How ‘Mission Grape’ Started New World Wine

‘Mission Grape,’ it appears, has never been massively popular with wine critics. One study of the history of viticulture in the United States before Prohibition in 1919 stated that it was an “unfortunate legacy” of the early history of California under Spanish rule. This assessment described the wines produced from this grape varietal as “deficient in color and acidity” while “without distinction or keeping quality.” This has primarily been the view in recent decades, though some people are beginning to challenge it.

Arrival in the New World

So, what is ‘Mission Grape’? The broad name was applied to a grape variety imported to the Americas from Spain in the early sixteenth century by the government of Hernán Cortés in Mexico. Cortés had determined that Old World vine cuttings were needed to make wine in New Spain because the grapes found in the New World did not produce a drinkable wine. Thus, cuttings were brought from Spain, and in 1524 Cortés announced that they should be used in all viticulture practiced in Central America.

This Old-World grape varietal soon became known generically as ‘Mission Grape’ because a vast proportion of the wine produced in the Spanish territories across the Americas in the sixteenth century was being used as sacramental wine to celebrate the mass. Since many of those celebrating the mass were religious missionaries aiming to convert the natives to Christianity, the grape variety became known as ‘Mission Grape.’

Mission Grape

Grapes

Its use soon spread beyond Mexico and the viceroyalty of New Spain in Central America. In the 1530s and 1540s, the Spanish extended their territorial possessions in the New World across much of the north and west of South America by conquering the native people there, most notably the Inca Empire. Once this was achieved, they began settling colonies across the region, approximating Colombia, Bolivia, Peru, and northern Chile.[1]

The ‘Mission Grape’ was soon imported into these regions from Mexico. It was used in Peru by the 1550s and was brought to northern Chile in 1554 by Juan Jufre and Diego Garcia de Cáceres. In the latter region, it became somewhat synonymous with the Pais varietal. Finally, as Spain began colonizing further south into the Rio de la Plata Valley and the Argentinian highlands, ‘Mission Grape’ was brought there too. It first arrived in 1557 when cuttings were planted at Santiago del Estero.[2]

Mission to California

‘Mission Grape’ and its derivatives, such as Pais and Criollo in South America, continued to dominate in many parts of the New World until the eighteenth century. Indeed, in the late 1760s, it was transplanted to a new region when Spanish Franciscan missionaries began establishing the first permanent European settler colonies in Alta California. As soon as they arrived in San Diego, their first port of call in the region, they began planting vine cuttings of ‘Mission Grape’ to produce wine for celebrating mass. Consequently, ‘Mission Grape’ formed the basis of the early wine industry in California.[3]

It continued to do so into the nineteenth century, even as the scale of wine production across California increased dramatically between the 1830s and the 1860s. As it did, cuttings were taken from the missionaries’ vineyards and planted elsewhere, now by cattle ranchers and homesteaders who had come out west to pan for gold. Much of the Gold Rush of the 1840s and 1850s was undoubtedly seen through a haze created by ‘Mission Grape’ wine, a vintage essentially drunk as a port-like fortified wine in the mid-nineteenth century.

Declining Use in California

Change was on the way, though. The second half of the nineteenth century saw growing wealth across America, as the railways were built across the country and the oil boom began. Large amounts of this new money flowed into California, where trade connections were formed with Japan, China, and the rest of the Pacific Rim. As the state became wealthier many of its citizens wanted a higher quality type of wine than it was deemed possible to make from ‘Mission Grapes.’ New grape varieties began to arrive and displace the vines introduced by the padres a century earlier.

No individual was as central to this development as Agoston Haraszthy, a Hungarian-American who moved to California in the late 1840s. In the early 1860s, he traveled to Europe and arrived back in December 1861 with an array of vine cuttings from over 350 European grape varietals. In the following years, he distributed cuttings from these all over California, transforming the state’s wine from a local industry reliant on ‘Mission Grape’ to a more sophisticated form of viticulture. Nevertheless, ‘Mission Grape’ was retained by many wineries and small producers to make cheap table wine, and it remained a vital part of the state’s industry for decades to come.[4]

