Following Francis: A Wine-ography!

After what seemed like decades of preparation, Pope Francis’ visit to Philadelphia has finally come — and gone. Now, Philly is most definitely a beer town, and brewers rose to the occasion with one-off “Pope” beers. For instance, there is “Pater Noster” and “Holy Wooder” (a pronunciation joke that primarily locals will get… the Philly accent produces “wooder” from “water”). Even better than their timely names, these brews are said to taste pretty good. But, as usual, I’ve taken a different tack: an exploration of wines connected to the life of Pope Francis. Mendoza, Madrid, Umbria, Württemburg, and Chester County (PA) have all been touched by the 266th Pope’s life, and all have great wine.

Chapter 1. 

Argentina is the first chapter in our wine-ography: a Pope is born! Jorge Mario Bergoglio was born in Flores, Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1936. That same year marked the 4ooth anniversary of the founding of Buenos Aires by Spanish explorers. The occasion was commemorated with the monument, El Obelisco, a 220-foot obelisk made of white stone. It looks a heck of a lot like the Washington Monument (at least from photos), which is 555 feet tall and was finished in 1888. This probably made Franklin Delano Roosevelt feel quite at home when, also in 1936, the American president traveled to Buenos Aires for the Inter-American Conference for the Maintenance of Peace, convened over concern for Europe’s increasing fascism. Seems to me that this statement of compassion and peace together with the distinctive, all-white monument (a nod to his vestments), augured a particular papal-future for the newborn Bergoglio.


 El Obelisco is the backdrop for photographerAnnemarie Heinrich. She opened shop in Buenos Aires in the 1930’s — when Bergoglio was born! — and, incidentally, among her subjects was one of Bergoglio’s favorite actresses, Tito Merello. ©Galeria Vasary, source.



Bergoglio’s first degree was actually for work as a chemical technician, which he used for a time before entering the seminary and beginning his lifelong commitment to the order of the Jesuits. His Jesuit education took him from Buenos Aires to Santiago, Chile, and back again.

In traversing between those capitals, the future pontiff had to cross the Andes, which run north to south along most of Argentina’s western border and which separate the country from Chile. Also running along those mountains is Argentina’s wine country. While wines are produced around Buenos Aires, it is the mountain slopes from Salta to Patagonia that provide the terroir and micro-climate for the bulk of Argentina’s wines. In the middle of this wine zone is Mendoza. Mendoza is sunny (ca 300 days of sun per year!), continental in its climate, and dry. The Andes provide altitude and temperature moderation and, importantly, snow melt for the semi-arid lands. It was the indigenous Huarpe, who inhabited the Mendoza area for centuries, who innovated irrigation via channeling snow melt-off, which would later enable large-scale winemaking in this dry zone. Mendoza’s boom occurred with the influx of European immigrants in the 20th century, which consequently drove the Huarpe further east. Ironically, the current scale of irrigation required to feed the vast vineyard plantings is dropping the water table to precipitously-low levels in their new habitation zone.

Argentina Map

Mendoza is home to Argentina’s most-widely planted grape, Malbec, and also to Bonarda, which used to be the one most-widely planted. Malbec enjoys all the fame, while Bonarda is the “workhorse”. The latter better befits the “People’s Pope”, no? Bonarda is also called Corbeau in Argentina (and France), and elsewhere is called Charbono and Douce Noir. It is not either of the grapes known as “Bonarda” in Italy. Confused? Try this explanation.

La Posta 2The La Posta winery is found in the northern part of Mendoza, in the Maipu region. It takes its name from the taverns that served as popular gathering places and in which the grape growers would drink and socialize. La Posta Armando Bonarda 2013 pays homage to the Armando family, who have for generations tended the vineyards from which this wine was made. La Posta’s recognition of the grape growers is a good reflection of the ideals of Pope Francis’ seeming populism, and I think this is a great Argentine wine for his “wine-ography”. The wine is made with 100% Bonarda, from vines with an average age of 49 years. Its fermented juice is aged ca. 10 months in oak and it is delicioso. The wine is full and rich, with fresh berries, pepper, resin, and a hefty dose of smoke. It is approachable and hearty, and I like it very much.

Chapter 2.

Spain is the site of our second chapter, wherein a younger Bergoglio finishes his Jesuit training. Following matriculation in Argentina, Bergoglio left for the Alcalá University in Alcalá de Henares, Spain, for the final act in his Jesuit formation, tertianship. This act bound him further to the Society of Jesus and completed his oaths of poverty, chastity, and obedience to the Pope.

