In Search of the Last Supper Wine
Earlier this week, I had a
now not-so-brilliant last minute idea: I thought it would be cool to, for Maundy Thursday, pay homage to the Last Supper by drinking a wine similar to what Jesus and the Disciples may1 have drank at the Last Supper. I am, after all, a formerly2 good Catholic school boy and Seminarian. Nowadays, I am just your usual sinner abominated by the Old Testament not only because I drink lots of wine.
In my scholarly3 research through Cyberspace library, I came across a writer I shall not reference who (briefly) argued that Primitivo was the wine Jesus drank at the Last Supper. This, he derived from his assertion that Primitivo is the oldest varietal, and must have been the wine “served” at the Last Supper. I have a feeling that writer also believed Jesus to be Italian, false, of course; but nonetheless, supported his quick claim on Primitivo’s grandeur. Well, buddy, sorry, despite the dominance of Jesus’ light hair, blue eyed portrait all over Italia, historians actually assert that the wino Messiah is from the Middle East: Born in Bethlehem, lived in Nazareth, and was crucified in Golgotha (near Old Jerusalem). It makes more sense to think that the wine Jesus shared at the Last Supper was a Jerusalem-made wine.
According to Father Daniel Kendall, S.J., “[t]he Last Supper most likely took place on the Thursday celebration of the Passover, according to three of the four Gospels:”
The Gospels give a date of around A.D. 30. From the descriptions it was most likely a Seder meal. Since it was and is the most important of Jewish feasts, wine would have been part of the festivities. Unlike John the Baptist, Jesus drank wine
The wine present would have had to pair well with traditional Seder fare, which includes: maror or chazeret, a type of bitter herb; charoset, a sweet, brown, pebbly paste of fruits and nuts; karpas, a vegetable (usually parsley or celery) that is dipped into salt water before eating; zeroa, a roasted lamb shank bone or chicken wing; and beitzah, a hard-boiled egg.
Ok, now we have the most probable location and time of the year for the Last Supper. Let’s move on to exploring the likely suspects for wine varietals. This is tricky: One, although there are hundreds of references to wine in the Bible, none of those references specified the style or varietal. Two, the wine drank in Biblical times was very different from wine currently made even in the same wine regions. Little is known about the grape varieties available then, and ancient winos were not as obsessed as we are regarding the varietal or region of wine origin, otherwise those would have been documented. Vivino published an interesting piece on the subject:
While watering down wine was common practice in classical civilization, Jerusalem prefered rich wines. Isaiah (1.21-22) criticizes the city by comparing it to wine cut with water.
In an inland city of Judah, archeologists found a jar with the inscription, “Wine made from black raisins.” Winemakers may have dried out grapes on the vine or on mats in the sun to concentrate the grapes and create a very sweet and thick wine. Elsewhere in the region, archeologists have found jars with inscriptions like “smoked wine” and “very dark wine.”
Mixing wine with spices, fruits and especially tree resin was common practice. Winemakers believed that tree resins like myrrh, frankincense and terebinth preserved wine and helped stave off wine spoilage. They’d also add things like pomegranates, mandrakes, saffron and cinnamon to enhance the flavor of the wine.
We can conclude that there was a skilled winemaking culture present during the time of the Last Supper and that around Jerusalem, vintners made strong wines, often mixed with tree resins, spices and fruits.
According to Dr. Patrick McGovern,4 the wine people at Jesus’ time may have drunk may be similar to Amarone. Since the varietal and style is mainly Italian, I will explore such direction in a future feature and I will stay in the Middle East, for the purpose of my stubbornness.
In continuation of my pursuit, I googled “Jerusalem wines” and actually got an elegant site for Jerusalem wineries. Their Shiraz got 93 points from Wine Enthusiast. That would have been perfect, but because of my timing, the shipment would not have arrived by Good Friday. 5
I called wine distributors, local wine shops, but none, unfortunately, carried wines from Jerusalem on their inventory. I even called the Jewish Center but they were unable to provide me with resources, either. So expanded my regional preference to any wines from Lebanon or Israel, and found a few options. Stay tuned.
Inspiration and References:
Searching for the Wine from the Last Supper
What Would Jesus Drink: A Class on Ancient Wines Asks
Winemaking in Israel
When was the Last Supper: Wednesday or Thursday?
- Because none of the Gospel writers specified the varietal or region of origin.
- I cannot emphasize this MORE.
- Yes, that was a prompt for laughter.
- Dr. Patrick E. McGovern is the Scientific Director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia. He is also an Adjunct Professor of Anthropology.
- My sister tells me I need a Blogging calendar. She’s right.