The Jesuits and Wine Production in the New World

In the summer of 1599, several zealous Roman Catholics, men who perceived themselves as religious warriors, arrived at the developing town of Cordoba in what is now north-western Argentina. These men were members of the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits as they are more commonly known.

Over the next twenty or so years, the Jesuits built up a sizeable mission to convert the local natives, the Comechingones, to Christianity. But perhaps the most enduring legacy of the Jesuit activity in the area was their establishment of extensive vineyards in the region. Here in the foothills of the eastern edges of the Andes, these religious warriors developed the first vast vineyards and wineries in Argentina. The Jesuits were critical to developing wine culture in the New World between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries.[1]

Founding the Jesuits

The Society of Jesus was founded in 1540 by Ignatius of Loyola, a Spanish minor noble and zealous Roman Catholic who wished to create a new religious order which would serve the dual purpose of combating the growth of Protestantism in Europe and converting the people of the newly discovered Americas and other lands to Christianity. The order started small, with Ignatius working with a group of close followers, notably Francis Xavier. From these small beginnings, the order, members of which colloquially became known as the Jesuits, would grow to become one of the major religious groups in the world.[2]

Once it was established, the Society of Jesus expanded with blistering speed. By the 1550s, it was well on its way to becoming the foremost religious order fighting the spread of Protestantism in Europe. The Jesuits became a ubiquitous presence wherever Europeans arrived overseas.

They brought viticulture with them wherever they went. As early as 1545, Jesuit missionaries working in cooperation with the crown of Portugal, which was the most powerful European colonial power in Asia, introduced grape wine to Japan. Although the country soon closed its doors to Europeans, wine continued to be traded at Nagasaki, the one port that the Japanese allowed to remain open for commerce with European traders.[3]

Influence in the Americas

These efforts in Asia aside, though, the primary area of Jesuit influence in this regard was in the Americas and specifically in the vast territories ruled by Spain, stretching from Texas and California south through Mexico and Central America and onwards to Peru, Chile, and Argentina. The Jesuits became central to life in the reducciones. These were small colonial settlements built to mirror large villages or small towns back in Spain. Here, the natives of a given region were forcibly relocated to live in the settlement, along with Spanish settlers.

The idea was that if the natives were placed in such an environment over time, they would embrace the ideas of European civility, including Christianity, which they experienced through life in the reducciones. The earliest of these settlements were established in the Caribbean in the 1500s, just over a decade after Columbus accidentally stumbled upon the Americas.

By the time the Jesuits were formed, they were a feature of life in New Spain, the region approximating modern-day Mexico. In the 1540s, following the conquest of the Inca Empire of western South America, reducciones were established in Peru and the northern parts of Chile and Argentina.

South American Impact

In these latter regions, the Jesuits had their most significant impact and massively influenced the wine culture of all three countries. In the 1570s, over one million natives were relocated to reducciones in these regions along the Andes. Many of these settlements were effectively run by the Jesuits.

With this political and social power came economic clout. By the seventeenth century, vineyards had been planted in the countryside around the reducciones, as well as sugar cane plantations and cotton fields. The Jesuits became huge producers of New World wine, sugar, and textiles made from cotton. This pivotal legacy would endure until the middle of the eighteenth century.[4]

Facing Persecution

Despite their centrality to the economy of the Spanish Empire in the Americas and their role in the missionary work of Catholic Spain, the Jesuits eventually faced persecution. In 1767, the order was expelled from Spanish America altogether by a decree of King Charles III of Spain. This followed a broader pattern whereby the Society of Jesus was suppressed across Europe and the Americas by the Papacy and the Catholic powers of Europe in the 1750s and 1760s, as many governments in countries like France and Portugal had determined that the order had become too powerful and overly involved in the politics of their countries.

The expulsion order in the Americas amounted to the confiscation of their estates, including their wineries. Many of these were consequently taken over by the Franciscans or sold to private landholders. These events proved just how critical New World viticulture had been to the Jesuits. For instance, following the expulsion order of 1767, the Peruvian wine industry declined as the new owners of their vineyards and wineries did not have the expertise of the Jesuits when it came to producing quality wines in this part of South America.[5]

Legacy of the Expulsion

The expulsion order of 1767 and the efforts to reduce the power of the Jesuits in the late eighteenth century did not spell the end of the order. The Franciscans did become the major force in terms of religious orders in the Americas for decades to come as a result. The persecution ended a few decades later and was revived officially by Pope Pius VII in 1814.

