AlbqJournalNorth: The Mission Grape

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AlbqJournalNorth: The Mission Grape

Postby TomHill » Thu Nov 16, 2006 5:24 pm

Appearing in today's Albuquerque Journal North:
____________________________________________________

The Mission Grape: A Taste Of History

Some of the most dull, insipid wines I've had over the years have been made from the
Mission grape variety. A couple of the most incredible dessert wines I've had have also been
made from Mission. In today's column, we'll explore some of the wines made from this historical grape.
I've long had an interest in Mission since I first had a few California Angelicas in the
mid-'70's. My interest was piqued again when I read "Origins and Early Development
of New Mexico's Wine Industry" by noted Los Alamos historian Paul Kraemer that appeared in "La
Cronica", the New Mexico Historical Society quarterly. In it, he recounts the large role Mission
plays in early New Mexico. In fact, Mission in New Mexico predates its appearance in California.
Not surprisingly, the origins and history of the Mission grape are uncertain. The literature
is rife with conflicting claims. Much of this could be definitively answered by DNA typing, yet
virtually none has been done because of lack of financial support.
The Mission grape was probably brought to Mexico from Spain by the conquistadors in the mid-
1500's. It may have been taken to Chile and Argentina before that. The early Castilian grapes
that Cortes brought fared poorly in central New Spain. Sometime in the late 1500's, there was
a thriving grape industry in central Mexico, in an area known as Parras ("grape vines"), but the
varieties and their origins are unknown. These vines were labeled as Criolla (meaning "born in the
New World of European origin")
There is some speculation that these vines may have originated not as cuttings from Spain, but
propagated from grape seeds, a method that does not insure genetic purity. There is some speculation
that Criolla may be a hybrid between Castilian grapes and native grapes indigenous to Parras. Harold
Olmo, noted UC/Davis grape expert, speculates that California's Mission may be a hybrid between
the Criolla/Mission grape and native species in California. At any rate, Criolla/Mission is now
classified as a member of the vitis vinifera family. DNA typing could answer that for certain.
But it gets even more complicated. There is some evidence linking Mission to a variety
from Spain and Sardinia known as Monica. Monica is not known in Spain today. In Argentina, there are
two widely planted varieties, Criolla Chica and Criolla Cereza. It is claimed that the Pais grape of
Chile is "related to" or a "sub-variety" of the Mission grape. So who really knows??
Kraemer notes that Criolla cuttings were brought to New Mexico in 1629, predating Father Junipero
Sierra's planting of Mission/Criolla at Mission San Diego in 1769 by nearly 150 years. These plantings
were located at the pueblo of Senecu, south of present-day Socorro. Much documentation was lost on
this early New Mexico viticulture in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. Two hundred years later, the Socorro
area was the center of the New Mexico wine industry, in the early 1800's.
In the 1720's, the El Paso area was known to be an important grape growing area, rivaling that of
Parras. By the late 1700's, grape growing had spread to the Isleta/Belen area and even as far north
as Bernallilo. In the mid-1800's, grapes had spread to the Tularosa Basin, now an important wine
growing area and home of New Mexico's only Mission wine. Shortly thereafter, grapes spread to the
Mesilla Valley near Las Cruces. By the late 1800's, the Criolla/Mission grape was falling into
disfavor and imported European varieties were taking their place. Some of these were probably brought
to Santa Fe by Bishop Lamy from his native Auvergne and nearby Burgundy around 1870. Again,
documentation is scanty.
Meanwhile, the johnny-come-latelys in California were propagating their Mission vines up the
coast in California as they spread their mission network northward. By the early-mid 1800's, Mission
was the dominant California grape.
So.... what about wine from the Mission grape?? By and large, it's pretty miserable as a dry table
wine. Though a dark-skinned grape, the phenolics are weak and the coloring of the wine is low and
unstable. The grape is notoriously low in acid and makes for dull, flabby wines of weak color and very
short lived. Thus there is very little Mission wine made now and the plantings have dwindled
to near-nothing.
However....those early friars knew a thing or two about wine and what they liked. They recognized
that keeping residual sugar in the wine was the secret to prolonging its life. They made a wine they
called Angelica by adding grape brandy to the Mission grape juice, resulting in a very sweet wine
of about 20% alcohol. In the France's Champagne region, they make the same kind of wine from Pinot
Noir juice, where it is known as Ratafia. In the Cognac region, they similarly make Pineau de
Charentes.
The wines are very sweet when young and not very good. But with (much) time, they can be
transformed into an amazingly complex dessert wine. Usually they are aged in large glass carboys or
very old, neutral oak barrels. As they age, the sweetness level drops and they develop a beautiful
dark brown color...and wonderfully complex aromatics.
I have had a Heitz Cellars Angelica, made from old stocks purchased from East Side Winery (now
defunct) in Lodi, of vintage 1875, that was one of the most incredibly dessert wines ever. Served
with a 20 year old fruit cake topped with Creme Anglais, it's a magical dessert pairing. San Martin
Winery used to bottle an Angelica they called Montonico, from old stocks, that was lovely.
Alas, Angelica is a genre that has nearly vanished in California. You have to be in it for the long
haul. In 1994, Deborah Hall bought property in Santa Barbara's Santa Rita Hills, a stone's throw from
Lompoc's restored La Purisima mission. Upon a hillside covered with scrub oak and underbrush, she
discovered an old Mission vineyard of gnarled vines that probably dates back to the mid-1800's, maybe
earlier. She resurrected the vineyard and is now making classic, old-style Angelica under her Gypsy
Canyon label, priced at $120 per half bottle.
There are a few other dessert Mission wines being made in California. Charlie Meyer's Harbor Winery
Mission Del Sol comes from very old vines in the Deaver Vineyard in the Shenandoah Valley. It's
one of the best. There remain a handful of dry Mission wines still being made in the Sierra Foothills.
They are more of historical and intellectual interest than of great drinking pleasure.
Closer to home, Tularosa Vineyards (http://www.TularosaVineyards.com) makes a Mission table wine.
Dave Wickham took cuttings from a very old backyard Mission vine in nearby La Luz and propagated
it into his home vineyard in 1985. The wine is off-dry and has a slight nutty/sherry character
with a nice spiciness. It makes a very nice aperitif wine with Marcona almonds and dense
fig cake. One can almost imagine sitting down with the friars in Socorro in the 1700's and knocking
back a few glasses of it in a less than reverent fashion.
Grape vines are very hardy plants and can go for years and years with neglect. It would not be
the least bit surprising to find scattered about in backyards or alongside irrigation ditches in
Bernallilo, Socorro, Belen, the Mesilla Valley, or other locales of grape growing in old New Mexico
a few ancient Mission vines. One can only wonder the stories they would have to tell.
________________________________________
An e-copy of Paul Kraemer's historical article can be requested from him at:
PKraemer@NewMexico.com
________________________________________
NB: A per communication w/ Carole Meredith, the Mission variety of California is, by DNA testing
recently, the same as the Moscatel Negra, a rather rare variety grown on the Canary Islands. The
Pais of Chile is identical to the Mission as well. Criolla Chica, also identical to Mission, is one
of the parents of Torrontes.

