Wine and Papal "Firsts"

Here in Philly, we are growing a little bit obsessed with Pope Francis’ September visit.  This is due, in part, to the large numbers of people expected and the onerous security measures being put in place.  For his visit and the concurrent World Meeting of Families, a regulated secure-zone of ca 100,000 residents will swell by 1.5 million people. We will see multiple fences and checkpoints. Bridges and highways are being closed, and transport within the city regulated and confined.

But, this being Philly, we are having some fun in the face of the burdens.  Anticipation about the security zones and fences has spawned a new genre of public-planning map, and Pope Francis (a “Frank”) has been added onto a mural of “Franks”  at the beloved-bar, Dirty Franks (n.b. for those of you visiting Philly? *Do* take a mural tour…).  But, what did the Wining Archaeologist do?  Plan some pope-centric wine tastings, that’s what. For our “Days of Wine and Popes”, I’ve planned 3 tastings, each centered around some aspect of the papacy.  2000 years of history yields a lot of “firsts”, and our first tasting focused on wine surrounding novel persons or events.  This tasting took us to Lombardy – the birthplace of the first sovereign of Vatican City, and to Canada where the first Polish Pope became the first to visit our neighbors to the North.  We visited the pulpit in Auvergne for the call to the first crusade, went to the home of the first Pope from Dalmatia, and ended at the Sardinian exile of the first Pope to resign.

Pope map Francis on FranksSt Peter256px-Coat_of_arms_of_the_Vatican.svg

First of all these firsts, however, is a brief intro. Who is the pope?  Well, it is currently Francis, of course.  But, in general, the person of the pope is the Bishop of Rome and the head of the world-wide Catholic church, and is considered to be an infallible authority.  Pope Francis is officially Pope #266. St. Peter, the apostle, is considered to have been the first, from the time he was given the keys to heaven. Those keys feature in the Vatican’s coat-of-arms. In addition to such heraldry, there is also much regalia associated with the pontiff (as the Pope is also called).  Among these are the many mitres and tiaras that adorn the pope’s head. The tiara is any of the papal crowns, ranging from the simple “cone” to the elaborate, triple-crown triregnum.  The origin of the tiara is not completely known or understood , which allows me reign to speculate.  Speaking solely of the more elaborate crowns – and not the simple cones – there is a known resemblance to the headgear of Byzantine emperors, which would have been known to their contemporaries.  That there was comparison and adaptation (at least for show) of each other’s crowns is suggested by the 4-tier crown (one more than that of the Pope as adopted in the 14th century!) adorning the head of Suleiman the Magnificent in a 15th century engraving.  But, I prefer to link the Popes’ elaborate version to a much earlier representation in the form of the horned cap worn by the Sumerian god Enki (Akkadian Ea).  Enki embodied wisdom, mischief, creation, and virility in his oceanic kingdom beneath the earth, known as the Abzu.  Enki is often shown wearing his horned crown and robes and his main associates also wear a horned crown.  Lending greater weight to this “argument” is the similarity of the papal mitre to other headgear worn by different associates of Enki’s, the apkallu.  The apkallu were sages who served Enki and conveyed wisdom about civilization to the early kings of Mesopotamia. They were half-animal, half-human creatures often portrayed as fish people.  Notably, the open-mouth of the fish-head hat resembles the papal mitre.  The latter is an oft-made argument, from at least the 19th century, though often confuses various gods, associates, and attributes.  Regardless, it is fun to imagine the Pope wearing a fish.
Clement_VIII_mosaicSuleiman_Agostino Benedict Mitre Apkallu



The Pope lives in the Apostolic Palace – which hosts St. Peter’s Basilica, among other “rooms” – in the sovereign city-state within Rome known as the Vatican.  As the Bishop of Rome, the Pope is also the ruler of the Vatican. Its sovereignty is not so old, and provides our first “first”.

1st “First”: Pope Pius XI and Franciacorta

Pius XI served as Pope from 1922-39, and was the first sovereign of Vatican City.  It was also Pius XI who helped secure the sovereignty of that city-state.

