Through a friend at the L.A. County Arboretum, I was introduced to Chuck Lyones – Public Relations Director at the San Gabriel Mission.
I’ve always been curious about Mission grapes and the wine made from them. Sure, there are a few producers in California from whom I could buy the finished wine, but I wanted to see what it’s like to work with the grape.
I was really lucky that Chuck allowed me to pick a bucket of grapes for experimenting. I visited the mission as they were cleaning up after the historic windstorm that hit Southern California a few days earlier.
I was not only going to get to make Mission wine. I was going to get a chance to make wine from the over 150-year-old Mother Vine.
Actually, there are three vines at the Mission. Gnarly, growing essentially wild over a trellis, pergola-style. One of them, the Mother Vine, was the source of scion for countless California vineyards. The one from which I picked my fruit turns out not to be that vine. I am not disappointed.
Chuck lent a ladder while his daughter swept up in the courtyard. I climbed up and picked through the tangle, trying not to cut anything that the plant may need.
The Mission variety (demonstrated to be the rather obscure Iberian cultivar, Listán Prieto) is highly productive and is said to have loose clusters. The latter seems to distinguish California Mission from Listán Prieto. Mission has fairly loose clusters, by my observation, but I have not seen the same distinction made about Listán Prieto. This likely is a result of the clonal variation that occurred over the past three centuries during selection of seed-propagated vines in geographic isolation from the original vines.
I just did not expect to see such tiny berries, however. These very loose clusters were shedding berries at the slightest disturbance. At one point, I actually scooped up handfuls of loose berries off the ground and into my bucket.
I ended up with about 8 pounds of the tiniest grapes I have ever seen. The grapes looked usable but were tiny, with just a small portion of the berries comparable to other wine grapes in size. There was some shrivel and a considerable amount of uneven ripening.
And lots of MOG.
I sorted out the MOG and crushed the berries. It made about 4/5 of a gallon of must which gave a good color very quickly. I let it sit and color up for a few hours in the fridge before I started testing and adjusting. It smelled rather innocuous and weedy like dry leaves or hay, at first.
Sugars were at 27.5° Bx (which I’ve been told, by some winemakers who make Mission wines , is a desirable level). Acids were quite high: 3.0 pH (this is a surprisingly low pH for Mission, but not a bad thing).
I put in pectinase to extract as much color and flavor out of the tiny berries. This was recommended by a commercial Mission producer, but I would have done it anyway to liberate as much wine out of the grapes as possible. There was a considerable amount of mildew on the berries, so in addition to the SO2, I added Lysozyme.
I also pulled a 190 ml sample of juice and put it through a tight sieve and then blended it with an equal amount of grocery store brandy.
After the particulates settled considerably in the fridge, I racked the rosy pink stuff into 50 ml sample bottles. This is one of the ways to make Angelica.
This fortified type of wine, is thought to be named after Los Angeles. Lore has it, that Angelica was first made by the Franciscan padres at the San Gabriel Mission in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Another way to make Angelica is to make it Port-style: after the wine starts fermenting and gains color, it is blended with brandy (or unoaked grape spirits). Both ways stop and prevent fermentation. The resulting wine is sweet and microbiologically stable. The only difference is, presumably, the depth color: The Port-style would be a deeper red.
24 hours after making my additions, I pitched RC212 yeast. Since that was very slow to start, I added D47 the next morning. This took off fairly quickly and was soon smelling vaguely grapey and jammy with fairly transient notes of game and chocolate from D47.
As the ferment progressed, it became more jammy and vaguely vinous. I transferred it to a 2.5 gallon jar to minimize loss (and mess) from splatter.
A week later, the wine started to kick out VA, so I got it off the skins and into a 1/2 gal jug. This was a challenge, as I expected it would be, because the cap was so big and mushy and full of tiny chunks of pulp and skins.
But I got it done.
By anecdotal accounts, Mission wine is light in color. That is the case with my batch. I suppose I could have extracted more color out of the skins, but there was such uneven veraison, that I don’t think the difference would have been perceptible.
Racking the wine off the skins and into a jug cleared up the VA fairly quickly and the wine, which is still gassing vigorously, smells clean. However, another issue comes to mind:
Assuming a low YAN and high risk for sulfide formation and infection with spoilage species because of high sugar content, I added a healthy dose of Superfood Plus.
However, in low-nutrient musts, spoilage species like Kloeckera (and, reportedly, Brettanomyces/Dekkera) – and not only Acetobacter – can contribute to VA production. This year, all three of my reds have had VA issues. While a source of Acetobacter may be present in my cellar, I am wondering if low YAN levels in this year’s fruit could be at least a part of the reason for my VA problems.
Now, the wine is in glass and under an air lock. Since it’s still gassing vigorously, getting a reliable hydrometer reading is not going to happen. Not that this is all that necessary: The must is obviously still sweet. It also smells clean.
It’s also giving off heat. The ferment was approaching 75°F, so I dropped it to 60°F with an ice bath and that slowed it down a bit.
By the time the primary fermentation winds down and the wine settles, I’ll have racked it down to 1.5 liters. This should make four half bottles which, along with the Angelica, should give me a sense of the spectrum of what the grape does.
One last issue remains: to oak or not to oak?
I’ve reached out to some producers of Mission wine to determine if their experience recommends for or against the use of oak.