prison camp by the Americans during the last war but its vast presses of rough chestnut wood, centuries old, have miraculously survived. Clos Vougeout is still the largest of the first-class Burgundian vineyards though it is split up between more than 50 owners.
Later the religious orders were the greatest vintners not only in Europe but in the New World. It was surprising to me when studying the history of Port and Madeira to discover how great a part the Jesuits had played in the cultivation of the grape and to find vineyards still bearing their name, for like most laymen with no particular knowledge of the history of the Society of Jesus I had not associated it with viticulture, though I might have learned something from the name of that groat Hock Jesuitgarten. It was the Jesuits who took the vine to South America and California and the Argentine wine industry (surprisingly the fourth largest in the world) was founded by them.
Many names remain to show this link between Church and Vine. The slope called L'Hermitage in the Rhone valley is supposed to be one of the oldest wine-producing areas in the world. It takes its name from a legendary hermit, a Christian escaping from invading Romans who had made his refuge at the crest of a bare steep hill. He was kept alive by wolves and foxes who brought him food at nightfall but they could not relieve his thirst. Angels were sent in the guise of wine-growers who planted vines which flowered and gave grapes which ripened in a single night and the hermit spent the rest of his life on the hilltop praising Clod for the splendid wine he made.
The wine of Hermitage, still made and still gratefully drunk, has lost a little of its favour lately to another RhOne wine with a name even more attractive and more full of associations — Chateauneuf du Pape. Curious how memorable is this title, even to non-French-speaking Englishmen. It comes from a summer palace of the Popes, built when Avignon was the seat of the Papacy, at about ten miles distant from their home. Of this nothing remains but a few crumbling walls, but the vineyards which surrounded it then still flourish and produce the red wine we know.
This is a great wine with a great name but not all religious nomenclature is so happy. Lacrima Cristi, for example, is a pretentious Italian wine and has been called more famous for its name than for its quality. Yet Château Pape-Cldment is an excellent claret.
It seems that early experiments at distilling were made in monastic still-rooms and dispensaries, for brandy from the first
was known, as it is today, for its medicinal purposes. But its gradeur as a liqueur was recognised, too. There is a story that at an episcopal gathering in Rome one French bishop was unknown to his brothers who asked him whence he came. "I am the Bishop of Angouleme," he said, and finding this made little impression added "Also of Cognac." There were smiles and nods immediately. "Ah. the splendid See of Cognac!"
Certainly we owe the two great liqueurs Chartreuse and Benedictine to the monasteries and the former is still made by the Carthusians at La Grand Chartreuse near Grenoble.
The recipe for Chartreuse Is said to have been given to the monks by Marechal d'Estrees. This extraordinary man, Francois-Annibal d'Estrdes, was Bishop of Noyon, but gave up the Church for the army and became a trusted agent of Cardinal Richelieu. Where he obtained a formula for making a liqueur is not known but he could not have given it into better hands. The herbs for it could be found in the Dauphine valley and brandy was its basis. In the middle of the 18th century Brother Gerome Malibec further improved the liqueur, but its secrets were never divulged or discovered by analysis.
The Carthusians lost their property in the Revolution but the monastery itself was not destroyed and in 1816 they returned to it and continued to distil Chartreuse for another ninety years until the expulsion of the monastic orders from France in 1903. They locked themselves in the monastery but were eventually expelled and their distillery and trade-mark were sold But not the formula. This they took first to Italy then, on acquiring a distillery at Terragona, to Spain. They continued to make their liqueur, but under their trade-mark in France a commercial firm began to manufacture and sell an imitation which was bottled and labelled as theirs had been. They therefore adopted Les Peres Chartreuses as their trade mark and won a lawsuit in the English courts which made it illegal to sell anything but their product as "Chartreuse" in Great Britain. In 1940 they were allowed to return to their monastery of La Grande Chartreuse and have revived distilling there. Benedictine was invented in the sixteenth century by a learned monk Dom Bernardo Vincelli at Fecamp Abbey. Its bottles to this day bear on their labels 'Benedictine DOM' — the initials standing for Deo Optimo Maximo.
Two names, one ancient, one modern, must be remembered. Dom Pierre Perignon, who has been called the Father of Champagne, showed the world how to cork and bottle wine in a way that enabled it to be matured in bottle. And the Abbi Dubaquie, for many years honorary director of the Wine Station at Bordeaux is certainly the greatest authority on Claret..