For the bulk of its post-Roman (era) history, the modern borders of Italy contained numerous, independent, states and kingdoms.  In the early 19th century, it remained divided between independent monarchs, the mighty House of Savoy, the House of Bourbon, a crown land of the Austrian Kingdom, and the Papal States, with their capital at Rome.  The process of reunification (Italian Risorgimento), was led partly by the House of Savoy, whose king Emmanuel Vittorio II was named King of Italy in 1861 following unification of all of Italy, save Rome. Rome, itself, was under the protection of the French army, but when those troops were called to help support France in its war of 1870 with Prussia, the Italian Kingdom captured Rome and made it Italy’s capital.  Following the loss of the Papal States, leaders of the church felt imprisoned in Vatican City; thus, for his efforts at Risorgimento, Emmanuel II was excommunicated from the Catholic Church.  As a result, Emmanuel was not buried at St. Peter’s Basilica, whose grottoes included the tombs of church leaders as well as some other secular rulers, but at the Pantheon – whose decorative interior had been pilfered by the Church to decorate their own Basilica, for instance by taking bronze for the making of Bernini’s monumental Baldicchino.

256px-Papst_Pius_XI._1JS256px-Brooklyn_Museum_-_Caricature_of_King_Victor_Emmanuel_II_-_Thomas_Nast_-_overall Italy_unification_1815_1870St._Peter's_Baldachin_by_Bernini





While the church and the pope remained in Vatican City after Rome’s capture, the Vatican was under the control of the Italian State. In the early-20th century, Victor Emmanuel II’s grandson – Victor Emmanuel III – ruled Italy and appointed Benito Mussolini his Prime Minister. It was through an accord with Mussolini that Pius XI gained Vatican City’s sovereignty.  In 1929, they signed the Lateran Treaty; in addition to the Vatican, the Pope received financial support from the State, and the State received vocal support from the Church.  Pius XI, being a pope, was buried in the Vatican grottoes under Saint Peter’s Basilica.

Though buried in Rome, Pius XI was born in a place called Desio.  Desio is in western Lombardy, in the heart of Franciacorta country.  Franciacorta is Italy’s premier sparkling wine, made in the methodo classico – the same method as champagne, with lees-aging and secondary fermentation in the bottle.  Just east of Desio is the town of Adro near Lake Iseo.  The hilly land has soils that are glacier-lain and chock full of fossils – great for chardonny and pinot noir (nero).  Here lies the Franciacorta estate of Cornaleto.  It was founded in 1968 by Luigi Lancini.  This brings us, finally, to our first wine!

Cornaleto Franciacorta Pas Dosé Riserva 1998 DOCG

CornaletoThis wine is made from all of Franciacorta’s permissible grapes: mainly chardonnay, but also with smaller amounts of pinot nero and pinot bianco. , This wine is aged for a remarkable 12 years on lees, with another few months aging after disgorgement. As the name implies, there is no dosage; this means no sugar is added after disgorgement.  The winemakers, in their wisdom, recommend the following pairings:


  •  Oysters and shellfish in general
  • Eels and sardines grilled
  • Mullets Livornese

Sounds great to me!  But, this wine needs no food.  It is fantastic.  The golden yellow color is an immediate indication that this is not typical sparkling wine. The 12-year on-lees aging makes for a full body with a good creaminess.  Macintosh apples, asian pears, and some peach are present. The brioche is light, and bubbles are fine and of medium intensity. It is a pleasure to drink.

2nd “First”:  Pope John Paul II and Canadian Riesling

John Paul II was Pope from 1978-2005.  He was born in Wadowice, near Krakow, making him the first Pope from Poland, ending a 450 year run of Italian Popes.  He traveled to 129 countries during his reign – more than any other Pope and more than most other heads of state.  Like other heads of state, the Pope flies in comfort.  While the Vatican does not own a private jet, “Shepherd One” – as it has sometimes been nicknamed – is chartered from either Al Italia, or an airline in the departing country.

Several of the places John Paul II visited were papal “firsts”, including a visit in 1979 to the White House, which was then-inhabited by the Baptist Carters.  He was the first standing Pope to visit the UK, first modern Pope to visit Egypt, and the first Pope to visit Canada.  He actually visited Canada several times, but his first visit was in 1984. It lasted roughly 2 weeks and drew huge crowds. While in Canada, the pope traveled by “Popemobile” – really, a converted pick-up truck, “Popeboat”, and helicopter!  He started in Quebec City and, on his way west, stopped in many places, including Toronto, Edmonton, and Vancouver.  He then finished back in Ottawa. You can read more on his trip, here.

