Cabernet, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir may be king in California now, but the Mission grape once dominated the state's vineyards. Brought by Spanish missionaries in the 18th century, the Mission grape became the foundation of viticulture in California, but its original identity was subsequently lost.
Historians and experts in visual identification of grape varieties have long speculated that Mission might have come from Spain or even Italy. But thanks to genetic research, the puzzle is now solved.
In December, a team of Spanish researchers, headed by graduate student Alejandra Milla Tapia at the Centro Nacional de Biotecnología in Madrid, uncovered the name and origin of the mysterious Mission grape, as well as which were the earliest European vines grown in the Americas. Their findings are slated to be published in the journal of the American Society of Enology and Viticulture.
Using the same modern DNA techniques used to establish relationships among people, the researchers found a perfect match for Mission in a little-known Spanish variety called Listan Prieto. "Prieto" means "dark or black" in Spanish, and "Listan" is a synonym for Palomino, one of the main white varieties used to make Sherry.
Grown throughout the kingdom of Castile during the 16th century, Listan Prieto is rare today in Spain's vineyards. It is, however, widely planted in Spain's Canary Islands, where it is known as Palomino Negro. The researchers believe that the variety faded from use when phylloxera wiped out many of Spain's vineyards in the late 19th century, but that it arrived in the Canary Islands—a frequent stopover for conquistadors, missionaries and traders bound for the New World—during the 16th century, and survived because the islands, even today, are phylloxera-free.
Franciscan friars planted Listan Prieto at their California missions during the 18th century. The variety was used to make sacramental wines, table wines and a sort of fortified grape juice called Angelica. Mission vineyards served as repositories from which local settlers could take vine cuttings and establish their own vineyards. Hence, the variety spread through California and Mexico and became known as the Mission grape.
Plantings of Mission, which produces weak, low-acid wines, declined as more successful winegrapes were brought to the Americas by other immigrants. Today only about 500 acres of Mission vines remain in California, mostly in the foothills and Santa Barbara County.
When they uncovered Mission's identity, the Spanish researchers were probing the relationships among the grape varieties of South America and those of Spain. According to the team, Spanish missionaries introduced two grape varieties—one of them Mission, the other Muscat of Alexandria—into Mexico and Peru between 1520 and 1540, and those spread throughout Spain's colonies in the Americas.
The researchers analyzed 79 grapevine samples from Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, California and Peru and discovered that the majority of them were identical to either Listan Prieto or Muscat of Alexandria, which is native to the Mediterranean region. Most of the remaining samples were hybrid offspring of those varieties. Listan Prieto turns out to be known as Pais in Chile, Criolla Chica in Argentina, Rosa del Peru in Peru and Rose of Peru in California.
Why and how Listan Prieto ended up populating most of the Americas' earliest vineyards is unknown. It is highly adaptable and can survive under adverse conditions, but perhaps was just the closest vine at hand when missionaries packed their bags for the New World.