The church and the wine

In 1598, Don Juan de Onate leads the Spanish colonists to the upper valleys of the Rio Grande in what will later be called New Mexico. The two friars Fray Gracia de Zuniga, a Franciscan monk, and Antonio de Arteaga, a Capuchin monk, are there to preach Christianity to the Indians on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church.

The need for wine

An important detail is the wine used in the daily mass. However, there is a problem. The wine is imported from Spain and transported a long way. A transport that was both expensive and slow. In addition, the seals on the vessels contained lead, which, during the long and sometimes hot journey, combined with the acid, leaked into the wine. A local solution had to be found. That is, grow the wine themselves.

Breaking the law

The problem is that a Spanish law from 1595 prohibited the export of Spanish grapevines. This was to protect the Spanish agricultural industry. At the time, Spanish wine exports accounted for a quarter of Spain’s foreign trade revenue. However, the dedicated monks chose to ignore this law and simply smuggled some vines from Spain to New Mexico around 1629. The first vines were planted just south of present-day Socorro, New Mexico. Apparently these smuggled grapes, together with those planted by some Franciscan monks in Mexico as early as 1540, are the first Vitis Vinifera on the American continent.

The creation of a wine industry

The grapes they planted, both in 1540 and 1629, are known by many names. “Mission” or “Misson’s grape” in California, “Misión” in Mexico and “País ” in Chile, where it is also one of the first grapes to be planted and was for a long time the major dominant. Today, the grape is mainly found in Chile where it produces interesting, fruity wines with great potential often compared to Beaujolais. Thanks to Chile’s geographical location, it is also one of the countries still free from the dreaded Phylloxera, which means that some of the vines are over a century old.

The legacy

Much can be said about the Church’s missionary work in the footsteps of the Conquistadors. Not all of it positive. However, it can be said that the Church’s efforts to ensure the availability of communion wine have left an everlasting mark on the wine culture of the American continents.

Maria Scharffenberg
Sommelier and Teacher