Visit to New Clairvaux: Sacred Stones and Altar Wine with Brandy

IMG_5361A couple of weeks ago we went up to the Abbey of New Clairvaux in Vina for a little field trip. The Sacred Stones project is ongoing, and is a reconstruction of an actual 12th-century Cistercian Chapter House that was originally built in Spain. It’s a fascinating story how it was purchased by William Randolph Hearst, transported to California in the 1930s, and then forgotten for decades, before it came to belong to New Clairvaux. The monks hope to actually use the Chapter House when construction is completed.

The Chapter House was a very important structure for medieval monastic communities, second in importance only to the abbey church. While most liturgical celebrations occurred in the church, the Chapter House would be a meeting place for the community, used in some places and situations for the Liturgy of the Hours, and also for voting and elections, such as selection of a new abbot.



Detail of Column: notice the “old” original stone column base on the left versus the newly cut on the right


Detail of stone wall: notice the rough ancient stones intermixed with newly cut stones

Another major project at New Clairvaux is the vineyard and production of high quality table wines. The climate at the Abbey is not as temperate as Napa Valley or the coastal areas. It gets quite hot, well into the 100s in the summertime, and conventional wisdom held that growing grapes in such climate would not produce excellent wine. The monks, with the help of a third-generation Napa winemaker, have wisely chosen grape varietals that do well in the Mediterranean, and can tolerate the extreme Northern Californian heat.

Screen Shot 2014-01-30 at 4.33.46 PMWe went to the tasting room, and tried the Abbey Angelica, which is being marketed as a dessert wine. Angelica is billed as “the oldest wine of America,” which “was first made by Franciscan monks in the 1700’s.” The Abbey Angelica is made from “100% Muscat grapes and is fortified with pure grape brandy. It’s aroma are of sweet baked figs with similar flavors plus honey. The wine has a warm alcohol feel with a sweet, lingering finish.”

I looked at the label, and noticed some other very interesting information: Abbey Angelica was originally created as an altar wine for use by the monks at New Clairvaux, and is claimed to be licit for use in the Eucharistic Liturgy pursuant to the Code of Canon Law.

But, the label also indicates that Abbey Angelica is fortified with brandy, and I was under the impression that only the fermented juice of grapes (i.e., wine) can be used for the Eucharistic celebration, while brandy is a distilled spirit. 

How is it that Abbey Angelica — or wine fortified with “pure grape brandy” — can be used at Mass?

Section 3 of Canon 924 of the Code of Canon Law, states that the wine used for Mass must be “natural, made from grapes of the vine, and not corrupt.” This, standing alone, would seem to indicate that wine fortified with brandy, even a pure grape brandy, could not be used.

In 2004, the Congregation for Divine Worship issued an Instruction entitled Redemptionis Sacramentum, “on certain matters to be observed or to be avoided regarding the Most Holy Eucharist”. Paragraph 50 of the Instruction deals with the wine that can be used:

[50.] The wine that is used in the most sacred celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice must be natural, from the fruit of the grape, pure and incorrupt, not mixed with other substances. During the celebration itself, a small quantity of water is to be mixed with it. Great care should be taken so that the wine intended for the celebration of the Eucharist is well conserved and has not soured. It is altogether forbidden to use wine of doubtful authenticity or provenance, for the Church requires certainty regarding the conditions necessary for the validity of the sacraments. Nor are other drinks of any kind to be admitted for any reason, as they do not constitute valid matter.

This does not appear to explicitly deal with the addition of grape brandy to wine, but does generally regard the need for the wine used at Mass to be “from the grape, pure and incorrupt, not mixed with other substances.”

However, in 1896 the Congregation of the Inquisition (now the Congregation for the Defense of Faith) issued a directive on additives to sacramental wine, published in Acta Sanctae Sedis (see the Catholic Encyclopedia entry on Altar Wine for translation):

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.

Thus, altar wine such as Abbey Angelica may contain a measure of “pure grape brandy” so long as the brandy is added during the fermentation process, made from grapes and the total alcohol content does not exceed 18% (the alcohol content of Angelica is “18.0%”).

Apart from use at the altar, it would be quite delicious at dessert, especially if paired with berries or fruit, or — even better — a cheese course.


One thought on “Visit to New Clairvaux: Sacred Stones and Altar Wine with Brandy

  1. Pingback: The Vineyard Project: Vintage 2014 Update | Quartermaster of the Barque

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