PopeJPII PopeMobile pope boat Helicopter





In his travels around Toronto, he would have passed near to the Niagara Peninsula, one of Ontario’s four wine regions.  The Niagara Peninsula has many wineries, including the Cave Spring Cellars in Jordan.  The winery was founded in 1985, just after the Pope’s first visit.  But, the Penechetti family had already planted grape vines on the property in 1978 – just prior to John Paul’s II election to Pope.  The Niagara peninsula is pretty far North, but has great growing conditions for wine.  Cave Spring sits in the “Beamsville Bench”, a plateau that slopes from steep cliffs.  The vineyards are planted on well-drained slopes beneath the escarpment cliffs, and the soils are composed of limestone, clay, sandstone, and shale. The Great Lake provides temperature moderation in the cold climate, and springs stemming from caves at the base of the escarpment provide underground nourishment for the vines during drier weather.

Cave Spring Riesling Estate 2012

CaveSpringRieslingThis is 100% Riesling from the oldest vines in their Beamsville Bench vineyards.  The wine is aged on the lees for 4 months.  Partial tasting-notes from the winery are fun: “(t)he nose offers bright, intense aromas of star anise, citrus rind and orange blossom and nuances of pastry crust, white flowers and thyme.” Pastry crust?  That is a new one for a still wine for me, but why not? From my perspective, the wine has beautiful, almost tropical, fruits.  There is definite peach and an orangey-citrus.  The mouth is full and the flavors are complex.  I found it to be a touch lacking in acid, but that was a minority opinion.  Despite the northern latitude, this wine drinks “warm”.  Much enjoyed.


3rd “First”: Pope Urban II and Saint Pourçain

Urban II was pope from 1088-99.  He was born Odo of Lagery, which is in the Champagne region.  But, his “first” takes us to the Auvergne region where he called the Council of Clermont in 1095.  At this council, the pope called for the first crusade, granting anyone who “took the cross” – that is, participated in the Crusade – remission of their sins and entrance into heaven.  The stated goal of the Crusade was to “liberate” the Eastern (Eastern Holy Roman Empire) churches from Seljuk Turks, and recapture Jerusalem.  The Church’s claim to these Eastern lands in modern Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Israel stemmed from their perceived cultural patrimony as successors to the Roman Empire; Pompey’s successful campaigns in Asia Minor and Syria in the 1st century BC led to annexation of these lands, which became Roman provinces under the Imperial reorganization of Augustus.  However, much of that southern region was under the control of successive Persian and Arab dynasts from about the 7th century – or for the previous 400 years.  The timing for this “liberation” coincides with the success of the Seljuk Turks; they had gained much land from the Byzantine Empire and, unlike some previous Muslim dynasts, were not amenable to pilgrimage to Christian holy sites.  So, Pope Urban II and the Byzantine emperor, Alexius Comnenus, negotiated passage of the Crusaders though Byzantine territory.  There was very little cooperation between crusaders and troops of any stripe, as virtually all of the region was in political flux.  This situation aided the Crusaders, who were able to reach their goal of Jerusalem just after it had been taken from the Seljuks by the Fatimids.  Ironically, Urban II died just days before news of the capture of Jerusalem, a feat which was accompanied by the slaying most of its inhabitants – Muslims, Christians, and Jews.

256px-StatueUrbanII Alexios_I_Komnenos Syria Map





While Pope Urban II was from Champagne, he called the Council that resulted in the First Crusade in the town of Clermont (Clermont-Ferrand).   The vineyards surrounding Clermont-Ferrand are in the Côtes d’Auvergne, which – along with its sister, Saint Pourcain – are AOC in the Puy-de-Dôme.  Both are set within the Loire region, though off that river’s Allier branch.  Currently, the Puy-de-Dôme is better known for its appellation Puy lentils.  But, the region also produces great wines.   Puy-de-Dôme is situated amidst over 80 extinct volcanoes that lend granite, quartz, and schist to the soils.  The resulting wines are known for being fresh, fruity, and lighter bodied.  The Saint Pourçain AOC status was achieved in 2009.  Richard Kelley gives a thorough description of Saint Pourçain, naming Domaine Grosbot-Barbara one of the regions best producers.  Domaine Grosbot-Barbara is in Montjournal (Cesset), where it benefits from the granite, schist, and quartz of the volcanic soils.  The estate is a blending of the Grosbot family of vignerons and winemaker Denis Barbara, who paired up in 2001.