The Prohibition of alcohol in the United States in 1919 sealed the fate of ‘Mission Grape.’ While the production of wine continued in America for ‘medicinal purposes,’ the volume produced plummeted in the 1920s. Over 95% of California’s vineyards were converted into growing other products. Consequently, when Prohibition ended in the early 1930s, very few viticulturists still using ‘Mission Grape’ to produce their wines in the 1910s returned to using the same rootstocks. It was largely the end of the mysterious grape varietal Serra had introduced to California over 150 years earlier.[5]

An Identity Solved: ‘Mission Grape’ and Listán Prieto

While the exact nature of ‘Mission Grape’ has been unclear for centuries, the conundrum has recently been solved. In the early twenty-first century, new research was undertaken by a large group of researchers under the auspices of the Centro Nacional de Biotecnologia in Madrid to use modern DNA analysis and other methods to determine precisely what rootstock was involved in the mysterious ‘Mission Grape.’

This study involved analysis of vine cuttings from California, Peru, Chile, and Argentina, which were then cross-compared with cuttings from all over Spain. The study’s results were published in The American Journal of Enology and Viticulture in 2007. This revealed that ‘Mission Grape’ was primarily derived from Listán Prieto, with some traces of Spanish Muscat. This Listán Prieto varietal was taken from Castile in the sixteenth century and brought to Mexico. Still, today it is very rare in the Old World and largely confined to vineyards in the Canary Islands.[6]

‘Mission Grape’ in the Twenty-First Century: A Revival?

Curiously, this study to pinpoint the identity of ‘Mission Grape’ coincided with efforts to resurrect its use of it in California. For instance, at the Story Winery in Plymouth, California, there is a small vineyard of ‘Mission Grape,’ which was planted back in 1894. The owners there have seen an explosion of interest in wine made from the varietal in recent years, and cuttings have been taken to other locations to begin producing more of it in the state. Those producing wine made from ‘Mission Grape’ today know that it is best enjoyed shortly after production, but if one has a taste for particularly bitter wines with citrusy notes, it has its appeal. Thus, far from being an “unfortunate legacy” of California’s wine history, Mission Grape might have a bright future in American viticulture.[7]

 The Wine Industry in Nineteenth-Century California

The nineteenth century saw the transformation of the California wine industry from a small one based on the use of ‘Mission Grape’ to produce enough wine for the small colonial community’s needs to the center of winemaking in the United States of America. This was driven by individuals within California who wished to expand the state’s potential as a center of viticulture and by external factors. For instance, the phylloxera epidemic in Europe and France devastated the Old World’s wine production capacity during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and New World wine-producing regions such as California benefited enormously. By the 1890s, the modern industry was beginning to emerge. By that time, Sonoma had over 20,000 acres of land under vine, Santa Clara had also emerged as a significant area of viticulture, and Napa Valley was beginning its ascent to become one of the most important wine-producing regions in the world, with some 18,000 acres under vine there already by that time.[8]

Wine in the Canary Islands

The wine industry in the Canary Islands dates to the establishment of Spanish rule across the archipelago in the fifteenth century. Genovese mariners discovered the islands in the early fourteenth century. Still, it was not until the early fifteenth century that the islands began to be settled by the Kingdom of Castile and later Spain. Grape varietals were soon introduced from Spain and Crete in the Eastern Mediterranean. The climate closely mirrors that of the Canary Islands.

For centuries after that, the islands were noted for the production of Sack wine or Malmsey, a fortified white wine widely sold all over Western Europe. However, today the industry consists of a mix of red and white wines, with an even combination of both in the over 15 million gallons of Canarian wine produced annually. The whites are dry and quite acidic, a result of the volcanic soil of the Canaries. At the same time, the reds are light, particularly fruity, owing to carbonic maceration. The Canaries are also virtually the only place worldwide where Listán Prieto, the grape varietal primarily used to make ‘Mission Grape’ wine in the New World for 400 years, is still grown extensively.[9]

