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The New Napa Valley is South of the Border

Mexico has one of the world’s oldest and culturally rich heritages. The Aztecs and the Mayans lived there after all. Their historic legacy has been passed on through centuries and has remained a big part of the present.

It is visible in the country’s traditions, everyday customs, art, food, and drink. From Baja California to the Yucatan, Mexico offers an astonishing diversity of landscape, fauna, flora, and cultural sophistication.

When one thinks of Mexico and its tasty libations, it is the countless number of Tequila labels that first comes to mind or an ice-cold bottle of Corona beer with a wedge of lime nestled in the bottle’s neck with a few Tacos Al Pastor on the side for me, please. Rarely you would hear someone say, “I feel like a glass of Mexican Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay.” Yet historically, Mexico is the oldest wine growing region in Americas. The vines were brought here from Europe in the 16th century by the Spanish conquistadors.

Not long after Hernan Cortes and his fellow conquistadors landed on the shores of Mexico in February 1519, the Spaniards depleted their supplies of wine brought from the Old World and began planting vineyards locally. Over the next few centuries, the vineyard plantings became so prevalent in the new colony, that they threatened Spain’s wine export interests, and in 1699 King Charles II outlawed wine production all together (except for religious purposes, of course). Under the watchful eye of God himself, vineyards continued to be cultivated and wine was made at Catholic missions. Wine cultivation returned to normal after Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821. The early 1900s brought the devastating effects of phylloxera and the Mexican Revolution and the wine business declined. The industry bounced back, however, in the 1930s and with renewed demand from the national market.

It is ironic to talk about a 500-year-old wine region as up-and-coming. Since its commencement in the 1600s, Mexican wine was solely made for local consumption and was practically unknown outside the country. This has changed in the last few decades, roughly from the mid-1980s. The number of the wineries has been growing exponentially. Many small, boutique operations with meticulous, environmentally conscientious farming practices have sprung up with a focus on quality rather than quantity and with meticulously applied advanced wine making techniques. In 2006, there were less than 25 wineries in Mexico. Now, there are more than 120 commercial wineries in Baja California alone. Mexico is an innovators’ paradise. Almost no traditional appellation regulations apply here. The wines’ varietal makeup and quality is left to the discretion and transparency of the wine maker. Blends found nowhere else in the world can be a common practice: Cabernet Sauvignon with Tempranillo and Syrah or Nebbiolo married to Tempranillo are good examples.

It is in Baja California where nearly all notable wines of Mexico are made with roughly 80 percent of the entire country’s production, although that statistic fluctuates. It is Baja’s geographic positioning that makes it most adoptable to wine vine farming; it is furthest North with dry and warm Mediterranean-like climate. The region of Valle de Guadalupe stands out within the peninsula and has even been boldly branded the “Napa Valley” of Mexico by some optimistic enthusiasts.

Valle de Guadalupe is northernmost wine region on Baja and best known mainly because of its proximity to the US border. Traveling down south one passes through the valleys of Ojos Negros, La Grulla, Santo Tomás, and San Vicente with each area offering unique micro-climate and terroir. The elevations of vineyards differ dramatically, climbing as high as 3400 feet in Ojos Negros and descending below 600 feet with gentler, maritime climates near the Pacific Ocean. Valle de Guadalupe’s more continental geographic positioning comes with harsher weather conditions. The diversity of soil composition is reflected in the presence of granite, red clay rich in iron, magnesium, decomposed sandstone, and some white clay which all lend themselves to accommodating different grape varieties.

This diversity of growing conditions allows for a wide range of grapes. Over 30 different varieties are grown in Baja vineyards alone. The peninsula’s overall warm to hot temperatures contribute to wines that tend to be ripe and fruit forward. Reds are often inky in color, jammy, spicy, and bold, packed with dark fruit aromatics and high alcohol levels. The whites are perfumy with rich tropical fruit flavors. Even thin skin grape like Nebbiolo, which in its native foggy Piedmont (Italy)produces elegant, nuanced, earthy wines, in Baja results in a dense and voluptuously lush counterpart. (Talk about the effects of micro-climate and terroir!) There are some wine makers whose efforts to tame the effects of this warmth- abundant climate on wines are paying off. Examples of toned-down wines focused more on elegance and subtlety can be found sporadically and are a testament to the region’s additional potential.

These are the most planted wine grapes in Baja.

Reds - Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Tempranillo, Grenache, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Mourvedre, Syrah, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, Carignan, Listan Negro, Zinfandel, and Montepulciano.

Whites - Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Palomino, Viognier, Vermentino, and Colombard. 

Cabernet Sauvignon is the most planted red, while Chenin Blanc is the leading white grape in terms of volume.

Typically, quality wine grapes (as opposed to table grapes) cannot be grown passed the 30th parallel (both North and South). It is simply too hot, too humid, and usually both. There are some factors which can bypass that rule. The Baja climate is arid (low humidity), and many vineyards are planted on high elevations offering cooler temperatures and diurnal shift for the vines. Nevertheless, irrigation is required.

Of course, there are other regions outside Baja where wines are made in Mexico. There is Sonora in Mexico’s Northwest mainland across the Sea of Cortez from Baja. The Valle de Parras in the La Laguna region in the Sierra Madre Oriental mountains of central northern Mexico where one can find the oldest winery in the Americas, Casa Madera, founded in 1597. Zacatecas, Guantajuato, Querétaro in Central Mexico are also notable wine regions.

There is a growing correlation between Mexican wine and its bountiful and distinctive cuisine. Mexican chefs throughout the country and beyond have proved themselves worthy of the highest distinction, taking pride in representing the food of their origin. In the past very few Mexican restaurants, even in Mexico yet alone abroad, featured Mexican wines. Nowadays, many new and established eateries offer well thought-out wine lists with a focus on wines made in Mexico. In fact, a number of chefs are winery owners or are actively involved in winery operations.

All the innovations and modernizations within the industry have dramatically improved the quality of wines, which led to heightened recognition, and ultimately to increased interest of the wine consumer in Mexico and abroad. Mexican wines are now exported to nearly 40 countries. In five years, between 2012 and 2018 the average per capita wine consumption in Mexico doubled. Wine is also becoming a more frequent accompaniment in daily routines: meals, social gatherings, or a relaxing glass of wine after work.

With all this in mind one can only hope that in the years to come, Mexico will become more widely known for adding wine as yet another stellar, staple libation to this vibrant country’s drink portfolio.

A few Baja wineries worth of note.

Decantos Vinicola

A modern winery founded about 8 years ago whose wine making philosophy, as the name indicates, is based on decantation and gravity to reduce the mechanical intervention. They produce three tiers of wine: Young Line, Reserve Line, and Premium Line in all three shades – white, rose, red.

Alximia Winery

Run by Alvaro Alvarez, a mathematician turned wine maker, the winery is an architectural marvel. Its wine making motto is based on four principals:

The earth that gives rise to the vineyards.

The water that is vital in the Valle de Guadalupe.

The fresh air that comes from the sea.

The fire in the form of the heat from the sun.

They specialize in red varietals: Barbera, Tempranillo, Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon, Barbera, Syrah, Zinfandel.

Vena Cava

This winery self-advertises as “the hippest winery in Mexico”. With Phil Gregory as its wine maker, this property is another architectural attraction – it is built entirely from recycled material. Beyond the architecture, reds dominate here as well, but there is a Rose, a white, and even a sparkling wine in their selection.

Cesar Kusik Wine Contributor Polo Lifestyles 2022


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