Early Grape Varietals in San Luis Obispo County

Have you ever wondered what varieties of grapes were first found growing on the Central Coast?

There are documents from the days of Spanish explorers, dating from the 1500s, that describe several species of native grapes (Vitis californica and Vitis girdiana) that were small, seedy and sour – enjoyed by local Indian populations but not used for winemaking.

Vitis vinifera vines, originally brought from Spain and planted along the trails and settlements of Spanish explorers and the Franciscan padres along the western coasts of North and South America, came to be described as Mission grapes. They were blue-black in color and round as a musket ball in shape. The vines were tall and strong with a high crop yield. In December 2006 scholars from the Centro Nacional de Biotecnologia in Madrid  discovered the name and origin of the mysterious Mission Grape by matching the DNA with a Spanish variety called Listan Prieto. Until 1850 Mission grapes, also known as Criolla, were the only grapes grown in California, There are less than 100o acres growing in California today. They can be found in the Gold Rush Country, the Central Valley and Southern California.

In 1801, Father Fermin de Lasuen, president of the California missions, wrote about winemaking: “In most missions, despite our endeavors, we have no success.” At the time there were wineries operating at Missions Santa Clara, San Buenaventura, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and San Gabriel. By 1823 all but four missions had flourishing wineries. Mission San Gabriel was the largest with three wine presses and eight brandy stills. The San Gabriel Mission produced 9,000 gallons of wine and 3,000 gallons of brandy at the height of production. San Luis Obispo was second in production many of those years.

When the Gold Rush attracted over 300,000 people to California in 1848 to 1850, horticulturists and nursery owners in the eastern United States, midwest and western Europe traveled to the San Francisco Bay Area to determine what plants and trees would grow and feed the expanding population in the various climates. New varieties of grapes, crops and fruit trees  were brought by ship and by land to plant close to the Pacific Ocean to determine what would flourish and feed an expanding population

Grape cuttings were traded among growers from north to south. Many varietals were brought over from Europe and the East Coast via ship. Others came by wagon. These varietals were prized as table grapes at the time. Wine-making developed later during the 1850s.

 

Winemakers in the San Luis Obispo region
had many grape varieties.

Grape Growers and their Varietals 1870

An article published in the 15 October 1870 Democratic Standard titled “Our County – Its Climate and Resources” lists four different grape growers in the San Luis Obispo County. In Arroyo Grande, Mr. D.F. Newsom of the White Sulphur Springs was growing Muscat of Alexandria. J.P. Andrews had a vineyard that had “Old Mission varieties” alongside “several of the choicest foreign kinds.” W.T. Sheid in the Estrella grew Black Prince and Muscat of Alexandria, among others not specifically named. At the rancho of San Ysabel, the Messrs. Dore were “resuscitating and improving” an old Mission vineyard.

 

George Hampton and his One Thousand Vines -1876

The Tribune ran an article on George W. Hampton on 17 June 1876 and his “thousand vines” that covered two acres on his farm. Nine different varieties were planted, many that are similar to other grape growers in the area. They include: Muscat of Alexandria, Chasselas Fountainbleau, Fiher Zagos, Black Malvoisia, Black Morocco, Rose of Peru, Flame Tokay, Early Victoria, and Black Hamburg. Hampton did not plant any Mission grapes as they did not produce a high yield or make a better profit than the foreign varieties.

 

A.B. Hasbrouck – Record Keeping in 1884

In the upper Arroyo Grande Valley, Abram Hasbrouck has left a map dated 20 April 1884 of his St. Remy vineyard which shows what he planted and where in his vineyard. Champagne, Muscat of Alexandria, Malaga, Black Hamburg, Rose of Peru, Malvoisie, and Lenoir grapes all had delegated spaces.

Hasbrouck kept very accurate annotations of his vineyard. In 1886 and 1887 more Muscat was planted. 1889 saw Zinfandel, Charboneaux, and Malaga grapes added to his vineyard.

