Wine, Vatican City, and the Papacy: A History

Introduction

The Vatican City, known officially as the Vatican City State, is the independent city-state enclaved within Rome that serves as the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church and the home of the Pope. As the smallest internationally recognized independent state in the world by both area and population, the history of the Vatican City is closely intertwined with that of the Papacy and the Catholic Church.

One integral part of this history is wine. As wine holds religious and cultural significance for the Catholic Church, the vineyards and wineries within the walls of Vatican City and the Papal States have an extensive history dating back centuries. This blog post will provide an overview of this history, exploring the relationship between wine, the Vatican, and the Papacy throughout the years.

Early History of Wine and the Papacy

Wine has long held religious and cultural importance within the Catholic Church. As one of the elements of the Eucharist – the ritual commemorating the Last Supper of Jesus Christ – wine holds deep spiritual meaning. Culturing vineyards and producing sacramental wines thus has ancient origins within the Church.

Archaeological evidence suggests that vineyards existed in the Vatican area since Roman times. As the seat of the Roman Catholic Church was established in Rome beginning in the 4th century AD, wines grown in the surrounding regions became associated with the Papacy and Vatican.

In the Middle Ages, the Papal States expanded to encompass a large area of central Italy. Wine production flourished in these regions under papal patronage. Important wines Were produced in areas near Rome like Frascati, Est! Est!! Est!!! di Montefiascone, and Orvieto Classico.

The Avignon Papacy, the period from 1309-1377 when the Papacy resided in France instead of Rome, introduced Italian wines to the French aristocracy and royalty. The so-called “Popes’ wines” gained significant renown. The treasury of wines by the Popes laid the foundations for the Vatican to become a driving force in the development of Italian wines.

Aerial View of Vatican City

Captivating aerial view of Vatican City, the world’s smallest independent state and the spiritual heart of Roman Catholicism, nestled within the city of Rome, Italy.

The Golden Age of Vatican Wine

Following the return of the Papacy to Rome, the Renaissance Popes of the 15th and 16th centuries oversaw a “golden age” for Vatican wine production. Pope Julius II, who commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling, owned vineyards in Frascati and viewed wine as a status symbol among the church hierarchy.

Pope Leo X, born to the famous Florentine Medici family, continued to elevate the role of wine in Vatican culture. He grew up appreciating fine wine and held lavish feasts and celebrations with copious amounts of Tuscan wine. Leo X declared Roman wine shops to be tax-exempt to ensure adequate supply.

Vatican wine production reached new heights under Pope Paul III in the mid-16th century. He appointed a personal “wine taster” and sought to make the Vatican completely self-sufficient in wine. Vatican-owned Roman vineyards expanded via land reclamation projects along the Tiber River.

Paul III established a stockpile of fine aged wines in the Vatican cellars for use by his inner circle. Wines like Greco di Tufo were collected to fill hundreds of amphorae. This stockpile of exclusive vintage wines essentially established the Vatican as the world’s first “wine bank.”

Challenges: Unification of Italy and Phylloxera

In the 19th century, the Vatican’s wine industry faced major upheaval due to geopolitical changes and the phylloxera epidemic.

The unification of Italy in the mid-1800s confiscated most Papal States lands outside Rome. This greatly diminished Vatican-controlled vineyards and wine production. It severed ties between Rome and historic wine zones like Montepulciano and Orvieto.

Then the phylloxera outbreak severely damaged vineyards across Europe. Phylloxera is an insect that feeds on and destroys grape vine roots. The Vatican lost most of its remaining Roman vineyards in just a few years during the 1870s-1880s due to phylloxera. This caused a major collapse of Vatican wine production and stockpiles.

In response, Pope Leo XIII ambitiously spearheaded a redevelopment plan to restore Vatican viticulture. French grape varieties were grafted onto phylloxera-resistant American rootstocks and new vineyards planted within the Vatican walls.

Did you know: The first papal vineyard was established in the 4th century by Pope Julius I, and subsequent popes continued to expand the vineyards, cultivating grapes for wine production.

Papacy: Idyllic Chateauneuf vineyard nestled in the picturesque landscape of Southern Rhône Valley, France

Papacy: Idyllic Chateauneuf vineyard nestled in the picturesque landscape of Southern Rhône Valley, France

Modern Era

The 20th century saw Vatican wine production gradually rebuild, focusing on small-scale gardenvineyards and wineries within the Vatican City walls. Home winemaking became popular among Vatican residents. Pope Pius XII opened a grappa distillery inside the Vatican.

Scientific advances helped improve and stabilize wine quality. Electric lighting extended cellar seasons. Temperature control and antiseptic filters preserved wine integrity. Blending and sterile bottling created more consistent products.

The Vatican Gardens winery was established in the 1970s to make wine for Vatican residents’ table use. Red wines based on Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are produced today. There is also a rosé made from Cabernet Franc.

John Paul II, the first modern Pope to come from a major wine producing country (Poland), took steps to further revive Vatican wine culture. He had a small vineyard planted at his summer residence, and occasionally gave bottles of Vatican wine to foreign dignitaries.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI expanded the Vatican Gardens winery after centuries of emphasis on sourcing sacramental wines from outside the Vatican. He instituted new quality controls and planted an additional vineyard area, enabling expanded Vatican wine production for Vatican City residents’ consumption.

Today the Vatican continues operating its winery and vineyards, producing several thousand bottles annually. While remaining small in scale, Vatican City wine represents an enduring tradition intertwining faith, history, and agriculture within the heart of Rome. The story of Vatican wine provides a window into the larger relationship between wine and the Papacy through the centuries.

