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The Real Story Behind Mexican Wine
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American wine drinkers clamor for a budget-friendly bottle of Malbec and Chilean finds are snapped up almost as quickly, so why is it that Mexican wine lingers, dusty and forgotten, on store shelves? Actually, it’s rare that Mexican wine even reaches our stores stateside – why is that? Emperor Trump has yet to build his magical wall and as far as I know they’re not confiscating earthy reds out of wheel wells at the U.S.-Mexican border, so… what gives?

So much in the wine world is built on reputation. Certain critics can make or break a vintage, a particular release, or even a winemaker, on little more than reputation, and there certainly has to be some name recognition at play when it comes to high-selling celebrity labels (I can’t wait for Guy Fieri’s signature Franzia blend – coming soon to a bleach-tipped cardboard box near you!). Is that why Mexican wine is languishing down on the Baja coast?

Or maybe it’s just inferior. Maybe it’s impossible to grow good wine in Mexico – just like everyone said it was impossible to make good wine in California before a little event called the Judgment of Paris. Hmm…

Maybe we should look a little deeper…

A Brief History of Wine in Mexico

In 1834, a Dominican missionary named Felix Caballero established the Misión de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe del Norte, the last of its kind in the area. Caballero was only there six years before he was run off by locals who weren’t so keen on being converted. Of course the vineyards in the area predated Caballero’s visit; hundreds of years before, Spanish conquistadors had arrived bearing vines that adapted surprising well to their new home. Later, in 1597 to be exact, another Spaniard by the name of Don Lorenzo Garcia opened up Casa Madero, which became the oldest winery throughout the Americas. The wine was apparently pretty tasty, too much so for the liking of the Spanish crowd, who put a stop to winemaking in Mexico for fear this New World juice would hurt wine production back home in Spain.

Thank goodness a few rebellious missionaries carried on their planting and cultivating and winemaking, albeit on a much smaller scale. In 1791, Jesuit priests founded the Saint Thomas Mission in Baja California’s Norte State, planning mission grapes they brought over themselves; in 1834, Dominican priests get in on the game with grapes grown in the area now known as the Valle de Guadalupe.

Unfortunately, those wineries were left abandoned in the mid-1800s after the War of Reform saw all church property transferred to the control of the state. The Saint Thomas Mission was eventually bought up and turned into Bodegas Santo Tomas, Mexico’s first commercial winery, and Russian immigrants fleeing religious persecution in the early 1900s helped along the wine industry as well.

Today, all this twisting, twirling history has resulted in three major wine-producing regions in Mexico: San Antonio de las Minas, the Santo Tomas Valley, and the San Vincente Valley. There are some small-production wineries scattered around other parts of Mexico, and Baja wineries sometimes source their grapes from Hermosillo in Sonora, but for the most part, the good juice in Mexico is in Baja California.

Valle De Guadalupe

guadalupe valley

Image courtesy of Flickr user Comisión Mexicana de Filmaciones

When I was a kid, my family drove from San Diego down to the seaside city of Ensenada. I remember refusing a ride on the bored-looking horse carrying gleeful tourists up and down the beach – little did I know that there was much more fun to be had just 45 minutes or so to the northeast. Step out of your car in the Valle de Guadalupe and you’d be forgiven for wondering if you’d taken a wrong turn and ended up somewhere Napa-ish. The rolling hills are here, as are the pin-striped vineyards and baby blue skies. It’s a scenic masterpiece and arguably the most important winegrowing region in Mexico. How do I know? Well, aside from all the excited oenophiles who have been chirping about VDG’s status as “the next Napa Valley” for the last decade or so, the wine is good and getting better. About 90 percent of Mexico’s wine is produced right here in here in the VDG, and it’s a pretty nice place for a vacation.

The Vino

Wondering what grapes are grown in Mexico? Wonder no more:

Red Varietals:

  • All 5 Bordeaux varietals (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec)
  • Grenache
  • Tempranillo
  • Dolcetto
  • Syrah
  • Petite Sirah

White Varietals

  • Chenin Blanc
  • Chardonnay
  • Sauvignon Blanc
  • Viognier

A few recommendations:

Villa Montefiori Cabernet/Sangiovese Blend, 2011 – $26  BUY ME

Villa Montefiori is run by the Paoloni family, whose ancestors came from an area near Tuscany, Italy. They refer to their creations as “Italian wines with Mexican heart.” Hey, if the Catena-Rothschild experiment in Argentina can bear delicious fruit (literally), why not this? This particular Cab/Sangiovese blend has the olive notes reminiscent of a Tuscan wine with plenty of bright red fruit, acidity, and grippy tannins to make things interesting. It’s one to watch.

L.A. Cetto Chardonnay, 2013 – $10  BUY ME

La Cava at LA Cetto Winery

Photo courtesy of Flickr user cesar bojorquez

This winery dates all the way back to 1928. Over several generations, the Cetto family has refined and modernized their wines, tapping into the potential of Valle De Guadalupe. The result is a slew (more than 150, in fact) awards and an international market that includes 27 different regions. As for the Chardonnay, it’s surprising in both intensity and balance, and well worth $10, especially in comparison to what you’d get at that price point in other wine regions.

There are only a handful of Mexican wines available for online purchase, hence the short list of recommendations, but the following wineries are all notable and deserving of attention:

  • Bodegas Santo TomasThe oldest winery in Mexico, known primary for its Duetto blend that it produces in conjunction with Wente Vineyard in California.
  • Casa De Piedra – If there’s a Mexican cult wine, this innovative vineyard produces it.
  • Chateau Camou – Mostly Bordeaux blends that have medaled in some prestigious competitions, including the Challenge International du Vin in Bordeaux itself.

The Problem(s) With Mexican Wine

And so we’ve come full circle. What is the real problem with Mexican wine? Yes, there is a bit of reputation hurdle we all collectively need to hop over, but there are some real issues, too. Mexico isn’t a wine drinking country; average consumption per capita is a measly two glasses – two glasses per year. That’s a slow lunch for most Americans. Not surprisingly then, Mexico exports about 80 percent of the wine it produces. The Mexican government also taxes the daylights out of wine, at a rate of about 40 percent per bottle. Numbers like that make it hard for the industry to compete with cheap tequila and cheaper beer. Still, wine imports were four times higher in 2005 than they were in 1995, so that’s something.

So, if you’re looking for the next great wine region, you might find it – along with your missing sunglasses – in the very last place you think to look. Drink up – or should I say, “Salud!”

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