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Mission grape photo.Mission

While it is undoubtedly the oldest vinifera grape cultivated in the United States, in present time the Mission grape has far more historical than commercial significance. For well over a century, the Mission grape defined California viticulture, but it barely exists there as a variety today.

The genetic heritage of Mission was uncertain for over three hundred years after its Western Hemisphere arrival. Graduate student Alejandra Milla Tapia at Madrid's Centro Nacional de Biotecnología headed a team that determined, in December, 2007, the variety is a perfect DNA match with Listan Prieto. Grown in Spain's Castile region for more than five centuries, plantings are rare in modern Spain, since the Phylloxera epidemic of the latter 19th Century brought it close to extinction.

Listan Prieto survived, however, in the Canary Islands and is widley planted there known by the local name of Palomino Negro. An oceanic way-station for Atlantic voyages of Conquistadores and explorers, the Canary Islands probably first received the variety early in the 16th Century.

The early explorers also introduced the variety to South America and it still thrives under other nomenclature in Argentina (Criolla Chica), Baja California, Peru (Negra Corriente), and especially Chile (Pais or Negra Peruana), where it is second only to cabernet sauvignon in the number of acres planted.

Jesuit Missionaries probably transported the original vines from Spain to Mexico in the middle-1500s, where it was cultivated for nearly a century before migrating north. The grape may have undergone mutation, cross, or hybridization (which seems likely, because of the relative hardiness of the Mission variety, compared to other vinifera types) before Missionaries brought it to Texas and New Mexico in the 1620s.

More than a century later, Franciscan monk Junipero Serra first planted the Mission variety in California, at Mission San Diego, in 1769. Father Serra spread vineyards northward, as he established eight other missions before his death in 1784. Early California vineyards were so linked with the missions, that this name became attached to the grape variety.

As European immigrant wine growers developed increasing influence in California, and more vineyards were planted in cooler coastal valleys, Mission quickly fell from favored variety status. Most of what remained from the 1900s on was in the Central Valley and in the foothills around Los Angeles where it primarily survived for making brandy and especially 1Angelica, a sweet dessert "wine" created by blending brandy with unfermented Mission juice.

In 1888, there were 4,000 acres of Mission grapes in Napa valley alone. Since 1990, less than two hundred acres have been planted statewide to Mission grapes; California's current total is just over 1,000 acres.

The attributes that kept Mission dominant in early California winegrowing are vigor, strength and productivity. This hardiness may have contributed to its bicontinental proliferation over other known contemporary immigrant varieties, such as Muscat of Alexandria. Mission vines develop thick trunks with strong canes and large, dark green leaves. The fruit clusters are large and loosely filled, so that ripe fruit can hang for a relatively long time, developing high sugar content while resisting mold or rot. In warm, fertile soils, crops of over ten tons per acre are normal. A mid-to-late season ripener, Mission does best in warm climates.

Mission grapes suited the wine tastes of the early days when sweet wine and brandy were the mainstays. As far as making dry table wine, Mission has many detriments, however, including weak color, bland flavor and poor acidity. While mission is a dark-skinned grape, it makes very light-colored red wine and usually brownish-toned white wine. Although this begs the question of use for table wine at all, better vineyard management and improvements in wine making enable better quality wines to be made from Mission today than ever before.

The only California wineries we've found currently making Mission as a varietal wine are all in the Gold Country. They include Domaine de la Terre Rouge, Nine Gables and Story, all located in Plymouth, Amador County, and Malvadino in Murphy's, Calaveras County.

Several producers also continue to produce Mission-based Angelica or dessert wine2, including Bonny Doon in Santa Cruz, Cribari in Fresno, Gypsy Canyon in Santa Barbara, Joseph Filippi in Temecula, Pichetti in Santa Clara County, Tularosa in New Mexico, and Glunz, north of Chicago, Illinois (!). These few wineries are all that remain to prevent the Mission grape variety from becoming merely a footnote in wine history.

Jim LaMar

1. Although traditional Angelica helps keep the Mission grape from extinction, this dessert beverage is really more liqueur than wine, acquiring most of its alcohol from distilled addition, rather than natural fermentation. RETURN

2. Other producers make versions of dessert wines that they label "Angelica" but substituting such grape varieties as Muscat or Malvasia, instead of Mission. RETURN

Clos Ouvert produces wine made from the Pais variety in Chile's Maule Valley. Winemaker Matthieu de Genevraye vinifies using the carbonic maceration process, to make wine in a style similar to Beaujolais. His BLOG (in French only) has many photos of the operation.

1. Jancis Robinson (ed), Oxford Companion to Wine, 3rd Edition, (Oxford University Press: London) 2006

2. Charles Sullivan, A Companion to California Wine: An Encyclopedia of Wine and Winemaking from the Mission Period to the Present (University of California Press: Berkeley) 1998

3. Lynn Alley, Researchers Uncover Identity of Historic California Grape (Wine Spectator, February, 2007)

4. Benjamin Lewin, Wine Myths and Reality, (Vendage Press: Dover, DE) 2010

5. L. Peter Christensen, Nick K. Dokoozlian, M. Andrew Walker, James A Wolpert, et all. Wine Grape Varieties in California (University of California, Agricultural and Natural Resources Publications: Oakland) 2003

6. Jancis Robinson (ed), Jancis Robinson's Guide to Wine Grapes, (Oxford University Press: New York) 1996


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Page created August 25, 2002; updated February 15, 2017
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