Mission, the first European grape variety planted in the United States, returns

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When Adam and Andrew Mariani purchased an old, abandoned turkey farm near the town of Sonoma, California, they knew the property had been a thriving winery from the 1850s until Prohibition. As a nod to the Dresel family, German immigrants who owned the land, the brothers planted Sylvaner and Riesling, two German grape varieties that are – let’s just say under-planted these days in Northern California. They also planted German clones of pinot noir, known in German as spätburgunder.

Over the past 15 years, their Scribe Winery has gained a following among the natural wine crowd for natural sparkling wines, a chardonnay fermented on its skins and a new pinot noir, as well as riesling, sylvaner and others wines.

While doing more research on the history of the estate, the brothers discovered an 1872 press clipping from Alta California, a daily newspaper published in San Francisco. The article recounted how Julius Dresel, the winemaker at the time, sent some of his wines to Geisenheim, his hometown and the German equivalent of the University of California, Davis for wine studies. There, the wines were reviewed by a panel of professional tasters, who particularly adored the red Dresel wines made with the mission grape. The mission was “pure in taste, ripe and smooth”, with a sweetness and “authentic alcohol” that contrasted with previous low harvests in Germany. They even compared the still mission to the great wines of Burgundy. Dresel, being no slouch when it comes to marketing, made sure the newspaper got wind of his achievement.

“We knew about the California mission story, but this was the first time we heard that it was grown on our estate and received such success,” Andrew said. “It was the first time we had seen tasting notes and analyzes of the wines grown here. We thought it would be interesting to see how the mission would work if done with a modern approach.

I spoke to the brothers on the phone as they drove around a vineyard in their van. It was hard to tell who was speaking, especially when they were finishing each other’s sentences.

The mission takes its name from the grape variety planted by Spanish missionaries who accompanied the spread of the Spanish Empire in the New World in the 16th and 17th centuries. After being introduced to Mexico and Chile in the mid-1500s, Mission was established along the Rio Grande in central New Mexico in 1629, making it the first European variety of vinifera planted in what is the United States today. She reached California in 1769 with the founding of the first mission in San Diego.

The different aliases of the grape variety testify to its history and the places where it is still found form a map of the time of the Spanish conquest. You can still buy a few made from inherited vineyards in Chile, where it is called país, by Mariposa by Gillmore and the Bouchon family. In Argentina, where it is called criolla chica, the Torres family makes a delicious sparkling wine. Only in the past 15 or so years has modern DNA research identified the variety as listán prieto, a vine native to central Spain that is believed to have been wiped out by phylloxera in the late 1900s. 1800.

Mission was the main red grape of Spanish California, but it fell out of favor when the territory became an American state and immigrants from other European countries, seeking gold rush riches, their brought other more familiar varieties. Phylloxera and Prohibition – which spelled the death knell for the original Dresel vineyard – contributed to the decline of the varietal’s popularity.

The mission can still be found in some of those gnarled, bush-formed vineyards planted a century or more ago that are still scattered across California. Until at least the 1980s, some wineries made a sweet, fortified dessert wine with a mission called Angelica. Today, a few maverick winemakers produce small amounts of mission from these heirloom vines.

“No one has planted a mission in California since Prohibition, as far as we know,” Adam said. “Nurseries don’t sell it.”

With no commercial source for available vines, the brothers turned to UC Davis, which maintains a legacy vineyard of historic California-grown varietals. They took 10 cuttings from the healthiest mission vines, each with four buds, and propagated them each year. Like layers of puff pastry multiplying after each fold, they soon had thousands of cuttings, enough to plant two acres using modern vineyard trellising and spacing. In 2020, they harvested enough grapes to make experimental wines. Last year they opted for two reds, a still and a sparkling, both of which they made available to club members at Scribe Winery in July.

The still wine reminded me a bit of Beaujolais, with its savory character and light body. The sparkling mission is reminiscent of an American lambrusco, ideal for barbecue or charcuterie. These are excellent examples of the lighter style of wines that are increasingly popular with consumers today.

“They have an earthly quality to them,” Andrew said. “Nothing else on our estate has that kind of old-fashioned rusticity.”

As the vines mature, the brothers should be able to increase production, but they can’t do much with two acres of vines. They don’t have any immediate plans to propagate more mission, but they’re impressed with the variety’s vigor and hardiness, which could help vines through drought years.

Those gnarled old vineyards won’t last forever. But for now, at least, these two acres on a restored farmhouse near Sonoma provide a bridge between California’s winey past and its future.

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