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
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
Canyon in Santa Barbara, Joseph
Filippi in Temecula, Pichetti in
Santa Clara County, Tularosa
in New Mexico, and
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.
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
Other producers make versions of dessert wines that they
but substituting such grape varieties as Muscat or Malvasia,
instead of Mission. RETURN
RELATED LINKS :
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