Brought to California by the Spanish friars in the late 1700s, the mission grape occupies a curious place in global viticulture. In 2006, after centuries of mystery, the grapevine was determined to be the same as pais, which is grown mostly in Chile, and listan prieto, grown in the Canary Islands, generally following the route that Spanish colonists followed into the New World.
The grape was long considered to make only tepid wine, which is why so much of it was historically turned into brandy. But a revival — particularly in the natural-wine, return-to-historic-roots set — is revealing that the grape can indeed make a variety of zesty styles, from pale whites and crisp rosés to darker-hued reds. This is happening quite a bit in not only Baja California but also Chile, the Canary Islands, and California.
In line with their decade-old project to grow grapes on Catalina Island — including zinfandel cuttings from the historic vines on Santa Cruz Island — the Rusack family also took cuttings of mission grape from the old island vineyard and planted them at their Ballard Canyon estate in 2015. The experiment hasn’t been easy.
“It grows really fast and tries to produce large quantities of fruit, so we have to do some aggressive thinning,” said winemaker Steven Gerbac of the challenges. “It can have low acid, so we pick really early. It also doesn’t have a lot of color, so picking it with higher acid helps there, too.”
After a couple of trial vintages, Rusack Vineyards just released its first mission grape bottling, which is from the 2019 vintage. It’s packaged under their “Boundless” line of wines, a series that gives Gerbac freedom to play. “When those turn out well, we’ll release them,” he explained. “It’s never guaranteed that we’ll bottle the same wine twice.”
I drank most of an entire chilled bottle last Friday night almost by accident. For a red wine, it was light, crisp, and refreshing, with just enough acid to battle the snappy red fruit flavors. “We are really looking for freshness here,” said Gerbac, who only made 36 cases and is selling the wine for $28, though it may already be gone. “We really just wanted to create a fun wine.”
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