THE MISSION GRAPE
Distinct and Almost Extinct
Written by: Les Noteworthy
For centuries the Spanish Missionaries travelled the globe, spreading Christianity wherever they settled. They built missions, schools, villages and developed culture and spread education as they moved across the unexplored reaches of the world. They also brought with them and spread another significant social ingredient…that would be wine!
With the spread of Christianity came the mainstay of Catholicism, the Holy Mass. One of the principal canons of the Holy Mass was the ceremonial changing of water into wine with communion. The wine feature became a focal point in the missionary life style, and a critical part of daily missionary culture.
Since church wine as well as table wine was such an integral part of this life style, we must ask, “Where did the wine come from?” Did the monks bring it with them from Spain? Was it shipped in order to follow them, or did they grow their own grapes and make their own wines? The answer is all of the above! Certainly all explorers, conquistadors and missionaries traveled with some quantity of wine. Supply convoys followed with other items…usually containing shipments of wines and brandies, but it never proved to be sufficient, hence the development of monastery vineyards.
On premises vineyards provided monks (and their minions) with the opportunity to work in the fields, produce their own grapes, and then ferment them into wine for both ceremonies and enjoyment. As they traveled the vineyards grew, as the vineyards grew, wine production grew, as did consumption and enjoyment.
Most of the earliest plantings were a very hearty, yet unimpressive varietal of Vitus Vinifera simply referred to as the “Mission Grape”. This name refers directly to the common black grape brought by the Spanish to the California missions, yet differs ever so slightly from the pink Criolla grape of Argentina, and the Red Pais Grape found in Chile. Studies have identified that this varietal (or possibly varietals) is still found, and most certainly existed in other former missionary regions, but has either been replaced with more popular varietals, or remains undetected for what it is.
In Argentina, it actually hosts a family of pink skinned Criollas, including the Torrontes family of varietals and Torrontel (or Moscatel Amarillo).
Chile knows the grape as Red Pais or Pais Chica, and was extensively planted and was always used for production of local Pisco, a Brandy or Grappa-like spirit.
Recent DNA testing has actually defined the grape and her morphed cousins to be descended from a little known Spanish varietal called Listan Prieto. Listan is another term for the Palomino grape, often used for the production of Sherry, while Prieto is local jargon for dark or black, roughly defining this grape as a black grape, which is the original term for the California variety of the mission grape.
While Listan Prieto has proven to be a highly adaptable vine and impervious to the Phylloxera Epidemic, it is rarely found today. It offered the foundation for a monumental industry in the new world settlements in both North and South America, and is certainly the birthright of the wine industry’s origins in this part of the globe. It spread throughout half of the world to aid in the celebration of the missionary’s holiest of holy ceremonies, and has led to the development of a world of wines centuries later.
We should we say, “Thank you Jesus, thank you Lord!” Because without the fervent desire to spread Christianity throughout North and South America, we probably would never have experienced the widespread plantings and production techniques now recognized as the humble beginnings to our modern wine industry.
Next time you open a bottle of wine, think about this story as you enjoy it!