Monastic Wines of Europe
Author: Olga Sgibneva
While it was the ancient Romans who laid the major European vineyards, it was Christian monks who filled winemaking with spirituality and true dignity.
It is difficult to overestimate the contribution of Christian monasteries to wine production. History offers us numerous examples of when it was monks who perfected methods of vine cultivation, worked on selection processes and even invented new kinds of wine. Many great wines are still produced today on vineyards started by monks that used to belong to monasteries, including Сhateau Clos de Vougeot, Сhateau Romanee, Chateau Сhateauneuf-du-Рape, Johannisberger and many others.
Today, many monasteries remain a palpable force in the wine world, acting as centers for the preservation of the cultural heritage and winemaking traditions of their countries. They play the role of knowledge sources and centers for taste development, understanding wine, and educational institutions focusing on creating new tendencies and technologies applicable to high-quality natural wines that encompass all the best qualities of this wonderful drink.
Wines of Georgian monasteries
Much has already been written about Georgian Orthodox monasteries that produce wine. We would like to reiterate the special role of the church in the process of reviving the unique winemaking traditions of Georgia. Even today, just like a thousand years ago, Georgian wines do not particularly resemble those of other countries, and instead express the unique characteristics of the grapes, location and tradition. This is thanks in large part to the monasteries.
Georgians say that God gave them the best thing He had to give: the land of their home country. In other words, their ancient winemaking traditions and 500 local grape varieties were also a gift from God, so the monasteries created wine from God and thanks to God. In Georgia, it is somewhat difficult to draw a line between church wine (wine for religious services) and monastic wine (wine drank by monks with daily meals). Georgian monasteries do not consume Cahor wines, which are closely associated with church services in Russia. According to the Metropolitan Bishop of Chkondidi Peter, the general principle is as follows: «White wine is for consumption, and red wine is for liturgies.»
Monasteries produce wine on their own, and even though traditions may vary, in the majority of cases it is made in qvevri (special jars). The wine of Alaverdi, Chkondidi and Ateni express and represent not only the monastery where it was made, but the region as a whole…
Wines of the Alaverdi Monastery
Kakheti and the Alazani Valley is the most famous winemaking region in Georgia. This is also where Alaverdi is located, the center of revival for wine production in monasteries. It is also where the oldest still functioning wine cellar in the world calls homes. These days, Alaverdi is an active male monastery headed by the Metropolitan of Amba-Alaverdi David, as well as an architectural complex featuring Saint George’s Cathedral, a 16th century refectory, bell tower, episcopal palace, residential buildings for monks, and a wine house and vineyards.
Wines here have been produced under the Alaverdi Monastery Cellar name since 1011, and their fame spreads far beyond Georgia. Kisi, Khikhvi, Mtsvane Kakhuri, Rkatsiteli and Saperavi: these are all local grape varieties used to make wine here. Each of them has its own unique and interesting peculiarities that they pass on to the wine.
All the wines here are made using special Kakheti technology, which involves fermentation and ageing in qvevri with grape pomace. The most crucial step is to bury the qvevri in the ground to guarantee a low temperature for fermentation. In Kakheti, it is typical to not reduce the volume of grape skin, because here you won’t find green and unripe stalks that would spoil the taste of the wine. If you look at it closely, it all looks according to nature’s plan, so the monks use this unique step to bring out the rich taste and intense golden shade of their wine. Their golden wine is truly wonderous!
Alaverdi has also made significant contributions to strengthening national winemaking traditions. In 2010, at the initiative of Alaverdi Metropolitan David, Gori-Samtavisi Metropolitan Andriy and Chkondidi Metropolitan Peter, the Foundation for Traditional Georgian Wine and the Center for the Culture of Georgian Wine were established.
A year later, the Qvevri Foundation was established by the Traditional Georgian Wine Foundation, the Georgian Wine Association, the Qvevri Wine Association and the Wine Club, and Alaverdi Metropolitan David was elected as its Chairman.
The Qvevri Foundation helped organize the first International Scientific Symposium in Alaverdi monastery. In 2016, several monasteries combined their efforts to start the Qvevri Academy in Ikalto, where young winemakers will learn to use qvevri.
Alaverdi also organized the Alavi award for outstanding winemakers who support national traditions; every year the winners of the award are announced in Alaverdi on the ancient local holiday of Alaverdoba.
Martvili is a princely monastery. It was built in the 7th century AD, and is the spiritual and cultural center of Samergelo Region, a historical area in western Georgia. Martvili monastery is sometimes just called Chkondidi. In pre-Christian times, on the hill where the monastery stands, a huge oak grew and the locals worshiped it as a deity. Thus, the name of the monastery goes back to the Samergelo word «chkoni» (ჭყონი), which means «oak tree.» It is a stunningly beautiful monastery with unique churches.
