The Origins of a Modern Wine Pilgrim

When modern travel, food or wine writers set about beating the bounds of their chosen destination, you often see a distinct word pop up – “pilgrimage”. A journey of thoughtful reconciliation, an aim focused in mind on absolution and discovery, on closure and cogitation. You know at some point the author is going to use the object of their journey to reflect back on their own journey through life, both literally and metaphorically, perhaps in a none-too-subtle way. Put the words “wine” and “Pilgrim” into Amazon, and you’ll see precisely what I mean.

From a Medieval perspective though, a pilgrimage something quite different. A divinely inspired hardship, often in punishment or occasionally in a spirit of adventure or devotion. Cast out into the wilderness with just the clothes on your back, a stick in one hand and an unfathomable distance to travel. We shouldn’t, however, fall into the trap of believing this image. The pilgrimage industry, for that is what it became, was huge. The network of trails which zig-zagged across Christendom gave rise to a great number of hostels, vineyards, taverns and other ways an unwary pilgrim could be lead spiritually astray.

These were, after all, usually young men or women, away from home for the perhaps the first time. Some of the great wine regions of Northern Spain, and South West France sprung up to help service the thirsty needs of travellers. The reputation of Rioja, an area which the Santiago pilgrim route still today crosses through, was created with many pilgrims taking the opportunity to slurp as they strolled. Before trade routes really opened up out of northern Spain (following the Reconquista) fledgling viticulture communities like those of Rioja, or neighbouring Navarra, owed much to the trampling feet of religious journeyers. Their red wines were acclaimed with wonder by those seeking the famous shrine at Santiago de Compostela.

It was not always a harmonious arrangement. Large groups of strangers, often tanked up on the local strong wine (sound familiar?), would mean trouble – despite their apparently religious intent. Some Church sites felt the need to employ strong men, a kind of bouncer, to keep the rabble at bay. Riots were not unheard of at religious shrines. However, it wasn’t the world of the living that pilgrims would have to be wary of when drinking. One drunken pilgrim, Odalric, spoke ill of a statue of Sainte Foy at a shrine. That night, whilst passed out drunk, the saint appeared at his bed and beat him with a rod.

Across the Mediterranean in the Middle East, the great pilgrim route to Jerusalem became encompassed by vineyards – when the Crusaders established the Christian Kingdom of the Levant in the twelfth century. Here was a frontier of a kind – both for wine and for pilgrims. An act of western defiance against the back drop of Islamic conquest – recognisable to travellers from Europe in this foreign hostile land. The hospitals established by western colonisers, such as the Templars or Hopsitallers, would offer refuge, health and local wines.

Back across Europe too, the religious orders would recreate hostels or commanderies, often with vineyards attached – like those at Peyrassol in Provence, which were creating wine as far back as the 1250’s (and still remains a fantastic pink drop!) Wine then, became part of the pilgrims journey. Just as today people feel the need to seek out these quasi-sacred places in their own ways, embrace a place by drinking the wine, visiting the vineyards, touring the wineries. And these things leave their own mark on us, not in a spiritual or religious way, but direct our appreciation and patterns towards the wines we remember most fondly. A little piece of our holiday, we can take the cork out of back at home.-2