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TomHill, a White Rock resident, transports neutrons and wields an epee in real life.
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Re: AlbqJournalNorth: The Mission Grape

Postby Thomas » Thu Nov 16, 2006 6:57 pm

Thanks, Tom.

Do you know why DNA hasn't been done on the grape? Is it a question of "who cares?" at this point?

Seems it would be fascinating to find out its true origins. I've read a lot about it and gave up thinking I know anything about it...
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DNA'ing The Mission...

Postby TomHill » Thu Nov 16, 2006 10:23 pm

Thomas,
There was a small note at the end of the article that the DNA HAD been done. I had asked Carole Meredith about it earlier in the week, but she didn't get back to me until after the column deadline.
. She had a Spanish student that was doing some DNA work on a bunch of the Spanish grapes and he discovered that the Mission and Moscatel Negra are one in the same.
Tom
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Re: DNA'ing The Mission...

Postby Mike Filigenzi » Fri Nov 17, 2006 12:31 am

Great article, Tom! I had one of those Harbor Winery Mission del Sols a month or two ago. As you probably know, Darrell has them for a very reasonable price. I liked it a lot. Someone else (Shenandoah, maybe?) made one about twenty years ago that I also loved. Very sherry like, I thought.

The info on the genetics is fascinating. Do you know of any wines made from Moscatel Negra that are likely to be available? It would be fun to compare.


Mike

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Re: AlbqJournalNorth: The Mission Grape

Postby Bob Ross » Fri Nov 17, 2006 12:46 am

Thanks for the note, Tom.

Here's Robinson entry from the Oxford Second; I had a lovely Mission wine in Texas several years ago, and have wanted to learn more about this grape:

The original black grape variety planted for sacramental purposes by Franciscan missionaries in Mexico, the south west of the United States, and California in the 17th and 18th centuries. Mission was presumably of Spanish origin, imported to America by the conquistadores, and is important as a survivor from the earliest vinifera vine varieties to be cultivated in the Americas. It is identical to the Pais of Chile, is a darker-skinned version of the Criolla Chica of Argentina, and is thought by some to be the same as the Monica of Spain and Sardinia. It was an important variety in California until the spread of phylloxera in the 1880s and there were still almost 1,000 acres/405 ha grown in the early 1990s, mainly in the south of the state, and used for sweet wines. The wine made from Mission is not particularly distinguished but the variety has enormous historical significance.