The vineyards of Martvili Monastery were restored 10 years ago, and now they specialize in Ojaleshi wine from the local grape variety of the same name. It has already become a special source of pride for Samergelo. As Metropolitan Peter says, Ojaleshi is like a living creature. The monks are very careful and attentive to their wines and grapes; they talk to vines as if they were their loved ones or children.
In order to get wine with a strong concentrated taste, the monastery harvests the grapes after the first frost in November or December. Unfortunately, they lose about 25-30% of the total harvest, but the result are worth the cost. The sugar content of the berries reaches 23%, which is essential to give the wine the correct polyphenol ripeness. Thanks to this, many experts consider Ojaleshi from the Martvili monastery an exemplary wine from this grape.
Ateni Sioni Monastery
The Ateni Sioni Monastery is located close to Gori, the capital of the Shida-Cartli district in Central Georgia. The church of the monastery was built in the 7th century in a very scarcely populated place. Only at the beginning of the 12th century did the famous Georgian king David IV the Builder from the Bagrationi clan found the town of Gori not far from the monastery. The shape of the church building is different from that, which is characteristic for Byzanthium of that period. It is a tetraconchal church, meaning it is built in the shape of a square with a cross in it. The shape looks very natural in the mountain areas.
The wine cellar of the monastery has been here since 1027. The Metropolitan of Gori and Ateni Andriy and the monks of the diocese work tirelessly to restore the local grape varieties and create their own unique Atenuri wine, which expresses the ancient tradition of Kartli winemaking—blended wines. This feature is quite uncommon for other regions of Georgia, except for Imereti.
The monastery makes wine from the Goruli Mtsvane, Chinuri, Gorula and Budeshuri grape. Wine is blended depending on the properties of the grape harvested each year. Wine ages in qvevri for nine months, which is longer than in Kakheti, for example, but the climate of Kartli is colder, and only this amount of time is enough for the wine to age completely in qvevri. Then, the wine is poured into bottles and aged for two more years in cellars.
Greek monasteries started making wine in the era of Byzanthium, and the monasteries of Mount Athos were the best in the region. Over the centuries, their reputation and quality of their wines have maintained a consistently high status. And sure enough, they only use ancient authochtonous grape varieties, the pride of Greece. Traditionally, on Athos the old Limnio variety is used for blends (despite difficulties with cultivation). In addition, Mount Athos is the only place where this grape fully reveals its amazing qualities, and can balance out a blended wine. Greek monastic wines are an expression of God’s love for earth, and Epifanis wine from Great Lavra is one of the brightest examples of this.
Wine in France is both a lifestyle and an art. Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Loire Valley, Champagne, Alsace, the Rhone Valley, Languedoc, Provence… And this isn’t even mentioning the less famous wine regions! Wine in this country is produced almost everywhere, expect for Brittany and Normandy. The climate has the final say in everything, but on the other hand these regions have their own signature beverage—cider. Wine here comes in so many styles and kinds, that it’s even more interesting for us to take a closer look at the special wine made in monasteries. The French monastic wines find their strength first of all in their understanding of terroir in the cultivation of grapes.
The small island of Saint-Honorat is located in the sea some distance from Cannes (department of the Maritime Alps, Provence, Cote d’Azur region), the location of the famous film festival. Despite its proximity to the epicenter of secular life, this tiny island measuring in at just 1,500 by 400 meters, is nowadays a focal point of monastic life. Plus, the local monastery also played a huge role in the spread of Christianity in Europe.
The Lerins Abbey has a unique history. This is one of the historical centers of Christianity, which came along much earlier than when the European church was divided into western and eastern branches. In 410, Saint Honorat founded a monastery here, which eventually blossomed into an influential educational and spiritual center. Monks trained here in Christian studies, and went on to spread the Word of God throughout Europe. One of the most famous inhabitants and pupils of the Lerins Abbey is Saint Patrick, who was canonized as the divine patron of Ireland. Today he is worshiped by almost all Christian churches in Europe (except for several Protestant ones), and is known in the Orthodox tradition as St. Patrikiy.
The achievements of Lerins Abbey in winemaking are to a large extent associated with the Order of the Cistercians (Bernardines). This Order has always been renowned for their skills in the art of making wine. The Cistercians made a significant contribution to the development of winemaking thanks to their research in finding ideal combinations of grapes and terroir, and studying combinations of soils and grape varieties to maximize their properties.
