Today we visited nearby mission San Juan Capistrano, the historic location of the very first vineyard in Orange County and one of the first in California. The grape variety used at the early missions is appropriately named "Mission Grape" and can still be seen here. This grape was the foundation of the California wine industry as we know it today.
The Mission grape was brought from Spain by the conquistadors in the mid-1500's, and spread throughout Spain's colonies in the Americas. Franciscan monk Junipero Serra founded Mission San Juan Capistrano in 1776, where he also established a vineyard. The first California winery was built in San Juan Capistrano in 1783.
The grapes were used to make sacramental wines, table wines, and a fortified sweet wine called Angelica.
Early colonists used grapevine cuttings obtained from the missions to establish new vineyards. And so, by the early-mid 1800's, Mission had become the dominant grape in California.
Using DNA techniques, Spanish researchers discovered in 2006 that the Mission grape actually is the same as a varietal called "Palomino Negro" or "Listan Prieto". It is still widely planted in Spain's Canary Islands.
Mission is reported to produce weak, low-acid wines, but -to it's advantage- it does well in the California climate and gives a high yield of about 10 tons per acre. With the introduction of higher quality European varietals, plantings of Mission rapidly declined. Today only about 500 acres of Mission vines remain in California, mostly for historic reasons.
At Mission San Juan Capistrano, Mission vines can be found in the garden, their long canes forming a dense canopy over the trellis.
This week we observed the first grape cluster show what winegrowers call "veraison", a French term describing the phase in the grape development when the grapes change from the hard, green state to their softened and colored form, which marks the beginning of ripening. Below is a picture I took with my iPhone in the vineyard this morning.
This early change of color confirms that we're about two weeks ahead in growth compared to last year, due to higher average temperatures.
Another visible change in the vines worth mentioning is that his year's new shoots also ripen, turning brown and becoming woody. Sugar and size of berries increase during veraison, and their acidity decreases.
Now with harvest getting closer, we will frequently check the sugar (Brix) and acidity levels of the grape berries to determine the optimal harvest date.