Pinney, T., A History of Wine in America (Berkeley, Calif., 1989).


I'd love to collect some more info on this grape here, and then try to make sense of it all.

Regards, and thanks again, Bob
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Re: DNA'ing The Mission...

Postby Thomas » Fri Nov 17, 2006 10:37 am

TomHill wrote:Thomas,
There was a small note at the end of the article that the DNA HAD been done. I had asked Carole Meredith about it earlier in the week, but she didn't get back to me until after the column deadline.
. She had a Spanish student that was doing some DNA work on a bunch of the Spanish grapes and he discovered that the Mission and Moscatel Negra are one in the same.
Tom


Tom,

Thanks again. I didn't read the stuff at the bottom--I thought it was a long signature.
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Mission In Amador...

Postby TomHill » Fri Nov 17, 2006 11:15 am

Mike,
Yup...those Harbors are pretty good. Will be ordering some from Darrell today.
Yrs ago, Lee Sobon made sun-dried (on wooden slatted trays), back in the late '70's, from Mission grapes in Chet Eschen's Fiddletown vnyd. Sold as ShenandoahVnyds Mission Cream Sherry. Aged for a fair number of yrs in old oak puncheons and btls in the early '80's. Terrific when I had my last one about 5 yrs ago. Lee is a real lover of dessert wines and has made some great ones over the yrs.
Jim Olsen at JWMorris Port Works also made an Angelica...Sierra Sabrosa...from Kenny Deaver's Mission grapes that was terrific. Alas, I thing Deaver pulled those old vines.
The Story Mision is a dry version. Not very interesting IMHO.
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Re: DNA'ing The Mission...

Postby Bob Ross » Fri Nov 17, 2006 11:27 am

Here are a few links of possible interest on the Mission grape:

The Winkler Vine at UC Davis.


Wine at California Missions by Eve Iversen. Iversen published an excellent bibliography with this article.

The March 1932 edition of The California Grower (Wines & Vines after Repeal) was designated as the Special Mission Grape Number; reportedly full of articles praising this variety. I haven't seen the issue but it mentions two positives about the wine: it doesn't stain the altar linens or spoil easily.

Samuel Bowles wrote a survey of agriculture in California in 1868; an extract on the Mission Grape reads:

After the grains and wool, in the agricultural wealth of California, come the vineyards. There is scarcely a limit to the possible production of the grape in the State. Her valleys and her foot-hills are alike favorable to its growth. The volcanic soil of the lower hills of the Sierra Nevadas is proving, indeed, the most congenial home of the vine, and there, rather than in the Coast Valleys, which have heretofore been the chief fields of its culture, is destined to be its greatest triumphs. The grape was introduced by the old missionaries, and in their choice locations it grew and flourished most luxuriantly. A notable vine in the southern part of the State is fifteen inches thick, and bore in one year six thousand five hundred pounds of grapes. Until within a very few years there has been no other variety than that domesticated by the missionaries and known as the Mission grape. Nearly thirty millions of vines of this variety are now in bearing condition in whole State; they are capable of yielding fifteen millions of gallons of wine, and one million of gallons of brandy a year; but the wine production of 1868 was not over seven millions of gallons, though this was twice the yield of 1866. Most of this is still held in the State, the export of wine for 1868 not exceeding a quarter of a million dollars in value.