Today, the vineyards of the abbey occupy an area of 8 hectares and produce a wine deserving of the highest praises. Local soils (limestone with geological vertical faults, allowing vines to pass between layers and absorb minerals) and climatic conditions (average annual rainfall of 300-400 ml) make it possible to achieve a rare, fresh taste and minerality in their wine.
Here they make a sophisticated and complex Cuvée Saint Salonius Pinot Noir. This is the most famous wine of the abbey; only 1,000 bottles are made and at that not even every year. The local monastic wines are another standard of quality. This success is so stunning because Pinot Noir is one of the most popular international grapes, and there are real titans of the wine market fighting for the title of best producer.
This wine was offered to the jury of the Cannes Film Festival, and attendees of the G20 summit in 2011. It qualifies as IGP Vin de pays de Méditerranée-Provence.
Monastery of Solan
The Monastery of Solan, also known as the Convent of the Intercession of the Mother of God, is the largest Orthodox monastery in France. It is located in Occitania, Southern France.
Initially, the monastery was founded by the monks of the Constantinople Patriarchate and belongs to the mission of the Holy Mount Athos. Soon after its foundation, nuns joined the monastery. The monastery continued to grow, and soon the nuns had the opportunity to purchase a large land plot in the mountains to establish the Convent of Intercession. The services in the church are held in French, making them quite popular among the locals. The abbot of the monastery is the Schema-Archimandrite Placide, who oversees wine production in the monastery.
The vineyards of the monastery are located on the northern slope of the Tave valley in the Cévennes. The soils here are rich in various sedimentary rocks, including marl and sandstone with limestone layers featuring ferriferous impregnations and quartzite.
Upon studying such rich terroir, the authorities of the monastery opted for the local grape varieties, which have been grown here traditionally throughout history, and concentrated on making wine oriented towards the nuances of the terroir. The monastery also does not make wine from just one grape variety, as is customary in the appellacion de Cévennes (Vin de Pays des Cévennes). They believe that the best way to express the temper of the local terroir is to make blended wine.
The vinification of grapes from each site is performed by the nuns themselves, and depends on the time of harvest and ripeness of the berries; labels are marked with the biodynamic and organic methods used in production.
The monastery produces white, red, rose wines and even a sparkling one. Here are some examples: Cuvee Saint Martin (Syrah, Grenache, Carignan and Cinsaut), Cuvee Saint Ambroise (Cabernet Franc, Carignan and Syrah), Cuvee Sainte Sophie (Claret and Vermentino). You can taste and buy them all in the monastery, and they are also sold in some shops in Paris.
Novacella Abbey (Abbazia di Novacella) was founded in 1142 by the blessed Hartmann, bishop of Brixen, and is associated with the Order of the Augustinians.
Over the centuries, the monastery has been a spiritual and cultural center, and of course has also produced wine, with residents studying the characteristics of the soil and climate, and how the local grapes grow in these conditions. The abbey produces wine with a bright character that has gained world fame and won multiple national and international awards, including Three Stars from Gambero Rosso. But the biggest gift the Abbey has given the world is their ecological terroir wines.
One interesting aspect of this monastery is its environmentally conscious production and eco-friendly marketing. Electricity in the Novacella Abbey has been being produced with a wood chip generator for more than twenty years. Indeed, the monastery won the EcoFriendly award for its merits in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. All this is likewise reflected in the conditions for grape cultivation and winemaking, where the monks try to make all the processes as harmless to the environment as possible.
The vineyards of the abbey belong to the northern-most wine production zone in Italy, Alto Adige in the Alps. Vineyards of white varieties (Silvaner, Mueller-Thurgau, Kerner, Gevurztraminer and Veltliner) are spread throughout the Isarco valley. This area is known for its relatively severe climate (altitude of 600-900 meters above sea level) and rich mineral soils. But the walls of the monastery protect the vines from winds, creating a special microclimate. The white wines of the Abbey feature ringing acid notes and amazing minerality.
For red wine, the Abbey uses southern lands closer to Bolzano, since the conditions aren’t as harsh. Lagrain, Pinot Noir, and Zweigelt grow here. All the wine in the monastery is made using traditional technology and stored in cellars. The best wines of the Novacella Abbey are included in the Praepositus collection, with the star being Praepositus Pinot Nero Riserva. The Abbey’s Pinot Nero (here this is how they call the Burgundian autochthonous Pinot Noir) is dense, with an intense cherry color and pronounced, but smooth tannins, accompanied by the subtle fragrances of berries, fruits, mown grass, mocha, and nutmeg.
The wine has a well-balanced, soft and velvety taste, pronounced fruitiness and a long aftertaste with notes of cigar and menthol. Pinot Noir can only be used to create a wine like this with nature’s blessing, and the monks here definitely succeeded in getting it.