Once again, members of the order began leaving Europe on missionary work and brought wine production with them to new lands.

For instance, in 1848, Aloysius Kranewitter, an Austrian Jesuit, arrived in Australia. He and several followers purchased lands in the Clare Valley region of southern Australia in 1849. Kranewitter named the region Sevenhills in honor of the seven hills on which Rome was established. Here, Kranewitter and his fellow Jesuits planted the first vineyards in the Clare Valley in 1851.

Sevenhills Winery Today

Today the Sevenhills winery still functions at the center of what has become a significant center of viticulture in Australia across the Clare Valley. The wines produced by Sevenhills still bear the hallmarks of their Jesuit heritage, with vintages named after famous members of the Society of Jesus, such as Francis Xavier.[6] Moreover, this impact continued for decades afterward. It was members of the Jesuits, after all, who sowed the seeds of the modern Chinese wine market in the early twentieth century, the largest growing consumer of wine in the world today.[7]

Conclusion

Remarkable developments can have unusual beginnings. In the 1530s, when Ignatius of Loyola and a close group of companions decided to petition the Papacy in Rome, they couldn’t have predicted that one of their legacies to the modern world would be viticulture. And yet that is precisely what happened. Over the next three centuries, the Jesuits went on to play a significant role in spreading wine culture to other continents, wherever their mission took them. Above all, their role in establishing wine production in Latin America during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was crucial to the emergence of Argentina and Chile as major viticulture centers in the Americas today.[8]

On this Day

July 31, 1556 –Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus, more regularly referred to as the Jesuits, died in the city of Rome.[9]

April 2, 1767 – The expulsion of the Jesuits from Spain’s massive territories across the Americas began. The crackdown significantly damaged the wine industry across the lands of the Spanish Empire.[10]

April 14, 1817 –Aloysius Kranewitter was born in Innsbruck in Austria. In 1849 he and his religious followers purchased a property in the Clare Valley in southern Australia, which he called Sevenhills in honor of the seven hills of Rome. This became the first major center of wine production in the Clare Valley following the planting of the first grapevines here in 1851.[11]

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References

[1] Nicholas Cushner, Jesuit Ranches and the Agrarian Development of Colonial Argentina, 1650–1767 (Albany, New York, 1983).

[2] Philip Caraman, Ignatius Loyola: A Biography of the Founder of the Jesuits (San Francisco, 1990); William Meissner, Ignatius of Loyola: The Psychology of a Saint (New Haven, 1992); John W. O’Malley, The Jesuits: A History from Ignatius to the Present (New York, 2014).

[3] ‘Missionaries’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006).

[4] Nicholas Cushner, Lords of the Land: Sugar, Wine, and Jesuit Estates of Coastal Peru (Albany, New York, 1980); Nicholas Cushner, Jesuit Ranches and the Agrarian Development of Colonial Argentina, 1650–1767 (Albany, New York, 1983); Katherine Moore McAllen, ‘Jesuit Winemaking and Art Production in Northern New Spain’, in Journal of Jesuit Studies, Vol. 6 (2019), pp. 294–314.

[5] Christine Vogel, The Suppression of the Society of Jesus, 1758–1773 (Mainz, 2011); Nicholas Cushner, Lords of the Land: Sugar, Wine, and Jesuit Estates of Coastal Peru (Albany, New York, 1980).

[6] https://www.sevenhill.com.au/history [accessed 15/4/22]; G. J. O’Kelly, ‘Kranewitter, Aloysius’, in Australian Dictionary of National Biography, Volume 5 (Melbourne, 1974); ‘Clare Valley’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006).

[7] ‘Missionaries’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006).

[8] ‘Monks and Monasteries’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006).

[9] Nicholas Cushner, Lords of the Land: Sugar, Wine, and Jesuit Estates of Coastal Peru (Albany, New York, 1980); Nicholas Cushner, Jesuit Ranches and the Agrarian Development of Colonial Argentina, 1650–1767 (Albany, New York, 1983); Philip Caraman, Ignatius Loyola: A Biography of the Founder of the Jesuits (San Francisco, 1990); William Meissner, Ignatius of Loyola: The Psychology of a Saint (New Haven, 1992).

[10] Christine Vogel, The Suppression of the Society of Jesus, 1758–1773 (Mainz, 2011).

[11] https://www.sevenhill.com.au/history [accessed 15/4/22]; G. J. O’Kelly, ‘Kranewitter, Aloysius’, in Australian Dictionary of National Biography, Volume 5 (Melbourne, 1974); ‘Clare Valley’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006).

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