 

Three Popular Wine Grape Varietals
in San Luis Obispo County

 

Muscat of Alexandria

Muscat of Alexandria is the variety that most of the vintners listed above have in common. According to Vines, Grapes, and Wines by Jancis Robinson, the Muscat family has “well over 200 different sorts of Muscat and derivatives” (Robinson 182).  Their color ranges from yellow to black; they can be used as both wine and table grapes. As the name suggests, the grape originated from North Africa, around the area of the legendary city of Alexandria. It may be “associated with the ancient Egyptians whose plantings demonstrate such admirable grapes of winemaking techniques” (Robinson 185). University of California Davis Files place the arrival of the grape in California in the mid-1800s, “reportedly first brought in 1852 by Antoine Delmas” in the Santa Clara County. It is grown in the famous wine regions around the globe but prefers a hot climate. This may have been a reason it flourished in California, as the wine regions of the state boast relatively hot climates compared to others. Muscat of Alexandria has large, long conicals with oval fruit that green to yellow when ripe.

In the final chapter of Culture of the Grape by William C. Strong, published in 1866, there is a catalog of grape varieties. In the section titled “Exotic Kinds,” Muscat of Alexandria is included. The description is as follows:

   “A type of all the Muscats; a late variety, requiring heat, or a current of dry air, during inflorescence, in order to set well. Bunches large and loose; berries large, oval, light, changing to amber-color when perfectly ripe; flesh firm, juicy, high-flavored, and excellent. All the Muscats prefer a high temperature.” (Strong 322)

A book like Culture of the Grape may have been a valuable handbook in the late 1800s, as it also includes propagation techniques, management and pruning, how to train vines, and reports about harmful insects.

 

Black Hamburg

The initial inclination is to group Black Hamburg with the varieties of Black Muscat. However, Black Hamburg is an English synonym for Schiava Grossa, or Trollinger. It is a parent grape, along with Muscat of Alexandria, of the Black Muscat. In Britain, under the name Black Hamburg, it was mainly a table grape. As Trollinger in Germany, it is the main red grape for wine (Robinson 211). The Culture of the Grape also has an entry on Black Hamburg:

“This variety is universally esteemed, in all situations, as the very best for general culture. It is so hardy, prolific, constant, of good fair quality, and unobjectionable to all tastes, that it should take the lead in all collections. The bunches are large and shouldered; the berries large, round or slightly oval, perfectly black when well grown, pleasant, sub-acid, juicy.” (Strong 319)

This glowing description sings the praises of the grape. Black Hamburg seemed to be the name most commonly used in California for this specific grape, along with Black Muscat, despite there being differences genetically between the two.

 

Malvoisie

According to Charles Sullivan’s A Companion to California Wine: An Encyclopedia of Wine and Winemaking from the Mission Period to the Present, the Malvoisie variety is the Cinsaut grape. In France, it is used for blending. The grape “was imported into California in the 1860s” and became a “popular claret grape” in the 1870s (Sullivan 28). It lost ground as a popular grape in the 1890s.  The vineyards that did survive crash of popularity and Prohibition “gained stature among a few Italian winegrowers” who sold it “up to the 1960s, sometimes labeled Malvasia Nera” (Sullivan 28). This name was falsely attributed as Malvasia, however, are mostly white grapes. They are found in the Mediterranean region but were “brought to California by the Italian Swiss Colony in the 1890s or earlier” (Sullivan 200).

By Libbie Agran and Hayley Goodwein

Sources

Robinson, Jancis. Vines, Grapes, and Wines. Octopus Publishing Ltd. 2002.

Strong, William C. Culture of the Grape. Boston: J.E. Tilton and Company. 1866. Pgs 319-322.

Sullivan, Charles. A Companion to California Wine: An Encyclopedia of Wine and Winemaking from the Mission Period to the Present. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1998. Pgs. 28, 200.