Almost every monastery in Serbia produces wine in accordance with local traditions. Despite the fact that they make wine mostly for domestic use, it has still gained significant respect and recognition among the wider public.
Monasteries in Serbia conduct research and scientific works in winemaking, and are known for their participation in creating specialized vine cultivation schools. They also work to restore some of the rare and unique local grape varieties.
For example, monasteries in Žiće and Studenica cultivate a rare local variety called Prokupac.
And the Bukovo monastery is famous for its excellent Filigran Crna Tamjanika wine made from the Crna Tamyanika grape. The monks here have managed to restore a Muscat grape that almost disappeared recently, and successfully use it to make naturally semi-sweet wine, as the climate here allows the grape to accumulate just the right amount of sugar. These grapes can only be found in Bukovo and just a couple of places in Portugal and Italy. It is extremely hard to cultivate, and it simply won’t bloom in the wrong conditions, but the reward for all your efforts is worth it: the resulting wine features the unique aroma of roses, raisins and basil, and the fruity and flowery notes are combined with spices.
The Monastery of Tvrdos in Eastern Herzegovina (the residence of the bishop of the Khumsky Serbian Orthodox Church) cultivates the local variety Vranac. They have in fact been so successful in doing so, that enthusiasts can only buy Vranac from certain harvest years at select auctions, where the price of a single bottle can reach over 500 EUR.
In addition to Vranac, the monastery also produces white wines from the local Žilavka grape and also red from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, as well as brandy aged 11 years. The wine of Tvrdos has already gained international recognition and won several awards.
This level of success in monastic winemaking became possible thanks to the preservation of traditional technologies. This know-how is not replaced by modern techniques, but instead perfected; monks actively use both their trusted traditions and the knowledge they borrow from other famous wine regions. The Tvrdos monastery is a perfect example of this—its abbot Savva studied for several months in Bordeaux, and now he strives to combine the best of the two regions in his monastic wine.
The Vranac grape grows only in the Balkans, and almost every monastery in Montenegro makes wine using it. Vranac vines are quite strong, and can survive even in the most severe climatic conditions. The Ostrog monastery is home to one world-famous vine: according to legend, it grew where the old cell of St. Basil Ostrogsky was located, and is more than 300 years old. But the most surprising fact is that there is practically no soil in that area. The berries of Vranac have a very deep black color. In fact, the name Vranac means «raven,» which is a good indication of how dark they are. The quality of Vranac is maintained even when the harvests are larger as well (granted the right care). Luckily, the monks here know quite well how to cultivate it correctly.
Cetinje, Rezevici, and Ostrog are just some of the Montenegro monasteries currently cultivating Vranac. Their accumulated knowledge allows them to produce some curiously rich and balanced wines.
On the topic of the monastic wines of the Old World, we cannot ignore the Promised Land, where local monasteries produce original wines that are rarely put up for sale.
The Trappist monks built a monastery in Latrun, where they produce wonderful wines under the Domaine de Latroun brand. Out of all of them we would like to specifically mention Gewurztraminer, as this is the only place in Israel where this variety is cultivated. They also use Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Grenache, so as you might see, we can find a strong French influence in the local wine production here.
The winery of Beit Jimal monastery is focused on red wines. The Cremisan Monastery near Bethlehem is also famous for its wine. Both of them belong to the Order of Salesians, and today a monk from the Italian Padua is in charge of vinification, which of course influences the technology.
Monastic wines in other countries of the Old World
Monasteries in Moldova, Cyprus, and Ukraine today, as well as many years ago, continue to produce natural wines, which sometimes are prohibited to be taken beyond the walls of the monastery they were made in. These wines often do not contain any preservatives, and can only be tasted right in the monastery. This is true, for example, in the case of the wine from the Moldavian monastery of Saint Marta and Mary in Codri.
The monasteries make tremendous contributions to the preservation, study and cultivation of autochthonous grape varieties in their highest quality manifestation in native terroirs. Indeed, the monks research the abilities of the grape to transform the land they naturally grow on. Many monasteries are also engaged in selection work, which is becoming increasingly important in today’s changing climate. They do their best to find more frost-resistant grapes, and have enjoyed the most success in Kiev’s Pechersk Lavra.
It is crucial to note here that monastic winemaking continues to forge ahead in countries where Christian monasteries still exist, and where the climate is favorable for grape cultivation. Ever since the old times, Christian monasteries have been guarding and teaching the fact that wine is first of all a high-quality daily drink, which when consumed properly, nurtures the human body and soul.