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Wines Down Mexico Way
By Jim Clarke

In both the Northern and Southern hemispheres the area from 30° and 50° latitude is generally held to represent the outer limits for winegrowing; to the north (in the Northern hemisphere) the growing season becomes too short and cold, while the more equatorial climate is generally too tropical. Most of Mexico lies south of the 30th parallel, but when Cortés defeated the Aztecs in 1521 he and his conquistadors exhausted their supply of wine in celebration, he wasn’t about to let this geographical detail end the party – so one of his first acts was to encourage the planting of vineyards in the land that was soon to be named New Spain. By 1524 he had put in place a law which required every recipient of Vineyards at Casa Madero
a land grant to plant 1,000 vine shoots each year until they reached 5,000 vines. The Catholic Church was also active as it needed wine for the sacraments, and it was they who introduced the Mission grape to Mexico. This varietal grew with only minimal tending and adapted well to the hot, dry environment. It was also widely planted in what is now California, and made appearances in Chile and Argentina where it became known as País and Criolla, respectively. By the end of the 16th century the oldest surviving winery in the New World had been established, operating today as Casa Madero, in the Parras Valley.

The Spanish government put the kibbosh on all this productivity when they decided to tap in on the settlers’ enthusiasm for wine themselves. Intent on creating a captive audience for Spanish goods, in 1699 the King of Spain forbid winemaking in Mexico, leaving the Church as the sole exception. Mexican independence in 1821 finally brought the end to this restriction, but a century of political turmoil, combined with a long-neglected winemaking tradition, left the country’s industry in the doldrums until 1916. More significantly, it left the country’s enthusiasm for wine-drinking in the doldrums as well; nowadays rum, tequila, and beer all surpass wine in Mexico’s per capita consumption, and Mexicans are the largest consumers of Coca-Cola (per capita) in the world to boot.

During the 20th century the Mexican wine industry grew and shrank in response to broader economic difficulties. After World War II winemakers made progress as imports faded under steep tariffs. It could be, however, that they were too insulated; it was only when protections disappeared in the 80s due to new free trade agreements that Mexican wineries really began the move toward producing quality wines. Since the end of that decade several new wineries have appeared and many older wineries have revamped their vineyards and production methods.

 

 

Back Across the Parallel

One region has become the leader in reviving the reputation of Mexican wines, and, perhaps tellingly, it lies just above the 30th parallel. 90% of Mexican quality wine comes from northern Baja California, centering around the city of Ensenada. The major winegrowing subregions – the Guadalupe, Calafia, San Vincente, and Santo Tomás Valleys – all lie close to the Pacific where they can benefit from the cooling ocean breezes and mists. Hot days and cool nights is a classic winegrowing combination throughout the world, allowing grapes to develop their sugars without a corresponding drop in acidity. All the valleys feature a mix of alluvial soils and decomposed granite. The Guadalupe Valley and especially its subsidiary the Calafia Valley have become the most well-known appellations so far, although the term “appellation” may be a stretch, as the Mexican government seems even less interested in regulating wine than the Mexicans are in drinking it. Nonetheless, most producers do try to label their wines in accordance with U.S. and European standards to avoid difficulties in the important export market.

Working the Vintage at Cavas Valmar Wine production, including quality wines, continues in other areas of the country as well, most notably in the La Laguna region, which straddles the states of Coahuila and Durango in the northeast; this is the home of the Parras Valley, the first appellation recognized by the Mexican government. Half of Mexico’s vineyards are in Sonora, and there are also some in the hills around the old mining towns of Zacatecas, Querétaro, and Aguascalientes. By and large the grapes of these areas are made into wine coolers or sent off to the distillery to become brandy, but more and more producers are taking another look at table wine.

The Large and the Small of it

Brandy production, in fact, has led a number of larger companies to invest in Mexico, including the wine and spirits giant Allied Domecq. Domecq is most known to Mexicans for brandy, but also makes several brands of wine at different price points and in a variety of styles, including blends, single varietal wines, and kosher wines. Chateau Domecq is their premium label; the wines include an unusual blend of Nebbiolo and Merlot as well as a Sauvignon Blanc-based white wine. The Spanish cava producer Freixenet has also invested in Mexican wine and is a major player in the Querétaro area, where they produce the sparkling wines you’d expect as well as some still wines. The high altitude in this winegrowing region insures surprisingly cool nights (even visiting in summer I found I had inadequately packed for the evenings) that preserve the high acidity that’s necessary for making good sparklers.

The other large-scale producer is L.A. Cetto, named after its Italian founder Don Angelo Cetto who emigrated from Piedmont in the 1920s. They are the biggest wine producer in Mexico, and differ from Domecq in many ways. They are family-owned, with 1,200 hectares of vineyards in the Guadalupe Valley as well as a further 1,600 in Sonora; Domecq purchases all its grapes instead of owning their own vineyards. L.A. Cetto has three major levels of wine: commercial blends, a single varietal series, and their “Limited Reserve.” In addition to the more usual varietals they also sell Chenin Blanc, Malbec, and Tempranillo wines, the Californian specialties of Zinfandel and Petite Syrah, and finally some wines that acknowledge their Italian heritage – a Limited Reserve Nebbiolo and a Passito dessert wine (made from dried grapes). Between them Domecq and L.A. Cetto account for about 80% of Mexico’s yearly production of 1.6 million cases, and both companies export about 40% of their wine.

