by Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)
I know very little about the Mission grape, but I tasted some Mission grape wine yesterday, courtesy of my friend Arthur Przebinda. He made all of one and a half liters of it from some grapes he sourced from some mission. I don’t know how you make such a small quantity of wine and have it turn out okay, but he did. In fact, the wine was quite good. Light body, good acidity, low in tannin, nice flavors (I thought rose petal, but Arthur disagreed with me on that).
I’ve had a few Mission grape wines over the years, and I readily admit to being surprised at how good they are. I had always assumed this must be some mediocre grape that was just an historical curiosity.
The wine certainly isn’t something you’d liken to a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, at least not the ones I’ve tasted. I would liken it most to a Sangiovese, though perhaps a little lighter. It reminded me particularly of some of the Sangiovese wines from the California Foothills, which share many of the same characteristics.
Since my education when it comes to the Mission grape is limited, I decided to GOOGLE it, and I found out some interesting things. Even though this grape had a monopoly on California wine growing during the Mission era, it now accounts for 1,000 acres, which is considerably more than I would have imagined, though still not very much. It has been traced through genetic testing to an obscure Spanish variety Listen Prieto.
It’s interesting how grapes of minor importance in Europe developed into major wine grapes here. Added to the Mission grape one could count Zinfandel and Petite Sirah, grapes that are far more important here than in their European countries of origin.
As well as being used to make dry wines, the Mission grape was used to make a brandy-fortified dessert wine called Angelico. Supposedly, this makes a very good dessert wine, though it takes quite a bit of aging.
While the Mission grape may have at one point held a monopoly on California winemaking, I don’t see any great renaissance in the offing. It is now, like many other wine grapes that have limited plantings in California, going to struggle to get any market acceptance. It belong to the “other” category, which means few people will walk into a store asking for it.
Even if it’s just an historical curiosity, it seems like people should be, well, curious, about it. After all, it was the start of the California wine industry. For several centuries, that’s all that got drunk here.
If it were total plonk, then I could see why people wouldn’t care. But it’s a legitimate wine, one that deserves to be enjoyed in its own right, and not just as an history footnote.