THE importance of the Church in the history of wine cannot be underestimated. In Europe, it was the monasteries that led the way. At the time of the French Revolution, the Cistercian order was the largest vineyard owner in Burgundy and the reputation of its wines was spread widely through its daughter houses.
In the New World, however, it was the missionaries who planted the first vines, to provide them with wine for the mass. While the very first were planted in Hispaniola, now the Dominican Republic, as early as 1493, they were a failure, but the success of the Church in spreading its message in Mexico led to increasing demand for wine.
The Jesuits, followed by the Augustinians and the Franciscans, took the message and the wine on to Baja California, and then California itself. As one 18th-century writer said, “The missions did not sell the wine, but they used it in the mass, at table, and for the sick.”
In Argentina, Juan Cidrón is credited with being the father of the wine industry. In 1553, the inhabitants of the northern town of Santiago del Estero complained that there was no priest in the community, and Cidrón was sent over the Andes from Chile. He is recorded as having arrived with a crucifix in one hand and a bundle of vine shoots and cottonseed in the other.
Perhaps it is surprising that there was just one grape variety common to this wave of church colonisation. This is the undistinguished Spanish variety now known as the Listán Prieto. Historically, it appeared under a number of aliases, but in California it came to be known as the mission grape, in Argentina as the Criolla Chica, and in Chile as the País.
It is in Chile, however, that it has managed to maintain a foothold: there are still wide plantings in the unirrigated vineyards of the southern region of the Maule Valley. Chile is not a wine-drinking country — beer is widely preferred — but there has been an important market for basic wine in litre Tetra Bricks. This has been largely filled by País wine. Now, there is a movement to rehabilitate this grape, and there are rare examples of its appearing as a single varietal wine in this country.
I have just tasted one of these: the Reserva de Pueblo Uva País 2015, from the Miguel Torres winery. It is a 12-per-cent Fairtrade wine, and is made largely with carbonic maceration, the method that gives Beaujolais so much of its juicy fruitiness.
I opened this bottle at the height of the heatwave, and first found it rather unappealing. I put what we had not drunk back in the fridge, however, and the following day it appeared a different animal: an attractive butterfly had emerged from its chrysalis, with soft red-fruit flavours. If only for historical interest’s sake, this wine is worth a try. It is available from, among others, the Fareham Wine Cellar, and Fine Wines Direct UK, in Cardiff, for about £10 the bottle.