Sacramental wine

Sacramental wine

Sacramental wine or Altar wine is wine prepared for use in Christian liturgy as part of the celebration of the Eucharist or the Lord's Supper. Some non-Christian faiths also use wine in their ceremonies, but would not describe it in these words.


The Eucharist is ultimately derived from the Paschal Seder, and the Berakah, during which Kosher wine, whose production is regulated by the Torah, is drunk.

In apostolic Christian ceremonies the wine, usually red, is thought to actually become the blood of Jesus Christ (the doctrine of transubstantiation), and in non-apostolic communities it is intended to symbolically represent it. Throughout the Ages Christians have used wine in this manner, at Eucharistic celebrations. In the earliest celebrations of the Eucharist the wine was consecrated and shared amongst all the people present. Consider 1 Corinthians 10:16-17 (Douay-Rheims Bible):

The chalice of benediction, which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? And the bread, which we break, is it not the partaking of the body of the Lord? For we, being many, are one bread, one body, all that partake of one bread.

Over time however, due to many factors, including hygiene and differences of doctrine, the communion wine became restricted to the celebrating ministers. The communion bread itself however was shared. When this occurred it became less important for the wine to be red, as the people did not see it. As churches became more elaborate and ceremonial altar cloths more expensive it became customary to use a white wine that would not stain the altar cloth if spilt.

With the Protestant Reformation came changes in large parts of Christianity regarding Sacramental theology. With this came a return to the wider sharing of "the cup" as well as changes in the concept of what was acceptable as altar wine. This also lead to a greater codification in the Catholic church with regards to what was and was not acceptable practice in terms of altar wines.

In Eastern churches, practices regarding drinking by the congregation of consecrated wine were more varied. A practice known as intinction was allowed in parts of the East in which the wine was drunk in union with the bread, the bread being dipped into the wine and distributed to the communicant. In other parts the communion wine was distributed to communicants with either a straw or a spoon .


Altar wine, or wine appropriate for use during communion, has been defined in many ways over the centuries, subject to certain criteria. The Code of Canon Law of the Roman Catholic Church (1983), Canon 924 (emphasis added):

§1 The most holy Sacrifice of the Eucharist must be celebrated in bread, and in wine to which a small quantity of water is to be added.
§2 The bread must be wheaten only, and recently made, so that there is no danger of corruption.
§3 The wine must be natural, made from grapes of the vine, and not corrupt.

This means that the wine must be naturally fermented with nothing added to it, and the wine itself cannot have soured or become vinegar, nor can it have anything artificial added to it (preservatives, flavours). Wines are made from Vitis vinefera grapes, generally but not always under clerical supervision. The Roman Catholic Church codified this further in a document, which at one time was included in all Missals published, called De Defectibus, On the defects which may occur during the Mass. One section, IV, was dedicated to defects of the wine. While the Roman Catholic Church generally adheres to the rule that all wine for sacramental use must be pure grape wine and alcoholic, it is accepted that there are some circumstances, where the priest is an alcoholic for example, where it may be necessary to use a non-alcoholic wine, in these cases specially made Mustum.

One exception was historically made in the Roman Catholic Church regarding additives to wine. That was this directive published in 1896 by the Inquisition (and Reprinted in the Catholic Encyclopaedia):

To conserve weak and feeble wines, and in order to keep them from souring or spoiling during transportation, a small quantity of spirits of wine (grape brandy or alcohol) may be added, provided the following conditions are observed:

  1. The added spirit (alcohol) must have been distilled from the grape (ex genimime vitis);
  2. the quantity of alcohol added, together with that which the wine contained naturally after fermentation, must not exceed eighteen per cent of the whole;
  3. the addition must be made during the process of fermentation.

The majority of mainstream liturgical churches require that sacramental wine should be pure grape wine. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, for example, sacramental wine used in the Divine Liturgy must usually be pure red grape wine, often sweet, though this is not required. Greek churches favour the use of Mavrodaphne or Nama, while Russian churches favour Kagor. Wines with additives, such as retsina are not allowed.

However some Christian churches disapprove of the consumption of alcohol, especially by children, and hold that it is acceptable to substitute grape juice for wine (see Christianity and alcohol). These denominations include Pentecostals, Baptists, The Salvation Army, and other Evangelical groups. In this case generally only pasteurized grape juice is used.


Throughout the world there are many wineries that exist either solely for the production of Sacramental wines, or with Sacramental wines as a sideline. The same is true of wine used by other religions; e.g., kosher wine. Many of these wineries are small and run by religious brethren or priests. In Australia, for example, Austrian Jesuits founded the oldest existing winery in the Claire Valley in 1851 to make sacramental wines. Producing over 90,000 litres of wine annually, this winery supplies all of the Australian region's sacramental wine needs. .

The wine industries of whole wine growing regions have been founded on the Church's need for Sacramental wine, for example in California, Argentina, and Chile.


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