I recently was at a tasting that included D’Angelo Aglianico del Vulture. This red wine is made with 100% Aglianico (ah-YAH-nee-koe) grapes. During the tasting it was mentioned that Aglianico is one of the grapes that is on a short list of wines that may have been served at the Last Supper! If there is anything I love more than the wine itself, it is the stories about them — and that’s a pretty good story!
I bought a bottle of the wine and started doing a little research to see what I could find out about this Last Supper theory. It didn’t take long to learn that there is no way to get a definitive answer to what was in Jesus’ cup. Nevertheless, what I did learn is some absolutely fascinating wine history.
Aglianico grapes are grown in the same regions today as they were then — the Basilicata region of Italy where the wine is known as Aglianico Del Vulture because they grow on the slopes of the Vulture volcano, and also in Campania, where they are identified by the sub-region and called Taurasi, which is a DOCG. Taurasi is near Pompeii — it seems these grapes love volcanic ash soil. The wines are hearty, tannic reds that, like many of Italy’s red grapes, age extremely well.
So how did an Italian grape get on the short list for wine served at the Last Supper — keeping in mind that this event took place in Israel? Well, it was around 30 A.D., so about 57 years into the reign of the Roman Empire. Aglianico was one of three grapes that were used in Falerian wine. Falerian wine was the best of the best in these ancient times, considered to be the “first growth” or top quality wines of the Roman Empire. If you were dining with King Herod or King David, it is a safe bet that Falerian wine would be served. I can see the logic in thinking that an event as important as the Last Supper, hosted by the King of Kings, would include the finest wine. But would a humble carpenter, who associated with the poor and wayward, really have served the Bordeaux of the day at the Last Supper?
Interesting to me also, is the fact that Falerian wine was white. My personal assumption is that the wine at the Last Supper would have been red, but there is no proof that it was and white wine was just as common as red wine during this time in history. A little side research revealed that white wines are in fact used in Christian sacraments, so thinking that the wine was red is nothing more than my own personal bias. So, I guess it is certainly possible that this was the Last Supper wine, but I just don’t think it was.
So, if not Aglianico, then what? While researching for this article, it seemed that all wine history begins and ends with the Roman Empire. Now, I’m not arguing the importance and influence of the Roman Empire on the history of wine, BUT, wine making in the Middle East is well documented and pre-date’s the Roman Empire. The region is literally the cradle of early viticulture. There is conflicting information regarding the oldest documented grape pips — one source says they were found in in Georgia dating back to 6,000 B.C. — another says they were found in modern Turkey, Syria and Lebanon and date back to the Stone Age (circa 8000 B.C.). It is estimated Noah’s vineyard was planted near Turkey in 3000 BC. although some scholars think it was much earlier than that. Regardless, it was from this region wine making is first documented — from here it travelled to Phoenicia and Egypt which were eventually invaded and conquered by Rome.
So, this has me thinking, even though the Romans had already conquered Jerusalem at this point, there is a really good possibility that the wine served at the Last Supper was just a common, locally made wine. Afterall, Jesus lived and died in Israel.
I once heard someone say that it was Sangria that is most likely the closest thing to the wine at the Last Supper. There is some basis in fact for this line of reasoning. Local wine making processes were not very evolved, often involving crushing with feet and inclusion of pips and stems. The resulting wine was a bit harsh and things like tree resin, spices, honey, herbs and fruit were added to offset the tannic properties. Wines were also watered down to dilute the harshness. Diluted wine with fruit – sounds like Sangria right?
Another possibility is a wine called Passum. Passum is a type of wine made from dried grapes. Ancient jars have been unearthed in Judah that were inscribed with the words “wine made from black raisins.” Although Passum is said to have originated in Carthage and spread to Italy with no mention of Israel, raisin wine was a common wine not only in the Roman Empire, but apparently it is a common wine to include in Seder meals during Passover. The Last Supper was a Seder meal so this makes sense. There is definitive evidence that this wine was in Judah, which really is the best documented evidence available. Here is an ancient Passum Recipe from Carthage on how to make the wine.
The hills and moutains surrounding Judea have a long history of wine making, well before the night of the Last Supper. In fact, the Judean Hills is a modern day Israeli wine region. Here is a map of modern Israel wine regions and some viticulture data. Amazingly, Israel is considered a New World wine region which doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. I assume it is because modern day wine production did not begin until the late 19th century when French Baron Edmond de Rothschild, owner of the Bordeaux estate Château Lafite-Rothschild, developed an interest in the region. He is said to have imported vines of French grape varieties and wine making knowledge to the region. In 1882, he helped establish the Carmel Winery the largest wine producer in Israel — fascinating!
So, while I will certainly still enjoy my Aglianico, I decided to add a bottle of Isreali wine to Easter dinner — maybe I’ll even make Sangria with it! I really wanted to find a wine from the Judean Hills, but they are harder to find. Apparently Galilee is where its at.
I think it is safe to say we will never know for sure what wine was served at the Last Supper, but we do know that wine was served, which is really all that matters!
Cheers! Shalom! Happy Easter! Happy Passover!
Peace and Love.