Alcalá de Henares is found just north of Madrid. It is an old city, with settlement pre-dating the 2nd millennium BC, and with a written history dating to the Romans. The Roman city, Complutum, was a substantial town and part of Hispania Tarraconensis. It is now part of the historical center of town, which is named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Spain, in general, has wonderful Roman remains in rather unassuming locations. One of my favorite such “discoveries” in Spain has been the city of Tarragona, whose amphitheatre overlooking the sea is a marvel to see — and is also afforded World Heritage status. Centuries later, Miguel Cervantes was born here, and traces of his fame can be found in the statues of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, perhaps also an early influence in Pope Francis’ concern with the underdog!

Currently Alcalá de Henares is an “underdog” to Madrid, in whose governance it is under. Madrid is just 22 miles southwest of Alcalá and had a similar developmental trajectory. Each featured as Roman settlements — though Alcalá’s Complutum was larger than Madrid’s Matrice, and both “hosted” Visigoths and Moors. It was the Moors, specifically Emir Mohammed I of Cordoba, who initiated development of Madrid (as Mayrit)in earnest. He built the citadel and fortress (Alcazar) in the 9th century AD to help protect the city of Toledo from Christian advances. This fortress later became Madrid’s Royal Palace, which still stands in the same location.

(L.)16th century work of the Alcazar by J. Cornelius Vermeyen. (R.) 21st century Palacio Real de Madrid — and my husband.



Madrid is one of two European capitals (along with Vienna) that also function as wine appellations. The Madrid DO (Denominación de Origen) gained its status in 1990, almost 2 decades after Bergoglio performed histertianship in Alcalá de Henares. Winemaking in Madrid is certainly way older than that, and it is actually one of Spain’s oldest growing regions. In particular, wines from here in the 16th and 17th centuries — when Madrid replaced Toledo as the capital city — were well-regarded. But, the phyloxera epidemic hit the area pretty hard starting in 1914, and the rapid growth of the city meant that the devastated vineyards were swallowed by urban development. Thus, the region was left with fewer vineyards, very young in age. But their lack of age and scale is made up for by the area’s terroir. The Madrid DO has three sub-regions: Arganda, Navalcarnero, and San Martin de Valdeiglesias. San Martin is found west of Madrid in a mountainous zone. It has granitic soils, long, hot summers and cold winters. Rain is sparse, but San Martin gets the most rain of the three and has high humidity all year long.

Spain-Wine-Region-Map-wine-follyWine Regions of Spain, modified map Original here








San Martin de Valdeiglesias is also known as the Distrito de la Garnacha — after its most important grape. The winery Vinos Jeromin has some of the older garnacha vines in the region, growing in rocky soils at an elevation of ca. 870m, with enough rain to be dry-farmed. Zestos Old Vine Garnacha 2012 is with 100% garnacha from vines 40–50 years old. Vinification and aging are done in stainless steel and cement tanks. The wine is dark and rich, but juicy. Dried plum complements a fresh cherry-note, and it has slight mineral/stoney character. It is easy to drink, but lacks a bit of complexity.

Chapter 3.

Germany sets the scene for chapter 3, as this is the birthplace of Francis’ predecessor. How did Francis get to be Pope? Well, like all Popes, he was elected via a conclave of Bishops. But, more specifically, his election came on the heels of the extraordinary abdication of Pope Benedict in 2013. Papal resignations do not occur very frequently. The first Pope to resign was Pope Pontian, who did so in 235 AD. This was not exactly voluntary, however, as he abdicated after he had been exiled to Sardegna so that a new pope could be elected. More recently — a mere 600 years ago in 1415 — Pope Gregory II abdicated in order to end the Western Schism between competing factions within the Roman Catholic Church. Benedict’s retirement was due to failing health; it resulted in the election of a Pope who could hardly be more different from the fancy dressed and ideologically conservative Pope Benedict.

Pope Benedict was born Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger in Bavaria, Germany, in 1927. He was a priest and theologian, as well as a professor. His teaching career took him around Germany, including to a stop at the esteemed University of Tübingen. This is one of Europe’s oldest universities; it was established in the 15th century, and one of its notable scholars was Johannes Kepler. Its official name is Eberhard Karls Üniversität Tübingen, which comes from two Dukes of Württemburg: the founder, Eberhard the Bearded, and the 18th century Duke, Karl Eugen.

Germany Regions
Wine Regions of Germany, source.







Württemburg also gives its name to the greater region. Tübingen is at its southern end, South of Stuttgart, on the river Neckar. Württemburg was occupied by the Romans in 100 AD, when Trajan was emperor. The region only broke away from the Holy Roman Empire in 1806, after the founding of the University of Tübingen, becoming a Kingdom under Frederick I of Württemburg.