On this Day

December 2, 1547 – On this day in 1547, Hernán Cortés died in the town of Castilleja de la Cuesta near Seville in Spain. Over a quarter of a century earlier, he had led the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire in Central America, establishing the viceroyalty of New Spain in what is now Mexico. Spanish missionary efforts to convert the natives to Christianity soon commenced and much wine was needed for sacramental purposes. At first, the Spanish attempted to produce wine in Mexico using grapes native to the region. However, the resultant wine was of poor quality, and Cortés was soon sent back to Spain for vine-cuttings from the Old World. When these began arriving, the wine produced was far superior to that made in New Spain from native varietals. Accordingly, the Old-World cuttings were reproduced and became a staple of Spanish wine production across the New World over the next several decades. The grape varietal Cortés had imported soon referred to as ‘Mission Grape,’ a development which, over the centuries, led to the identity of the true varietal being completely lost. It was not until 2007 that it was rediscovered that it was Listán Prieto, a varietal native to Castile in the sixteenth century but now largely confined to the Canary Islands back in Europe.[10]

June 1, 2007 – On this day in 2007, a ground-breaking study was published in The American Journal of Enology and Viticulture. This multi-authored research paper resulted from years of investigation to determine the identity of the mysterious ‘Mission Grape,’ which had been first brought to the New World from Spain in the 1520s and planted in Mexico. It subsequently became central to the wine industries in Mexico, Peru, Chile, Argentina, and California and was a staple of New World wines for the next 400 years. However, despite its ubiquity in winemaking in the Americas, the identity of the grape varietal, which had been designated as ‘Mission Grape,’ had remained elusive. The study published in 2007 using modern DNA analysis of rootstocks from multiple New World countries and from all over Spain to finally determine that the grape varietal involved was Listán Prieto, a type of grape that had been brought to the Americas from Castile, the region of central Spain in which Madrid sits today. But, owing to disease outbreaks and changing patterns of production ever since, Listán Prieto is almost entirely confined today to the Canary Islands, the Spanish island archipelago off the western coast of Morocco.[11]

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References

[1] John Hemming, Conquest of the Incas (New York, 1970).

[2] Andre Domine, Wine (London, 2004), pp. 840–844; ‘Argentina’, ‘Chile’, ‘Peru’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006).

[3] Irving McKee, ‘The Beginnings of California Winegrowing’, in The Quarterly: Historical Society of Southern California, Vol. 29, No. 1 (March, 1947), pp. 59–71.

[4] Brian McGinty, The Life and Legend of Agoston Haraszthy (Stanford, 1998); Lévai, Csaba, ‘Ágoston Haraszthy: “Father of California Viticulture”?’, in Hungarian Studies Review, Vol. 40, No. 1 (Spring, 2013), pp. 7–24.

[5] Mary Orlin, ‘The Legacy of Prohibition on Wine, 80 Years Later’, Huffington Post, 6 December 2017.

[6] Alejandra Milla Tapia, José Antonio Cabezas, Felix Cabello, Thierry Lacombe, José Miguel Martinez-Zapater, Patricio Hinrichsen and Mariá Teresa Cervera, ‘Determining the Spanish Origins of Representative Ancient American Grapevine Varieties’, in The American Journal of Enology and Viticulture, Vol. 58 (June, 2007), pp. 242–251.

[7] Esther Mobley, ‘Mission Revival: State’s First Wine Grape, circa 1760, rides again’, San Francisco Chronicle, 23 March 2017; ‘Mission Grape’, in Gary Paul Nabhan (ed.), Renewing America’s Food Traditions: Saving and Savoring the Continent’s Most Endangered Foods (White River Junction, Vermont, 2008).

[8] ‘California’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006).

[9] https://www.winemag.com/2022/04/15/simple-canary-island-wine-guide/ [accessed 2/7/22]; A. D. Francis,

The wine trade (London, 1972), pp. 18–19.

[10] William A. Ausmus, Wines and Wineries of California’s Central Coast: A Complete Guide from Monterey to Santa Barbara (Berkeley, California, 2008), pp. 10–12; Irving McKee, ‘The Beginnings of California Winegrowing’, in The Quarterly: Historical Society of Southern California, Vol. 29, No. 1 (March, 1947), pp. 59–71, at p. 59.  

[11] Alejandra Milla Tapia, José Antonio Cabezas, Felix Cabello, Thierry Lacombe, José Miguel Martinez-Zapater, Patricio Hinrichsen and Mariá Teresa Cervera, ‘Determining the Spanish Origins of Representative Ancient American Grapevine Varieties’, in The American Journal of Enology and Viticulture, Vol. 58 (June, 2007), pp. 242–251.

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