Allegedly named for the Los Angeles-City of the Angels-in the late 18th century, Angelica is America’s fortified wine. In fact, Angelica is the only American semi-generic named wine approved by the federal government for use on wine labels.
Traditional Angelica, was made from mission grapes as a mix of 50% Mission wine and 50% Mission brandy. Grapes were pressed soon after harvest and the unfermented grape juice poured into barrels already half-filled with brandy. The brandy arrested fermentation of the juice while preserving its fruitiness and keeping the wine from going bad. Oxidation in barrels resulted in a dark orange or brown colored wine with around
20 % alcohol and 10% residual sugar. History asserts that Frenchman Emile Vache documented this 1770 Franciscan friar’s recipe that he and his brothers used to make Angelica at their southern California winery in the late 18th century.
How Angelica is Made
Mission grapes destined for Angelica are picked at peak ripeness, usually around 24 degrees Brix then de-stemmed and crushed into open top containers. Some vintners will add about 50 ppm of sulfur dioxide (S02) and let the must rest for a day before pressing. While classified as a red grape, the free-run or light pressed Mission juice is a light orange color as a result of minimum skin contact. Because federal regulations require all “wines” to undergo some degree of fermentation, fortification of Mission juice with 185-190 proof neutral brandy occurs at about half way through fermentation. The wines are then racked into neutral oak barrels for aging. A few vintners use a “solera” type system of fractional blending of old and young Angelica while other winemakers barrel age their Angelica for two or more years. Finishing Angelica may include a final filtration to clarify the wine and remove any sediment.
Today’s mission Angelica is an alluring light to moderate bronze or amber colored sweet wine of 18-20% alcohol and 9-18% residual sugar. Berry, toasted nut, caramel, and ripe fig aromas and favors are often associated with modern Angelica while some display a captivating sherry or port-like aromatic character.
Not all American fortified wines labeled Angelica are made from Mission grapes however. Since “Angelica” is an American semi-generic wine name, domestic producers can apply the name to any “dessert wine having the taste, aroma and characteristics generally attributed to angelica” according to Federal TTB rules. Unfortunately, there does not seem to be a standard definition of such angelica characteristics. As a result, a few American fortified wines labeled “Angelica” are in reality fortified Muscat wines. There may be some precedence for Muscat angelicas since Muscat grapes could be found in early American “field blend” vineyards. Muscat in a 19th century California vineyard of Zinfandel, Alicante Bouschet, and Carignane would serve as a typical example.
Muscat of Alexandria, Orange Muscat, and Muscat Canelli are the three most likely candidates for Muscat angelica. Their characteristic natural sweetness and floral aromas are well suited for making unique slightly oxidized fortified wines in the style of traditional Angelica. Fortification of free-run or lightly pressed juice with neutral high-proof brandy and slow oxidation in neutral oak barrels as practiced in making Angelica is similarly applied to the production of Angelica labeled fortified Muscat wines.