Sunday, December 18, 2011

A unique flavor from the past!

According the harvest reports, there’s only 93 hectares of the Mission grape in production in California. To find a wine made from it is not easy and to find a unique and very good wine from it, it almost unlikely. Yet there is one.
   The Mission grape was brought to Mexico by the Spaniards in the end of the sixteenth century. They took if from the Canary Islands, where it is known as Listán Negra, en local variety of average quality and low interest. However, this is a variety that can make a drinkable wine in dry and warm regions.

   The Spanish conquistadors brought cuttings of Listán Negra to plant in their new colonies, but it didn’t thrive in the warm and humid climate in the Caribbean, where the Spanish sugar canes did much better. When the Spanish soldiers conquered Mexico, they tried again to plant the cuttings, and here it worked much better. They used the wine for sacramental purposes at the mission stations the Jesuits priests founded, hence the new name Mission for this particular variety. When northern California stood in line to be christened, the Spanish priests build 21 missions stations from San Diego in the south, to the town of Sonoma in the north, and they planted this Mission grape for their sacramental wines.
   In the mid of century, when California had become an independent state belonging to the United States of America, viticulture evolved and wines started to be made of European grape varieties, Vitis vinifiera. The Mission grape went out of fashion, and the few vineyards that were left, was abandoned either due to the phylloxera in the late 1800s, or under the Prohibition from 1920 to 1933. 

When Deborah Hall and her (now) late husband bought an estate in the northern part of Santa Rita Hills in 1994, they did it with a dream of planting some vineyards. On their estate, they found a slope with old, gnarly vines that obviously hadn’t been taken care of for decades. They didn’t know what kind of vines it was, so they sent samples to UC Davis, where they via DNA identified the vines as Mission. Deborah later found out, through a quite in dept research, that the vineyard had been planted by the monks of Purisima Mission Station further west in the valley, but most likely were abandoned during Prohibition.
   In the hands of Deborah, these precious vines has since then been carefully taken care of. In addition to the 1.20 hectares of Mission they found (they are widely spaced, and some of vines are dead, so vineyard is not worth more than a third of that acreage), Deborah have planted another 0.40 hectare of Mission from cuttings of these old vines.
   Besides this unique wine, Deborah is also producing some pinots and her winery is called Gypsy Canyon. You should really look this winery up.
   Paul Lato is her consulting winemaker and the first vintage of the Mission wine was 2001, of the pinots 2003.

NV Ancient Vine Angelica Doña Marcelina’s Vineyard  / 92 p
This unique wine is made from 100 percent of old vine Mission, planted in 1887 in the Dõna Marcelina’s Vineyard in the northern part of Santa Rita Hills. Grapes are harvested at full ripeness, whole cluster pressed and the juice is then allowed to sit in a small tank overnight to become totally clear. Then the juice is fermented until it reaches around ten percent alcohol, and then a neutral brandy with 95 percent alcohol strength is added for the fermentation to stop. That leaves a fortified wine with around 17 percent of alcohol and some 90 grams of residual sugar per liter. Since the Jesuit priests didn’t use new oak barrels in the past, this wine has been kept in small older barrels, which are only filled to 60 percent for oxygen to allow an oxidation during the three years of maturation the wine gets.
   The wine is golden amber of medium intensity, on the nose it’s rich and very complex with notes of honey, dried fruit, almonds and walnuts, it’s actually reminiscent of a slightly drier style of Madeira or the mosctels of Setúbal in Portugal. On the palate, it’s medium bodied but quite intense, as fortified wine normally are, and it combines a delicious sweetness with a good rather than fresh acidity, and there’s also a mild (and positive) bitterness from the slight oxidation the three years of barrel ageing has given. The complex notes of honey and walnuts are there, as well as a sweetish touch of Sultana raisins. It’s a lovely wine, one of a kind, and it one of the very few classical styled fortified wines of California.
   Sadly, the production is very limited, and normally Deborah bottles somewhere between 25 and 50 cases of half bottles every year. It doesn’t come cheap – around 140 dollar including tax, but then the wine is a rare reminder of the history of the wine country of California.
   It should be served at around 14-15 degrees Celsius to cheeses or not to sweet deserts. It can hold up a few weeks in the opened bottle, so it’s no rush finishing the bottle. 
Drink it within 10 years

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