Domaine Grosbot-Barbara Saint Pourçain “la Chambre d’Edouard” 2008

GrosbotThis wine is made from 100% Pinot Noir.  Why is it called “La Chambre d’Edouard”?  Because the tank in which the wine is made literally served as a bedroom one evening for a friend named Edoard.  I’m sure it was cleaned very, very well.  The wine is fresh and bright – even from 2008.  Sour cherries dominate the palate, with a pleasant dried-herb note, as well.  Acidic with chalky tannins.  A very nice wine that would be good with food, but certainly does not need it.



4th “First”: Pope John IV and Dalmatian Wine

John IV was Pope from 640-42.  He was the first Pope born in Dalmatia, likely in the (Croatian) city of Zadar.  In the 7th century, this was roughly under the influence of Byzantium, and John (Ioannes?  we don’t seem to know his given name) was a Greek-speaking Illyrian.  If you recall from our previous tasting, Illyria is where Hercules ran into the shape-shifter Nereus.  Zadar and vicinity flourished under the Roman empire, particularly the port towns.  Split, south of Zadar, was one such port.  The Emperor Diocletian seemed to like the city so much that he built a palace there and retired from his imperial throne at the beginning of the 4th century AD.  Following the decline of the Roman Empire, the Dalmatian coast again became important as a means of communication with Ravenna – the Byzantine capital in the West from ca 540-727 AD – and, ultimately, Rome. While John IV was Pope, a great deal of mainland Italy was under the control of the Kingdom of the Lombards.  There remained a contested corridor from Ravenna to Rome, but  no overland passage from the East to Ravenna.  As a result, the port cities on the Dalmatian coast were significant lines of maritime communication with Ravenna’s port.  Dalmatia also figured into Italy’s Risorgimento, as coastal lands from Istria to Zadar formally – though temporarily – became Italian territories following WWI. For a short time during WWII, Italy annexed coastal Dalmatia past Split and into (modern) Montenegro.

Pope_John_IV Diocletian's_Palace_(original_appearance) 512px-Mappa_italia_bizantina_e_longobarda 2012_ravenna_141





John IV’s birthplace of Zadar is a historical center of Dalmatia, and also at the center of Croatian wine country.   An hour south of Zadar is Skradin, which was also an Illyrian town.  Both of these areas are in Croatia’s “Northern Dalmatia” wine region.  Skradin sits on the Krka River that leads to the Adriatic.  It is the home of the Bibich Winery.  The winery was founded in 1906 by the Bibić family.  The modern winery emerged in 1995, under the leadership of Alen Bibić.

Bibich Riserva G6 Grenache North Dalmatia Croatia 2009

IMG_20150820_133503453_HDRThis wine is 100% Grenache.  The yeasts are native, it is aged in French oak, and it is not filtered.

The terroir-driven grenache tastes a little wild in this wine. The fruits are darker – plums, black cherries, currants – and the “garrigue” is more savory.  Soils have a limestone base, captured in the nice mineral notes. The winery is fairly near the sea and this is captured with a touch of brine.  Mouth filling, ripe, complex.  Very tasty.



5th “First”: Pope Pontian and Sardegnan Wine

Pontian was Pope from the years 230-35 AD.  He was the first legitimate Pope to resign, which he did after being exiled to Sardegna by the Roman Emperor Maximinus I of Thrace, who had just taken power.  Maximinus was generally at odds with the church and also exiled Hippolytus of Rome, who is considered the first anti-pope.  Pontian and Hippolytus both served at the same time and were exiled at the same time.  Exile to Sardegna – which was not uncommon – typically meant death at work in the islands salt mines.  Both Pontian and Hippolytus died within the first year of their exile though they are reported to have reconciled the schism that separated pope and anti-pope before their deaths.  There were two more popes during Maximinus’ reign, who were not exiled.  Pope Anterus was Pontian’s successor, and he died in 236 AD.  Pope Fabian succeeded Anterus, and his papacy ended in 250 AD, well outlasting the Emperor’s reign, which ended in 238 AD.  Imperial intrigues were focused clearly on politics at this time, however, as Maximinus and 4 succeeding emerperors were killed or committed suicide between April – August of 238 AD during the Crisis of the 3rd Century.  Imperial relations with the Church had improved enough by 236 or 237 that Fabian was able to bring back to Rome the bodies of both Pontian and Hippolytus, in order that they be buried in the Catacomb of Callixtus on the Appian way – one of the original, 7 roads that led into Rome.  This catacomb contains the “Crypt of the Popes”, and Popes Anterus and Fabian were also buried there.

