Coenobium wine

Between the unpacking and the travel, I haven’t had much chance to explore Atlanta, but one of my favorite places so far is Krog Street Market, an indoor market with some really excellent food and beer. I was surprised while browsing Hop City to see this among the Italian wines:

Coenobium wine, purchased at Krog Street Market.

Coenobium wine, purchased at Krog Street Market.

Surprised because “coenobium” isn’t a term I generally associate with wine, but with Volvox. It isn’t used as much these days, but coenobium (plural coenobia) is sometimes used to refer to a spheroid or colony of Volvox or related algae (Eudorina, Pleodorina, Gonium, etc.). I’ve always thought of it as a way to refer to them without implying a judgement about their status as individuals. In a sense, if you call a Volvox spheroid an individual, you’ve judged it to be an individual organism, which is a big old can of worms that you may not want to open. If, on the other hand, you call it a colony, you are (in some folks’ minds, at least) suggesting that it is a collection of individuals, not an individual in its own right. Calling it a coenobium gives you a way to say, “You know what, it is whatever it is, and I’m not interested in getting bogged down in that argument.”

So clearly the winemakers are Volvox biologists, or at least fans, right? Or maybe they’ve found a way to incorporate Volvox into the winemaking process! Well, probably not. Coenobium has another meaning entirely, an older one, in fact. From the Greek “koinos,” common or community, and “bios,” life, coenobium originally referred to a convent or monastery. It’s not that much of a stretch, really, to draw a parallel between a community of monks or nuns working together for a common purpose and a group of cells doing the same. Coenobium wine is, it turns out, made by nuns!

Thanks to Alexey Desnitskiy, whose knowledge of the volvocine literature is encyclopedic, I now know that the use of coenobium in the context of volvocine algae goes back at least as far as 1868. Ludovico Rabenhorst used it in reference to Volvox, EudorinaGonium, and others:

Plate 46 from Rabenhorst 1868.

Plate 46 from Rabenhorst 1868.


If anyone is aware of an older usage, please say so in the comments.


Stable links:

Rabenhorst, L. 1868. Flora Europaea Algarum Aquae Dulcis et Submarinae. Sectio III. Algas Chlorophyllophyceas, Melanophyceas et Rhodophyceas Complectens. Eduard Kummer, Leipzig.

EDIT: Fixed the spelling of Rabenhorst. 2018-11-22.


  1. Raucous Indignation says

    That vineyard’s wines are wonderful. They are also made by nuns. So probably the older meaning relating to a convent. Either way, delicious!

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