The counties of Santa Clara, Sonoma and Napa near San Francisco, and Los Angelos in the southern part of the State are at present the most forward in this business; but it is rapidly extending in all quarters, and more especially and promisingly in the districts under the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The vine and the mulberry and apparently destined to take the place of the mines in these districts, and stay their decay in wealth and population. The Mission grape varies in quality with the soil and culture; but everywhere it is strong and hearty, both as a vine and a fruit, and rich in all wine-making qualities. At first the wines were crude and coarse and heady; and they still lack the delicacy of the best European wines; but age and increased skill in the manufacture are exhibiting great improvements; and the California wines are early destined to a high and wide popularity. They already are distinguished for a high fruity flavor, a rich saccharine body, and a purity that the ease of culture and manufacture is likely to protect. New and better varieties of grape are rapidly coming into cultivation, and the admixture of these with the native, and the tempering of the virulence of the strong, fresh soil by use, will both fast contribute to the improvement of the wines and brandies of the State. The Catawba and the Isabella, the Muscat, Black Prince, White Malaga, Black Hamburg and Rose of Peru are already grown very extensively, and though the choicer of these varieties are thus far largely absorbed for eating, they will all speedily be so productive as to be used for wine-making. This last year (1868), these foreign varieties were sold for wine-making in considerable quantities at two to three dollars per hundred pounds, or about the price paid for the Mission grape. Grape-growing the wine-making are becoming two separate interests; the growers of the grapes selling the fruit by the pound or the juice by the gallon to the manufactures, who have, in some cases, large and expensive establishments and machinery for the treatment of the product. Hock or white still wine, port, angelica, a sweet reddish wine, and champagne are the principal kinds of wine so far made; but sherries and clarets are being successfully introduced. At first hands, the white wine sells for twenty-five cents a gallon, the red wine for thirty-five, and port and angelica at sixty cents.


More anon.
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Re: DNA'ing The Mission...

Postby Cynthia Wenslow » Fri Nov 17, 2006 1:25 pm

Thanks, Tom. I'll keep an eye out for the Tularosa Vineyard Mission wine.
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The Tularosa...

Postby TomHill » Fri Nov 17, 2006 1:33 pm

Cynthia,
Last time I saw the wine on the shelf, it was at the Liquor Barn out on Cerillos
and Siler. Don't think either Susan's or KoKoman currently have it.
As I've tried them over the yrs, Dave's wines have been rather...amateurish and a bit on the oxidized side. The previous Missions of his have been quite oxidized & sherry-like. This most recent one I tried I thought much nicer than earlier ones.
It's a tough grape to make a decent wine from.
The new Edible SantaFe is out and worth snagging a copy. Much inproved over the inagural edition.
Tom
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Mission

Postby Peter May » Fri Nov 17, 2006 2:18 pm

I'm glad to see somthing about Mission.

I tasted some dry red Mission in Amador County and I took away an opened bottle from Story Winery which we had a glass of the following nights in the hotel - I stuck the bottle in a icebucket and had it slightly chilled. I found it pretty enjoyable, a bit like a rustic Chianti.

And I've got a bottle at home (the only Mission in England??) that I'm waiting to share with someone who likes odd varities.

The quoted article is dismissive of the dry table wine, but I wonder if this is a bit of vicious circle -- nothingis expected of the variety, so no-one will pay much for it and it isn't given careful treatment.

It is certainly California's historic grape variety and it'd be a real shame to see it vanish.

Story winery have got a small vineyard of 150 year old Mission vines like small trees. I'd hate to see them dug up to plant Pinot Grigio or whatever is the fashionable variety at the time.
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Not To Worry....

Postby TomHill » Fri Nov 17, 2006 2:23 pm

Peter,
I seriously doubt that the variety will die out. All the old Mission plots are in places where there is not a lot of economic pressure to plant more profitable varieties. But your comment on low expectations for dry Mission wines could very well be true.
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Re: Not To Worry....

Postby Peter May » Fri Nov 17, 2006 2:48 pm

TomHill wrote:Peter,
I seriously doubt that the variety will die out. All the old Mission plots are in places where there is not a lot of economic pressure to plant more profitable varieties.


I found it difficult to get hold of any Mission wine -- only did it by going to winery. Cellartracker shows only one dry Mission table wine in its database of 2 million bottles, so it doesn't seem there is much demand.

I hope you're correct, but its future doens't look bright to me
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Re: Mission

Postby Paul B. » Fri Nov 17, 2006 2:51 pm

Peter May wrote:The quoted article is dismissive of the dry table wine, but I wonder if this is a bit of vicious circle -- nothing is expected of the variety, so no-one will pay much for it and it isn't given careful treatment.

Bingo.

Peter, I can't comment on Mission per se as I have never seen one before nor tried one. However, I can tell you that it is EXACTLY this pattern that takes place with pretty much all grapes of which the establishment is regularly dismissive. It's only when you get a pioneering winemaker who wants to experiment and does so without the final thought of immediate financial return (i.e. pleasing consumers' tastes/current fads) that many grapes get a chance to show what they're really capable of. Expediency should never be confused with truth - yet too often a grape will be written off based on very questionable reasoning.
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Re: Mission In Amador...

Postby Mike Filigenzi » Fri Nov 17, 2006 10:44 pm

TomHill wrote:Mike,

The Story Mision is a dry version. Not very interesting IMHO.
Tom


Nine Gables also makes a dry Mission. They've been hit and miss for me, although even when they hit I find them more interesting than wonderful.


Mike

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