The Old Mother Grapevine of San Gabriel
The “Old Mother Grapevine” was planted in 1861, making her now 148 years old, and is one of the most beloved plants in California. She’s kind of a celebrity and has been since the turn of the century. At one point she covered 10,000 square feet, but she’s been trimmed down in recent years and is as hale and hearty as ever. In fact, I think she looks better now than in the ‘30s.
I wanted to know more about her – what kind of grape is it? – seemed like a pretty obvious question, and I set out to do some research. She’s a Mission grape, which says nothing, so more investigating was necessary. Check this out:
A couple of years back, a team of Spanish researchers, headed by graduate student Alejandra Milla Tapia at the Centro Nacional de Biotecnología in Madrid, did some DNA analysis on the Mission
grapes. Their findings were published in the journal
of the American Society of Enology and Viticulture.
The verdict is 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.
According to Lynn Alley from Wine Spectator:
“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.”
Now that’s just great, but what about the wine? Is Mission wine any good, or just good enough, if that’s all you’ve got?
According to Ken Payton, from Reign of Terroir, the answer is “sort of.”
“Yes, the historically important Mission grape is still being used in California for blends and even for 100% variety bottlings. About 1000 acres of Mission remain under cultivation here, roughly the same acreage as Petit Verdot! Though a far less distinguished grape than PV, nevermind Cabernet or Zinfandel, the other ‘founding’ California vine, the Mission grape possesses an unrivaled caché in the state. Still used as a blending grape for fortified sacramental wines and inexpensive Gallo and Robert Mondavi bottlings, there also exist a few higher end, charming efforts, more about which in a moment.
The padres vinified as they were able, using cowhides stitched together for the crushing, done underfoot. The juice was then poured into any available
receptacle for fermentation. (Often the results, if
fermented to dry reflected poorly on the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, shall we say. So Brandy was frequently added to the grape juice at the crush, arresting fermentation altogether, California’s first contribution to the world of wine: Angelica.) But with respect to modern expressions of Mission many a palate comes away with the impression of a sweet, simple wine, very pale, almost rosé in color. While not exactly disappointing, drinkers find Mission wine has very little structure. Tannins are virtually absent, alcohol tends to be nearly 15%, with little effort on the winemaker’s part to manipulate largely because of the historical significance of the drinking experience itself.
Be that as it may, for the purposes of this article I recently had the pleasure of drinking one of the finest 100% Mission wines still available: Rocco Malvini’s Com’ è Bella 2002 Vallecito Vineyards Mission. The nose is sweet, (alc. @ 14.3%, though I think it is closer to 15%) with dark, ripe plum and fig. Color quite light, a hint of orange, but does not taste oxidized. Vanilla cream and milk candy, followed by an expansive soft mid-palate of vanilla and plums. Finish has just a bit of acid, no tannin to speak of. Very fruity, oak notes close the experience. All in all, quite a bit better when done in French Oak rather than cowhide!
A very simple wine, to be sure, but also charming, like the man himself. I had the pleasure of speaking with Rocco. Somehow ended up with his home number. A humble man, he’ll sign your bottles
should you make it to Com’ è Bella’s tasting room in Murphys, Ca., though now under very capable new ownership, renamed Bodega del Sur Winery. Wander in, have a chat with the man. Rocco is an important link to a swiftly changing vinous landscape.”
Well, I’m just darned happy that Mission wine is still out there to be tried. Most of the sources I looked at didn’t think much of it and tried to classify it as a “barbeque” wine in food pairings. Well, that suits me fine. Maybe I’ll look up Rocco Malvini and have some ribs and wine under the grape vine. I’m pretty sure the Old Mother will be there when I get around to it.
Here's another wrinkle in the whole "how old is she?" debate, and that is that Mission grapes were planted maybe as early as 1771 – that sign sayin' 1775 is about right. Mother Grapevine is maybe 500 feet from the mission, and could have been from the original vineyard. "Could've been," not "was." Now apparently, the 1861 date was based on an affidavit that the vine was planted by someone named David Franklin Hall of the Michael White Ranch (aka the Mission yard) in that year. Well folks, I'm not entirely convinced! I'm gonna keep an open mind until some more information comes in. All this tells me is that the minimum planting date is 1861, and she might be older – almost 100 years older! If the real date is 1775, then the old girl is 234 years old.
The San Gabriel Chamber of Commerce newsletter says that when she was at her productive peak (as opposed to the petite decorative mode she's in now) she produced one ton of grapes per year – enough to make 400-600 barrels of wine. They also say that despite her advanced age, she's low maintainence – just periodic prunings to keep her on the arbor.