Württemburg is known for its agriculture, including the growing of grapes for wine. The wine region travels along the Neckar river and tributaries, and through their sloping valleys. The tempering water, the hilly valleys, and the proximity of the low mountains of the Swabian Alps, gives the region a relatively mild climate. However, I visited the University of Tübingen one time in late November, and can vouch for the probability of cold and snow!Soils in the region are diverse and include limestone, loess, clay, marl, and keuper. As a result, there are also many different types of grapes grown. Riesling is one of them, but this is Germany’s largest red-grape growing region and its signature grape is Trollinger. Dornfelder, Lemberger, Zweigelt, Portuguiser, and Spätburgunder are also grown.

Within this landscape, the dominant mode of production is via co-op, with hundreds of growers with relatively small plots of land. These are interspersed with ancestral castles and estates that dot the countryside. One of these is found at Heilbronn, north of Stuttgart, on which vineyards were planted in the 12th and 13th centuries. This estate has been owned by the Neipperg family since the 15th century. This branch of the family has been tending vines for 750 years, and a Count von Neipperg is credited with bringing Lemberger to Württemburg in the 17th century. The Neipperg family seems to have wine in their blood. A separate branch of the family featured in the “Traveling with Merlot” tasting I conducted back in April, and is behind the Vignobles Comtes von Neipperg. This group has several properties in Bordeaux, and also in the Bessa Valley of Bulgaria.

IMG_20150927_180809115 800px-Neipperg-Scheibler310ps
 (R.) Neipperg Coat-of-Arms









The current head of the estate is Count Karl Eugen Erbgraf zu Neipperg — similar to a name we’ve just seen, Duke Karl Eugen of Württemburg, who gave his name to the University of Tübingen. The Neipperg estate still grows Lemberger, but they also have Riesling and Spätburgunder. The latter is used in their Grafen Neipperg Neipperger Schlossburg Württemburg 2012. This wine is a bit fuller than many others made of pinot noir, with some mouth-filling ripe fruits. I found tasting notes from Anna Lee Iijima at the Wine Enthusiast that are succinct and, especially, perfectly capture this wine’s earthy qualities. She writes, “(s)ultry black cassis runs deep and dark through this ripe, robust Pinot Noir. Touches of moss and granite lend complexity….” Moss! Granite!

Chapter 4.

Italy is the setting for chapter 4, wherein Bergoglio acquires his papal name.Once upon a time, Popes were known by their given names. This started to change, however, with the election of Mercurius in 533 AD. He was named for the Roman god, Mercury, and reasoned that it was not befitting of the head of the Roman Catholic Church to be named for a pagan god. Thus, he took the name “John” and became Pope John II (as there had been a previous “Pope John”). The practice of taking a papal name became increasingly popular, and all popes from Paul IV in 1555 have taken a new name. So, to whom did Bergoglio look for his name? Saint Francis of Assisi.

Saint Francis was born in Assisi, Umbria, Italy in 1181 or 1182. He, himself, had an early name change as he was baptized “Giovanni” by his mother. His father worried this would influence the boy into a religious life and so changed it to Francesco. He grew up in a wealthy household in Assisi, Umbria, only later eschewing his parent’s wealth, becoming a preacher, and devoting himself to a life of poverty — much to his father’s chagrin. He founded the order of the Franciscans upon the foundations of poverty and spreading spread the word of God. Bergoglio was the first Jesuit elected as Pope, so I am somewhat surprised he didn’t take the name “Ignatius”, after Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit Order of Jesus. Jesuits and Franciscans are somewhat similar, as both espouse poverty and encourage proselytizing to gain religious converts. In addition, though, Francis of Assisi is the patron saint of ecology. As Pope, Francis has shown great concern with the environment and, particularly, climate change, which may have influenced his use of the name “Francis”. Of course, it may have been his love for Umbrian wine. Yes, I jest, but about that Umbrian wine…

Colorful map of Italian Wine Regions from

Umbria is the region smack dab in the middle of Italy, bordered by the regions of Marche, Lazio, and Tuscany. It reaches no sea, nor an international border. It is purely Italian. Assisi is in the central part of the region, near its capital, Perugia. This is also where Montefalco is found. Montefalco is home to one of Umbria’s most famous wines, Sagrantino di Montefalco. This wine was served by Al Italia on the Pope’s chartered flight to North America, so I guess we can assume that he enjoys it. But, we are venturing southwest to Orvieto. Ovieto has significance for the Church from the Middle Ages. Thomas Aquinas, the esteemed Dominican-scholar, taught in Orvieto before being called in as papal theologian to Clement IVth in the mid-13th century AD. More significantly for this wine-ography, it was home to a papal palace that was used by several popes, including Pope Innocent III, who officially recognized Saint Francis’ Franciscan Order. From my own perspective, it is theCrocifisso del Tufo necropolis that is one of Orvieto’s most significant pieces of patrimony. Etruscans settled the area in the first millennium BC, and this necropolis dates to the 6th century BC. It is a veritable “city” of the dead, with streets and residences in regular, planned orientation. Since the “living” city no longer exists (and the majority of Etruscan finds come from tombs and necropoli), the Crocifisso del Tufo necropolis gives researchers some idea of what Etruscan cities would have looked like and how they were planned.

