Religious women at a monastery outside Rome produce serious wines.
Passing by the vineyards at Monastero Suore Cistercensi, you may see figures pruning the vineyards or checking out clusters of grapes. What’s unique about these figures, though, is they are each wearing a nun’s habit.
We’ve all heard of beers made by Trappist monks—Chimay—and liqueurs by Carthusians—Chartreuse—but there is wine made by religious women too. At this monastery in Vitorchiano, Italy, the Sisters of the Cistercian Order tend five hectares of vineyards to make two white wine blends, Coenobium and Ruscom, as well as a red wine blend called Benedic.
“It is a special joy working with the sisters,” explains Neal Rosenthal, founder of Rosenthal Wine Merchant and a longtime importer of the sisters’ wines to the United States. “One obtains an appreciation of the benefits of a modest life stripped of pretense. The smiles, always present, on the faces of the sisters convey the richness of their humble lives.”
A day in the life of the sisters is an exercise in humility. The monastery is rooted in the guiding principles of San Benedetto da Norcia: time and labor. Those just happen to align nicely with making wine, which is no easy, or speedy, task. Seventy nuns live at the monastery, which is located about 90 miles from Rome in a small medieval village at the foot of Mount Cimini. The area has long been a destination for grape growing and olive tree groves thanks to its rocky, volcanic soils. The sisters live very modestly, cooperating as a community to support one another, undertaking chores to maintain the monastery, and continuing their theological studies. That, and producing wine.
Rosenthal has been working with the sisters for 15 years and has seen their products blossom over time. The women partner with winemaker Giampiero Bea of Paolo Bea in Montefalco, Umbria, who has really helped them take their wines to the next level. Rosenthal explains that Bea has provided valuable guidance during the production process to better showcase the area’s terroir and add character to the final beverage. For example, he persuaded the sisters to experiment with skin contact on their white wine, which now gives the Coenobium its defining characteristics as an unfiltered, organic, blond-hued wine that’s made more like a red wine than a white. (And it’s just delicious.)
Everything about the viticultural and winemaking processes reflects the nuns’ dedication to live simply. Wine is produced in the most basic way, with very little intervention in the cellar. They grow only local varieties of Italian grapes, including Trebbiano and Sangiovese. A group of sisters tend the vineyards, which are farmed organically, then the entire monastic team harvests the grapes. All the fruit is crushed and fermented in stainless steel vats.
“In the Cistercian tradition, manual labor is to do the divine work of the creator, which sustains the community and enables the order to provide for the poor,” explains Sister Adriana. (Her answers have been translated from Italian to English.) “There is much to do, but the work in the vineyards and the cellar is passionate work.”
The resulting wines, though, are anything but simple. Their main wine, Coenobium, is a blend of four native varieties of grapes—Trebbiano, Malvasia, Verdicchio, and Grechetto—and showcases the depth and complexity that skin-contact whites from volcanic soils can bring to the table. This wine accounts for 66% of their annual production, which maxes out at about 18,000 bottles, and the majority actually comes to the U.S. The 2017 vintage offers a surprise to longtime fans: It’s faintly fizzy. Thanks to the lack of added sulfites in the bottle, the wine refermented after bottling and resulted in some bubbles to the traditionally still white wine. The communal effort to produce the final product is eternalized in the wine’s name: Coenobium is a reference to the Latin term for “life in the community.”
The restraint in the Benedic, a red blend of Sangiovese and Ciliegiolo, reflects the gentle nature of the sisters. “Those expecting power may be disappointed, but a wine this guileless is nearly impossible to dislike,” Rosenthal says of the unpretentious, fruit-forward, easy-drinking wine. Its name is a nod to a typical interaction at the monastery. When a younger sister passes an older one, she will ask for the “Benedic,” or blessing.
Then there is the Ruscum, the most rustic style of the trio. Also a white blend of Trebbiano, Malvasia, Verdicchio, and Grechetto, the Ruscum ferments on the lees for two weeks or more, leading to a deep golden color, flavors of wildflowers and herbs, and plenty of minerality.
The nuns didn’t always make wine. They first settled in the area in the 1950s and largely kept to themselves. But as economic times changed, they soon realized they could no longer sustain themselves without additional income. That’s when they started making wine and jams from their gardens to sell and support their endeavors. Turns out, they have a knack for viticulture.
“The greatest reward and the most beautiful aspect is to produce wine in collaboration with each other and the creator,” Sister Adriana adds. “The older sisters share their experience to teach the younger members. It is not always easy—one learns patience, humility, and gratitude.”