There are also a growing number of smaller producers, including a number worthy of the “boutique wine” moniker. These companies have provided the push that began the great leap forward for Mexican wines at the beginning of the 1990s. Founded in 1987, Monte Xanic is a leader on the market and has won numerous prizes for its wines; they concentrate on Bordeaux varietals and Chardonnay – clearly shooting for the center of the wine world. They also produce a trio of Chenin Blanc bottlings – a late harvest, a reserva, and a Colombard blend - in a tribute to the Loire Valley. Their second label is Calixa, which releases wines aimed more at everyday drinking. Chateau Camou has similar Bordelaise aspirations – they cite Chateau Margaux as a role model, although the winery building also acknowledges owner Ernesto Alvarez-Morphy’s belief in his native culture with its traditional Mexican adobe design. His winemaker is the Bordeaux-trained Victor Torres, who with Alvarez-Morphy’s investment has turned some old and unkempt vineyards and winery into a state-of-the-art facility. In addition to their Merlot and Cabernet-based blends, they also give a nod to their neighbor to the north with a Fumé Blanc and a Chardonnay.

Within Baja the primary winery sourcing grapes from outside the Guadalupe Valley is the Bodegas de Santo Tomás. Originally part of the Mission of Saint Thomas Aquinas, it became a commercial winery in 1888, which makes it the oldest in Baja. They have halved their output in the past thirty years as they concentrate their energies on quality over quantity, and, working together with the Wente winery in Livermore Valley, California, recently released what they call a NAFTA wine, Duetto. Their winemaker, Hugo D’Acosta, also owns Casa de Piedra, which produces limited amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon and Tempranillo, 80% of which they sell privately en primeur.

Cavas Valmar – the New Blood

The husband-and-wife team Fernando and Yolanda Martain founded this winery in Ensenada after meeting and working together at Bodegas de Santo Tomás. Yolanda’s father Don Federico Valentin hailed from the Alps region of France, and had used the ranch to make wines for his home; the winery began selling their wines commercially in 1985. Although they started with a mish-mash of grapes - Palomino, Ugni-Blanc, and Moscatel, for whites, Grenache and a mix of Italian varietals for reds – they are now focusing on specific varietals; for example, sourcing grapes for an old-vine Chenin Blanc from the Valle de las Palmas. For reds they make a Cabernet Sauvignon with grapes from the Guadalupe and San Vincente Valleys and a Tempranillo from the San Vicente Valley.

The latter is a particularly big wine, rich with stewy fruits and toasty wood. They still buy their grapes from local growers, but recently purchased about eight hectares, which they are planting with Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. Their push for quality is proceeding in the vineyard and the winery, and about 20% of their wines are exported to the U.S., primarily California and Texas.

Casa Madero – Reviving the Legacy

Casa Madero is the grand old man of Mexican wine – actually, of the entire New World. Somewhat ironically, it is not in Baja, but in the Parras Valley in the northeastern state of Coahuila. This area was first chosen for settlement and winegrowing because of its water; mountain springs emerge here that create an oasis for man and vine alike, and the altitude – 5,000 feet above sea-level- keeps temperatures from becoming extreme. Founded in 1597 as the San Lorenzo winery, it was bought by the current owner José Milmo’s great-grandfather Don Evaristo Madero in 1893. In the 1970s the Milmo family began replanting their vineyards, replacing grapes normally used in brandy The Courtyard at Casa Madero
production with Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. They have since had to replant again, as the AxR1 rootstock they used previously fell under the onslaught of phylloxera. They now have about 485 hectares of vines, planted with a mix of varietals.

Milmo is keen to break out from the “Mexican Wine” label, and actively markets his wines towards the restaurant market. Available in the U.S. are three estate bottlings of Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon; a line of reserve wines and a superpremium red Bordeaux blend from their new vineyard in Zacatecas are planned for the near future. The estate Chardonnay “Vino Blanco Cepa” was my favorite of the current release of estate wines; it balanced Californian and Burgundian styles with some pineapple and lemon zest notes matched by minerals and slate. Oak aging was used thoughtfully, adding some smoke and vanilla, with a surprisingly crisp and refreshing finish. Casa Madero continues to make brandies as well, and their reserve line is considered to be head-and-shoulders above the competition in Mexico.

Looking Ahead

The turn toward quality wine production continues to work its way through Mexico. Growers are becoming more aggressive about lowering yields, and domestic and foreign investment is allowing wineries to improve their facilities and gain more control over the vinification process. Replantings are also moving forward, accelerating the movement toward international varietals like Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. Interestingly, many wineries seem to be looking to Bordeaux for a role model, rather than to their Californian neighbors. This may reflect the tastes of their market; most Mexican wine drinkers tend toward European wines over California, and Europe consumes about half of Mexican wine exports, followed by the U.S. at 35%. For Chardonnay, California may be a more prominent influence, as Californian white wines enjoy greater recognition within the Mexican market than their reds. The balance may change as more and more Mexican wineries team up with Californian producers; Monte Xanic recently entered a partnership with the Chalone group, for example.

The Mexican wine industry has also realized the value of fostering domestic wine awareness. Encouraging a wine industry in a country where wine consumption is low is difficult, and Mexico ranks 66th in the world in this regard, consuming .04 gallons per capita each year (by comparison, Americans drink just over two gallons a year, and the French 15). Wine bars like the chain “SéDe Vino” are beginning to appear, and wineries are sponsoring events to bring out tourists, locals, and wine connoisseurs alike.

A serious challenge facing the industry is managing water use in the winegrowing areas. While many of the quality wines have been profiting from controlled water stress, most Mexican vineyards require irrigation and the proliferation of newer wineries may strain the supply. This may very well be the limiting factor for growth of the Mexican wine industry. Drought is also an annual worry.

The place of Mexican wines on the international scene remains to be decided, but it’s clear that they’re headed to a much higher place than many would have thought possible just twenty years ago. The winemakers are committed, and a growing awareness of building a tradition and a national wine identity seems to be pushing them to greater heights. With such a long history, it brings some satisfaction to see that Mexican wine is not a remnant of the past, but a living legacy.

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 Published: April 2004
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