Etruscan history is often overshadowed by the Romans, just as the wines of Umbria are overshadowed by those of Tuscany. The Sagrantino de Montefalco, mentioned above, is one exception that that thus overshadows the wines of Orvieto. The most common grapes of this area are white, and include Trebbiano and Grechetto; these comprise the Orvieto Classico andOrvieto DOC appellations.

512px-Giotto_-_Legend_of_St_Francis_-_-15-_-_Sermon_to_the_Birds Necropoli_crocifisso_del_tufo_3






(L.)Legend of St Francis, Sermon to the Birds. Giotto [Public domain] (R.) Crocifisso del Tufo necropolis. by Paperoastro [CC BY-SA 3.0], Wikimedia Commons



IMG_20150928_154639131The Cantine Neri is located in Bardano, just 5km from the Crocifisso del Tufo necropolis (consequently, I now have my first day-trip planned from next summer’s excavations at Cosa!). It is located on a hill with volcanic, ashy and clay soils. Enrico Neri currently runs this family property, which was founded in the 1950s. Cantine Neri Ca’Viti Grechetto 2013 is 100% Grechetto, manually harvested. It is vinified in stainless steel and aged 6 months in oak, inside of natural caves. The result is a fuller bodied wine, very rich in umami. Savory mushrooms and an overall nuttiness are met with a piquant mineraliness. The finish lasts forever. I love it.

Chapter 5.

The United States are the setting for Chapter 5, wherein Pope Francis charms the East Coast. Fittingly, we end this wine-ography in my adopted city of Philadelphia. Pope Francis embarked on a North American trip that began in Cuba and ended in Philly. Along the way, there was much baby-kissing, blessing, and a great sense of community-pride. Philly went out of its way to welcome the Pope, even transforming some of its favorite icons for the native Spanish-speaker.

 m_amor-1-of-1 Love-the-Pope



(L.) Spanish-language version (Photo Kimberly Paynter WHYY, source); (R.) Robert Indiana’s LOVE sculpture (Photo Dan McQuade, source)

Following visits to Washington, D.C. and New York City, the Pope came back between the two for his events in Philly in conjunction with the World Meeting of Families. He didn’t have time to stop in our wine country, but maybe next time. Philadelphia has a fairly long history of grape-growing that dates back to its founder, William Penn. Penn founded Philly in 1682 and had vineyards planted the next year with vinifera vines from Bordeaux. These may have hybridized with a local, labrusca vine to beget the “Alexander” grape — also called “Schuylkill” after the river along which Penn’s vineyards and (John) Bartram’s garden vineyards, where it was popularized. The “Alexander” has largely been replaced, but vineyards have cropped up throughout the region.

About 50 miles west of Philly is Avondale, PA, were Anthony Vietri farms his grapes at Va La Vineyards. Vietri is also the winemaker in this family-run business, but prefers the “farmer” moniker. His family has owned his 6.7 acre plot since the late-1920’s, when they emigrated from Italy. Today, Vietri has the lands planted with a cornucopia of (mostly) Italian grapes. Among the whites are tocai, malvasia bianca, viognier, pinot grigio, and petit manseng, all of which go into the La Prima Donna 2012. It is not an easy wine to come by — only 207 cases were produced. But, finding it is its own reward. The grapes are hand-harvested and separately vinified — having roughly 1 month of skin contact. They are then aged sur lie before being blended and aged 6 months. The result is a rich, full, orange wine. The Malvasia comes first on the nose, with strong touches of white flowers. This is tempered by the mineral-backbone drawn from the “basalt and stony silt loams” in which the grapes are grown. Citrus and ripe stone-fruits also feature.

 Vietri Prima Donna
(L.) “The Farmer” with his grapes (Photo by J. Smith for Visit Philadelphia™, source






Thus concludes our Pope Francis Wine-ography. We look forward to more chapters, and more wines. As this was an actual tasting, with five great wines, I can happily report that our tasters enjoyed all of the wines. But, there is always a “winner”. On that night, in a close tally, the winner was… Grafen Neipperg Neipperger Schlossburg Württemburg 2012. Can you find it locally? I have no idea. But all of these wines are worth seeking out! Cheers.