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|Mud Creek Ranch|
Mission grapes grow on very hardy, drought-resistant vines that can grow to tremendous lengths and can live for over 100 years. The grapes look similar to concord grapes in shape and color, but are smaller in size. Mission grapes have very little acidity and are very sweet with a floral aroma.
Mission grapes are available in the late fall months.
Mission grapes are a very old variety of Vitis vinifera, first brought to the New World by Spanish missionaries. Today, it is mostly a forgotten grape, but it has great historical significance to the wine industry in California. Mission grapes are the oldest cultivated vinifera species in the United States. They were named for their association with the Catholic missions and the clergy, who used the black grape to make sacrament wine at missionaries founded in Mexico in the 16th century. The grapes are known as Criolla Chica in Argentina, Pais in Chile, and Palomino Negro in the Canary Islands.
Mission grapes are rich in vitamins B2, K and minerals like copper. They are also high in antioxidants and have anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties.
Mission grapes have primarily been used for juicing. The juice from Mission grapes is slightly sweet, with no acidity. Mission grape juice can be added to other juices in a blend with more a more acidic fruit juice like lemon or orange. Mission grapes can be used in baked goods or other desserts, and would pair well with tart fruits. Juice made from Mission grapes can be combined with brandy, to make ‘angelica,’ which was once a favorite of the fathers at the missions in Mexico and California. The addition of brandy may have been as a preservative to extend the life of sacramental wine. Mission grapes can be kept in the refrigerator for up to five days.
Mission grapes were originally planted in the United States in what was known as “Alta California,” by Franciscan missionary, Junipero Serra. The Spanish grapes had been used for making sacramental wine by the missionaries in Mexico, which was then transported to new missions being founded in California. When Spanish supply ships arrived in San Diego to resupply in the mid-1700s they brought along a vine cutting of the black grape at the request of father Serra. Serra, who was sainted in 2007, insisted that each missionary plant their own grapes to make wine, versus paying to have it transported from Mexico. Historians believe the first Mission grape vines may have been planted at the Mission San Juan Capistrano in 1779 because it was often referred to as Viña Madre (Mother Vineyard). However, some records indicate it was planted at Mission San Diego in 1769. Either way, Saint Serra is credited for having planted Mission grapes at each mission he founded along the coast of California. Mission San Gabriel has an ancient Mission grape vine that shades most of the mission’s grounds.
Only recently was it discovered that Mission grapes originated in what once was Spain’s Castile kingdom (in north-central Spain). In 2007, a graduate student at Madrid’s Centro Nacional de Biotenologia discovered to be a genetic match to the grape variety known as Listan Prieto, which was more common in 16th century Spain. The grape is rare in its native country today, after disease (phylloxera) wiped out much of the country’s vineyards in the 19th century. They were planted in Spain’s Canary Islands, which was a common stopping point for many explorers and conquistadors. It is said that Mission grapes were brought to Mexico as “common black grapes” by Hernan Cortes when he arrived in what is now Mexico in 1520. The grapes were planted at missionaries for use as a sacramental wine for Mass and the grape made its way south to Chile with the conquistadors and missionaries, where it was first recorded in 1554, and then to Peru and Argentina. Mission grapes made their way to missions throughout California and were the first grapes cultivated for wine in what is now America’s Wine Country. Cuttings of the grapes were given to villagers and the devoted by the fathers at the missions and vineyards sprung up all over the hot, dry climate of Southern California. Mission grapes didn’t make the best quality wine, and when immigrants to America began arriving with Cabernet and Merlot grape varieties, it wasn’t long before the Mission grape was overshadowed by the better wine-making varietals. After the dismantling of the mission system in the mid-1800s, the gold rush and then the destruction of vineyards during the prohibition of 1919, Mission grapes nearly disappeared in Southern California. The vines that exist today are wild or grown by select growers, like Gypsy Canyon winery in Santa Barbara, that uses the grapes to make the drink favored by the early California padres: Angelica. Today, Mission grapes are still grown in Chile, Argentina, and in very limited acreage in Southern California.