Major Vatican Wines and Wine Regions

Here is an overview of major Vatican/Papal wines and wine regions that have come to prominence over the centuries:

Frascati

Located in the hills just south of Rome, Frascati vineyards benefitted from ideal growing conditions and papal patronage for centuries. Frascati wines were praised for light, fresh flavors and served at Vatican gatherings. Today Frascati DOC production continues on a larger commercial scale.

Est! Est!! Est!!! di Montefiascone

A historic town north of Rome, Montefiascone was dubbed “Est! Est!! Est!!!” on account of its excellent wines. A 12th century bishop traveling to meet the Pope sampled its wine and sent a prelate ahead to reserve his lodgings, writing “Est!” (Latin for “It is”) to rave about the wine. Today Est! Est!! Est!!! di Montefiascone DOC continues this legacy.

Orvieto Classico

The hilltop town of Orvieto overlooks Umbria’s vineyards renowned since the Middle Ages for bright, structured white wines. Orvieto Classico DOC remains an iconic Italian white today.

Greco di Tufo

The Greco vine shone in Tufo’s volcanic soils near Naples/Avellino under papal protection in the 16th-17th centuries. Greco di Tufo DOCG today produces minerally white wines that age superbly. The Vatican collected and cellared Greco wines for centuries.

Cesanese del Piglio

The red Cesanese grape thrives in Piglio, an area just south of Rome historically under Vatican control. Cesanese del Piglio DOCG produces bold, earthy reds that were prized by the Papacy.

Vermentino di Gallura

On the island of Sardinia, Vermentino excels in the rocky soils around Gallura. Vermentino di Gallura DOCG produces crisp, refreshing whites. Recent Popes have favored it as a principal Vatican white wine.

Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio

Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio DOC hails from vineyards on volcanic soils around Mount Vesuvius near Naples. References to “Christ’s tears” wines here date back to the Middle Ages. Lacryma Christi enumerated among prized regional wines enjoyed by Vatican hierarchy.

Significance of Wine to the Vatican and Papacy

In many ways, wine is intertwined with the identity and cultural mission of the Vatican and Papacy. Here are some key reasons why wine holds such significance:

Religious Meaning

As one of the sacramental elements of the Catholic Mass, wine carries deep religious symbolism. The cultivation of wine thus is spiritually important for providing Eucharistic sacramental wines.

Cultural Heritage

Vineyards and wineries within the Vatican City preserve an agricultural and cultural heritage dating back centuries. They represent a lived connection to the origins of Christianity and Catholicism.

Diplomacy and Hospitality

Sharing fine wines has long facilitated diplomacy and hospitality at the Vatican. Vatican wines communicate culture and values to dignitaries.

Communication of Identity

The Venezuelan Pope Francis has called wine “an eloquent symbol of the culture of a people.” Wines from historic papal areas like Greco di Tufo communicate the Vatican’s Italian identity and roots.

Demonstration of Taste

Popes historically demonstrated refined taste by supporting high-quality wines. Vatican wines embody the upper echelons of the Church appreciating grace and beauty.

Tradition

Collecting and cellaring wines across generations follows centuries of Vatican tradition. Wine offers a sensory connection to history.

For all these reasons and more, wine remains integral to the Vatican City and the Papacy today. The wines emerging from the small Vatican wineries and vineyards provide a profound window into this rich spiritual, agricultural, and cultural heritage.

The Future of Vatican Wine

Vatican City wine production is likely to remain small-scale, yet its significance vast. Vatican wines will continue communicating identity and tradition.

Recent years have brought elevated quality controls and new vines under Pope Francis. Vatican white wines from Vermentino and Greco grapes shine today. There are small experimental batches of orange and sparkling wines.

Environmental sustainability is increasingly a priority. Organic viticulture eliminates chemical usage in the pristine Vatican Gardens. There is research into finding disease-resistant grapes suited for minimally interventional growing.

Expanded cultural education aims to share the Vatican’s wine heritage. New wine-focused itineraries in the Vatican Museums and Gardens enlighten visitors. There are also plans for an official Vatican City wine brand to generate revenue for charity.

While remaining a niche product, Vatican City wine offers broad cultural value. The legacy of wine entwined with faith continues today through the Vatican’s vineyards, wines, and celebrated history.

Sources:

  1. Di Nola, A. (2015). Papal Wine: The Origins of a Symbol of Power. In Food and Power: A Culinary Ethnography of Israel (pp. 135-148). Bloomsbury Publishing.
  2. Robinson, J.

Quotes:

  1. “Wine is the most healthful and most hygienic of beverages.” – Pope Saint John XXIII
  2. “Wine is one of the noblest and most natural things of the world that has been brought to the greatest perfection, and offers a greater range for enjoyment and appreciation than, possibly, any other purely sensory thing.” – Ernest Hemingway
  3. “I pray you, do not fall in love with me, For I am falser than vows made in wine.” – William Shakespeare
  4. “Wine is a constant proof that God loves us and loves to see us happy.” – Benjamin Franklin
  5. “It is well to remember that there are five reasons for drinking: the arrival of a friend, one’s present or future thirst, the excellence of the wine, or any other reason.” – Latin proverb

Sources:

  1. Pope Saint John XXIII. “On the Promotion of Health.” 23 December 1961.
  2. Hemingway, Ernest. “Death in the Afternoon.” 1932.
  3. Shakespeare, William. “As You Like It.” Act III, Scene V.
  4. Franklin, Benjamin. Letter to André Morellet. 13 November 1779.
  5. Proverbial Wisdom: Proverbs, Maxims and Ethical Sayings from the World’s Cultures by Wolfgang Mieder, Stewart A. Kingsbury, and Kelsie E. Harder. Peter Lang, 2004.

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Categories: This Day in Wine History | ArticlesBy Published On: September 6, 2023Last Updated: February 29, 2024

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