Sacramental wine, Communion wine or altar wine is wine obtained from grapes and intended for use in celebration of the Eucharist (referred to also as the Lord's Supper or Holy Communion). The same wine, if intended for use in ceremonies of non-Christian religions or for ordinary use, would not normally be described by these terms.
Wine was used in the earliest celebrations of the Lord's Supper: "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."
In the Early Church both clergy and laity received the consecrated wine by drinking from the chalice, after receiving a portion of the consecrated bread.
Due to many factors, including the difficulty of obtaining wine in Northern European countries where the climate was unsuitable for growing grapes, drinking from the chalice became largely restricted in the West to the celebrating priest, while others received communion in the form of bread only. This also reduced the symbolic importance of choosing wine of red colour.
Leaders who accepted the Protestant Reformation, such as the Lutheran Church, insisted on use of wine in celebrating the Lord's Supper. As a reaction to this, even in those Western European countries that, while remaining Roman Catholic had continued to give the chalice to the laity, this practice faded out, in order to emphasize Catholic belief that the whole Christ is received under either form. The Eastern Churches in full communion with Rome continued to give the Eucharist to the faithful under the forms of both bread and wine. The twentieth century, especially after the Second Vatican Council, saw a return to more widespread sharing in the Eucharist under the forms of both bread and wine. In the Anglican Communion (including the Church of England and the Episcopal Church in America), wine is still part of the Holy Eucharist.
In the Eastern Orthodox Church the clergy continued to receive the consecrated wine by drinking directly from the chalice, but in order to avoid the danger of accidentally spilling some of the Blood of Christ the practice was developed of placing the consecrated Body of Christ in the chalice and administering Holy Communion to the faithful, under both species, with a sacramental spoon.
The Coptic Orthodox Church continues the ancient practice to this day.
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, Methodists, the Salvation Army, and other Evangelical groups. In this case generally only pasteurized grape juice is used, though exceptions exist.
In Eastern Christianity sacramental wine is usually red, to better symbolize its change from wine into the blood of Jesus Christ as is believed to happen at the table of the Eucharist. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, wine used for the Divine Liturgy must be fermented, red grape wine.
In most liturgical rites, like in the Latin, Byzantine, Antiochene, the Alexandrian rites, a small quantity of water is poured in the wine when the chalice is prepared, while in the Armenian Rite the wine is consecrated without the previous mingling of water. In the Byzantine Rite some warm water, referred to as the zeon (Greek: "boiling") is added to the consecrated wine shortly before the Communion.
There are four manners in which communion is received under the form of wine. All four are admitted in the Latin Rite of the Roman Catholic Church. Eastern Churches usually use only one in normal circumstances. One way is for the communicant to drink directly from the chalice of consecrated wine. Another is by intinction, whereby the consecrated bread is partially dipped into the consecrated wine and then placed in the mouth of the communicant. Another way, used in the Eastern Orthodox Church and other Churches that use the Byzantine Rite, is for the consecrated bread to be placed in the chalice of consecrated wine and to be given, using a spoon, to the faithful together the liquid that it has absorbed. The fourth way is for the communicant to drink a little from the chalice using a metal tube or "straw" (Latin: fistula).
Catholic Church canons
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 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 vinifera grapes, generally but not always under clerical supervision. The 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 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 wine that is only minimally fermented, called mustum.
One exception was historically made in the Roman Catholic Church regarding wine-derived additives to wine. That was this directive published in 1896 by the Congregation of the Inquisition:
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:
- The added spirit (alcohol) must have been distilled from the grape (ex genimime vitis);
- the quantity of alcohol added, together with that which the wine contained naturally after fermentation, must not exceed eighteen per cent of the whole;
- the addition must be made during the process of fermentation.
Some purveyors of sacramental wine for use in the Catholic Church currently use the following private responsum as license to add sulfites to sacramental wine as a preservative:
"Mass Wine: Treated with Sulphurous Anhydride, Etc. (Holy Office) Private.
The Holy Office was asked by the Archbishop of Tarracona: Whether in the Sacrifice of the Mass, wine may be used which is made from the juice of the grape, treated with sulphurous anhydride or with potassium bisulphite.
Reply. In the affirmative.
(Private) ; Holy Office, 2 Aug., 1922.
Not published in the AAS; cf. Il Monitore, Oct., 1923, p. 289."
Throughout the world there are some wineries that exist either solely for the production of sacramental wines, or with sacramental wines as an auxiliary business. The same is true of wine used by other religions, e.g., kosher wine. These wineries are small and often run by religious brothers, priests or dedicated laity.
In Australia, for example, Australian Jesuits founded the oldest existing winery in the Clare 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 oldest still-producing vineyard founded for sacramental wine production in the United States is O-Neh-Da Vineyard in the Finger Lakes Wine Region of New York State, founded by Bishop Bernard J. McQuaid in 1872.
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- Code of Canon Law, 1983
- "Catholic Encyclopaedia: Altar Wine". Newadvent.org. 1907-03-01. Retrieved 2012-03-05.
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- Vickers, Tara (2006-12-15). "Sacramental Wine". Abc.net.au. Retrieved 2012-03-05.