18-St.Pontian 256px-Saint_Fabian1 Rom,_Calixtus-Katakomben,_Krypta_der_Päpste SALINA-DI-CAGLIARI






Salt remains a big industry in Sardegna, with prodigious production occurring around Cagliari.  About 50 miles north of Cagliari is Siurgus Donigala, which sits on a large, artificial lake that is not salt producing.  This is where Argiolas Winery is located.  It was started in 1938 by Antonio Argiolas, and run today by his grandsons.  They focus on indigenous grapes, which include the local Cannonau (Grenache).

Argiolas Costera Cannonau di Sardegna DOC 2011

costera_etThis wine is made with a blend of 3 local grapes: 90% Cannonau, 5% Bovale Sardo, and 5% Carignano.  The juice is aged in cement vats and for 8-10 months in small oak casks.  It made for a nice comparison with our previous wine, also a grenache. The Argiolas is deep and rich with notes of black olive and walnut.  It has ripe fruits – dark cherries and plums?  There is a bit of pepper in the garrigue.  The body is medium and the mouth is smooth, with rounded tannins.  We finish with another great wine.



The long line of Pope’s and their many “firsts” proved fruitful for our pairing of history with wine.   The wines were a hit with our tasters, whose favorites were spread across the spectrum of wines.  Overall, the Franciacorta was particularly well-liked, and perhaps a bit unexpected with its long-term aging on-the-lees.  Among the reds, the Bibich was the preferred wine, followed closely by the Argiolas.  Want to try this on your own? Some of these may be available in local stores.  The Argiolas, in particular, enjoys relatively wide-distribution.  The others, though, may be more difficult to come by.  If so, try anything that might be available from Franciacorta, Dalmatia, Auvergne, and Canada. Or, find papal firsts that do match wines available locally.  Or come join us for our next tasting!  View upcoming events here.



Images top to bottom, left to right:

  1. Plan Philly,
  2. Dirty Franks mural photo by Steve Weinik.
  3. A Statue of St Peter outside St. Peter’s basilica at the Vatican. Vicenzo Pinto /AFP/Getty Images
  4. Vatican Coat-of-Arms, source
  5. Pope Clement VIII Mosaic by Jacopo Ligozzi (draftsman) and Romolo di Francesco Ferrucci del Tadda (mosaicist), 1600 – 1601, source
  6. Suleiman the Magnificent, 15th century sketch by Agostino Veneziano
  7. Pope Benedict XVI kissing a papal relic, Osservatore Romano/EPA
  8. Apkallu, courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum
  9. Enki with crown, courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum
  10. Pope Pius XI, By Alberto Felici (1871-1950) (Politisch Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Berlin, 1932) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, source
  11. Caricature of King Victor Emmanuel II, Thomas Nast [No restrictions or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, Online collection of the Brooklyn Museum
  12. Map of Italian Unification:
  13. St. Peter’s Baldacchino – By Jorge Royan [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons, source
  14. Pope John Paul II
  15. Pope John Paul II in Moncton, N.B. on Sept. 13, 1984. PhotoMORRIS LAMONT, THE CANADIAN PRESS
  16. Pope John Paul II in Ottawa in 1984 . Photo by Wayne Cuddington, Ottawa, source Citizen.
  17.  Pope John Paul II arriving in Midland, Ontario. Photo: © Concacan Inc., 1984.
  18. Pope Urban II, photo by Mussklprozz (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons, source
  19.  Emperor Alexius Comnenos, source
  20.  Syria in 500 AD, source
  21.  Map of the First Crusade By Original work: Captain Blood at de.wikipedia; Translation: Oxag at fr.wikipedia. (This file was derived from: Kreuzzug.jpg) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons,  source
  22.  Pope John IV, By Artaud de Montor (1772–1849) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, source
  23.  Diocletian’s palace, source
  24.  Map of Byzantine Italy, source
  25.  Sant’Apollinare in Classe (Ravenna) – Apse mosaic, By Sansa55 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons, source
  26.  Pontian, source
  27.  Fabian, source
  28.  Salt production in Cagliari, source
  29.  Papal Crypt in the Catacombs of Callixtus, By Dnalor 01 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons, source