Pius II had a predilection for milk. Benedict XVI drank orange Fanta. And Pope Francis? While Francis is known for drinking mate, an Argentinian tea, it seems that the current Pope’s palate is a bit more refined. Pope Francis – or Jorge Mario Bergoglio – is also a wine aficionado. The taste for wine runs in the family. His grandfather was a winemaker near Asti in Piedmont, Italy, typically known for its bubbly dessert wines. Giovanni Angelo Bergoglio produced, however, a slightly tannic red also from Asti called Grignolino. According to the former mayor, Giovanni made “the best Grignolino in the region.” Love for this wine, whose name comes from the word in the local dialect for “grape seed” was passed on to his grandson. Among his letters back and forth with his relatives in Piedmont, Cardinal Bergoglio always had many bottles of Grignolino sent to Argentina.
True to his roots, Francis is showing his support for the wine world. On Wednesday, January 21, he is scheduled to meet 150 of Italy’s biggest names in wine including producers, sommeliers, journalists as well as Angelo Gaja of the winery by the same name, Nicolò Incisa of Tenuta San Guido, and Franco Bernabei of Banfi Wines. At the helm of those meeting with Pope Francis will be Franco Ricci, director of the Italian wine guide Bibenda and president of the Italian Sommelier Foundation.
“The Pope loves wines and drinks it at meals,” Ricci said, so “I wrote him asking for an audience with a large group of people in our field.” Soon after, Ricci got the okay from the prefect of the Pontifical Household, the institution which organizes the Pope’s meetings, and next thing he knew, the audience was scheduled for 21 January.
Recently Francis tasted three excellent examples of Vin Santo (or “holy wine”). Before taking his family to meet the Holy Father on December 13, Matteo Renzi, the Prime Minister of Italy, turned to Franco Ricci for advice on what to bring the Holy Father as a gift. The two decided on some of the best dessert wine that the Chianti region of Tuscany has to offer. Francis was presented with three bottles of Vin Santo, produced by Fontodi, Felsina and Vignamaggio. Used historically during the Church’s solemn liturgies, Renzi and Ricci found the perfect gift for the Pope.
While he may not be a sommelier, the Pope certainly appreciates wine like one. He understands the importance of a good vintage and the concept of aging wine. Last summer he compared the heart to a fine wine. “Fine wine gets better with age! A heart that isn’t luminous is like bad wine: with time it spoils and becomes vinegar,” he said. On another occasion he stressed the importance of the elderly to modern society, calling them “a fine vintage wine.” “They have within themselves the power to give us this noble inheritance.” By comparing grandparents to an excellent vintage, such as a 1985 Sassicaia, Francis demonstrated that he not only enjoys wine but also understands oenology.
Needless to say, Francis is not about to ban wine like Pope Leo XII did. According to the Pope himself: “There is no party without wine!” Recalling to thousands of engaged couples in St Peter’s Square in February of last year the Gospel passage of the Wedding at Cana when Jesus turns water into wine, the Pope used the image of wine to speak of the presence of God in our lives. However it’s clear he also values a glass of good vino: “Imagine drinking tea at the end of a celebration,” he said. “No, it’s not good! There is no party without wine!”
Pope Francis also understands the essential nature of wine even in other religions. His old friend Abraham Skorka, the Chief Rabbi of Argentina, came to the Vatican in September 2013, when Jews all over the world were celebrating Rosh Hashanah, then Yom Kippur and Sukkot. During the Rabbi’s stay he was invited to share daily meals with the Holy Father, who ensured that they had the kosher wine needed to say Kiddush. The meals were also moments when the Rabbi needed to say a special blessing, the Pope with the utmost respect, gave his friend the time to pray, saying: “Do what you need to do.”
Just because Pope Francis likes wine and understands its importance doesn’t mean he is an expert on all spirits. Last summer the Pontiff mistakenly stated in an address that grappa comes from wine. He was correct in stating that in order to make grappa an “alambico” or still is used. However, grappa is not made out of wine or grape juice, it is made from the discarded grape seeds, stems and stalks. (Perhaps Franco Ricci and those at the upcoming audience can also give him a quick sommelier lesson!) In any case the Pope also made it clear he wasn’t interested in drinking grappa. During his visit to Brazil in 2013 he told the Brazilians that when he is welcomed into someone’s house, he prefers water or coffee, “not a glass of grappa,” he said. His real wish, he explained was “to knock on every door and say ‘good morning’” to the people.
And this is the true spirit of Pope Francis. He prefers going out to meet the people and when he speaks to them he draws on images and ideas in a direct and meaningful way. Because Francis enjoys wine and understands its vital nature in culture and religion, he draws on it, connecting with people all over the world. After all, the penchant for wine runs in his blood.