The world of wine is full of surprises. One of the great joys of working as a wine professional is that uncovering (and sharing) these surprises is part of my work. Our recent forays to Uruguay, New York, Lebanon, and Slovenia have been part of this process of finding and sharing hidden and surprising treasures (and histories). For this last installment of “the road less traveled,” we’re heading to Mexico.
The notion of Mexican wine seems very novel. . . but the fact of the matter is that Mexico has a longer history of wine than any other “new world” country (including the United States, Chile, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, and (in terms of wine) South Africa). Exactly how old are we talking about? Wine production in Mexico dates back to 1521, one year after Hernán Cortés claimed the land of Mexico for Spain. Legend indicates that Cortés and his soldiers may have burned through their supply of wine celebrating their victory over the native Aztecs. Regardless of the degree of truth of the legend, wine held an important place in Spanish culture (not only as a commodity, but also for sacramental purposes), so establishing wine production in “New Spain” quickly followed occupation/colonization. Native grapes (not of the vitis vinifera species) were used initially, but the resulting wine was deemed unpalatable. The problem was solved by sending vitis vinifera vines from Spain to the new colonial outpost. These European grapes performed quite well in the new territory and were planted throughout the occupied areas, particularly around monasteries and at haciendas/estates. In 1524, his third year as governor of New Spain, Cortés ordered that new colonists plant 1o grapevines for every native slave on the property they had been granted. By 1531, Carlos V of Spain ordered that every ship heading to the new world carry grape vines to supply the burgeoning vineyards in the Spanish colony and by 1597 wine was being commercially produced at the mission of Santa Maria de las Parras (now Casa Madero). In just over 100 years, Mexico’s wine industry had developed such vigor that it was deemed a danger to the Spanish wine industry. As such, Charles II of Spain issued an edict in 1699 effectively prohibiting the production of wine in the Spanish colonies except for sacramental use, with particularly strong enforcement of the policy in Mexico. As was the case in Lebanon, we can thank monks for preserving and promoting wine culture during this era of prohibition. One priest in particular, Padre Juan Ugarte, is largely responsible for the establishment of mission vineyards throughout Baja California and into the current state of California, thus not only establishing new vineyards in Mexico, but also laying the foundation for what would become California’s wine industry (say “Gracias, Padre Juan. . .”).
Mexico’s wine culture was freed from the protectionist prohibition against production when Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1810, although some monasteries had been producing wine for commercial purposes (albeit in small amounts) prior to independence. The industry growth that was made possible by independence would be short-lived, as the root-louse phylloxera destroyed Mexican vineyards (especially in the central region of the Parras Valley, just west of Monterrey) in the early 1900s. The Mexican revolution from 1910 to 1920 further suppressed the rebirth of Mexican wine, but the general prosperity of Mexico in the 1930s and 1940s helped to revitalize the waning industry. In 1948, a small group of producers formed the National Association of Winemaking, leading to a period of growth throughout the 1960s and 1970s. That growth, however, was also short-lived, this time stunted by Mexico’s signing of the General Agreement of Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in 1986, which led to an influx of cheap imports from Europe. Many wineries closed their doors in the wake of these market challenges, but a number of producers rose to the challenge by shifting their focus from quantity to quality. This focus on quality, along with the freedom of experimentation made possible by Mexico’s absence of appellation laws, has led to a modern renaissance in the Mexican wine industry. The development of Mexico’s wine culture in the past 15 years has been particularly remarkable, growing from fewer than 25 wineries countrywide to over 12o just in Baja California. That said, only about 10% of Mexico’s grape crops are destined for wine production. The vast majority of fruit is used for brandy, table grapes, and raisins.
Accounting for about 75% of wine production, Baja California (the peninsula extending south of California) is Mexico’s most significant wine region and is the source of most of the Mexican wine available in the United States, but it is certainly not the only region producing quality wine in Mexico. In all, seven states in Mexico produce wine. In addition to Baja California, they include the north-central states of Chihuahua, Coahuila, Zacatecas, San Luis Potosí, Aguascalientes, Guanajuato, and Querétaro. In the primary area of Baja California, wine sub-regions include (north to south) Puerta Norte/Tecate, Valle de Guadalupe and its sub-region San Antonio de las Minas, Valle de Ojos Negros, Valle de la Grulla, Valle de Santo Tomás, and Valle de San Vicente, with the most significant area being Valle de Guadalupe. This might seem like an odd place for a thriving wine industry, but it happens to be just right. . . The sandy soil means that phylloxera can not survive. Without the threat of this destructive pest, grape vines can be ungrafted/self-rooted and long-lived. Low rainfall means that vines establish deep-roots and produce low yields of concentrated fruit. The cold air of the Pacific channeled by the east-west orientation of the valleys helps to cool the vineyards and create the diurnal shift (change in day to night temperatures) that allows grapes to fully ripen while still retaining lively acidity. Among Baja California’s key wine producers are L. A. Cetto (founded in 1928) and Château Domecq (Mexico’s largest producer of brandy). Expect to find a wide array of grapes, including such international favorites as chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, and merlot; Spanish varietals like cariñena/carignan, garnacha/grenache, tempranillo, macabeo/viura; Rhône varietals like syrah (and it’s offspring, petite sirah) and viognier: and even Italian varietals like dolcetto, nebbiolo, barbera, and primitivo/zinfandel. You’ll also find a growing number of organic/biodynamic producers in Mexico.
Many wines from Mexico, especially from the growing number of smaller, “boutique” wineries, are not readily available in the United States, but that doesn’t mean you have to travel south of the border to experience Mexico’s wine culture. The journey and adventure is available right in the bottle, so keep an eye open for options that might just become a new favorite and, as always, be adventurous in your wine choices. Thank you for joining me on the journey off the beaten path. Next week, we’ll gear up for Thanksgiving with a series of articles on wine and food pairings.