Wines of Mexico
For centuries now, wine has been playing a political role in Mexico. Nevertheless, the country does not belong to the well-known producer countries of the wine world. Should the quality continue to increase, this could very well change.
Guadalajara’s foodies find Chat Lunatique to be exactly to their taste. Located in Mexico’s second largest city, the restaurant’s cuisine is modern Mexican, and it is always open to sprinkles of Japanese, Italian or Caribbean influence. Mexicans love new ideas. The fact that the drinks menu lists a good 50 tequilas and a dozen mezcals is not surprising – the city of Tequila is just round the corner. There are also numerous kinds of beer to choose from. Only the wines are relegated to a small corner, divided into countries of origin. Just three of them come from Mexico.
“There is just not much demand for it”, says Oliver the barman, shrugging his shoulders and pinning a skewer with pieces of pineapple onto a cocktail glass. Colourful cocktails, as is typical in Mexico, are the top seller. Local wines are only slowly, but surely, becoming a focus. As in most growing markets, it is well-situated towns with high levels of education which are making cultural statements through wine.
At first glance, one might think this is a little effusive in the territories between the dusty deserts of Nevada and the equator. But in reality, Mexico is the oldest wine country outside of Europe and Asia Minor – the cradle of new world wines, to put it another way. According to the chronicle of the Mexican wine growing association, the Spanish conqueror Juan de Grijalva clinked glasses with the Aztec ruler Moctezuma in Tenochtitlan at the beginning of the 16th century. As is well known, this toast was not a good omen for the further history of the American Indians, and over the centuries, wine became a political pawn again and again in the country that today is famous around the world for tequila and mezcal.
The Spanish expeditionary corps were expected to sound out precious metal deposits in Mexico for their king and, if possible, transport these straight to Spain. This mission, however, was rather long winded, and the wine supplies that they had brought with them soon dwindled.
Locally, only the unsuitable subspecies of grape – silvestris – was available, so the general governor Hernán Cortés soon ordered European seedlings to be brought in and planted. The first wines were made in Parras in Central Mexico, at an altitude of around 1500 metres. In winter, the plateau is covered in ice. Even today, companies such as Casa Madero and Marqués de Aguayo still produce brandy here.
Vines as head money
Cortés fulfilled his mission followed by a trail of blood, and promoted wine growing by commanding that ten vines be planted for each American Indian captured – both autochthonous and imported, to get solid breeding material as quickly as possible. By the middle of the century, a stately 70,000 hectares were thus covered in vines. This, however, angered Spanish winegrowers who could no longer hold their own on the export market.
At the turn of the century, under pressure from the local economy, the royal house forbade vine exports to what was known at the time as New Spain. Growing areas even had to be cleared. The colonists only just managed to negotiate a quota for religious purposes, which served as camouflage for daily use for decades.
Jesuit monks brought winegrowing as far as the west coast, to the remote military post of San Diego de Alcalá, and so fired the starting shot for Californian wine growing. Viniculture also entered Argentina and Chile through Mexico.
Mexico's national coat of arms
Surprisingly, Mexico’s independence in 1821 turned out to be a severe setback for the heartland. Many winegrowers left their vineyards during the 11-year-long Mexican War of Independence – their vineyards often became collateral damage. The Republic of Mexico counteracted this with up to 40% import taxes. In the mid-19th century, a school for viniculture was founded, and vineyards owned by the church were privatised. The Concannon family, winegrowing pioneers from Livermore, California, introduced French grape varieties at the end of the century – first steps which were widely destroyed by vine pest and the Mexican Revolution in 1910.
At the end of the 1930s, refugees of the Spanish Civil War, amongst others, restarted winegrowing. In 1948, the Asociación Mexicana de Vitivinicultores – later Consejo Mexicano Vitivinícola – was founded as an industry association. Cotton farmers in particular switched to wine.
The stimulus for quality wine often came from abroad. Today, the masters Torres, Concha y Toro, Domecq and Freixenet produce in Mexico. After a slump in the 1990s, more and more former grape producers became small vineyards. Quality and consumption are experiencing an overall increase.
Viniculture in front of a backdrop for Westerns
At 1.9 million square kilometres, Mexico is about as big as France, Italy, Spain, Portugal and California put together. The majority of the country, which sits at the same latitude as the northern Sahara, is composed of sierra – or high plateau – surrounded by mountain ranges. The climate is constant, but very hot during the day and cold at night. The driest regions only get around 200 millimetres of rain per year, which is why they are practically always irrigated. At high altitudes, such as in Parras – which even today is a centre of brandy production – conditions for wine are favourable.
Strewn across the heartland of the country, there are many other small blocks of winegrowing land, from Sonora in the north to San Juan del Rio to the north of Mexico City, and 2100 metres above sea level. Wine grapes are grown in a total of seven Mexican states. The majority are not used in wine production, but in distillation and for table grapes.
The climate of Baja California, where tumbleweed blows across the roads and one can see desert animals such as roadrunners, is significantly different. While the area can always serve as a backdrop for Italo-Westerns, the narrow peninsula – located before the west coast and being over 1200 kilometres long – is cooled by fresh breezes at night from the Pacific and the Gulf of California to the east, even in the hot summer months. This causes a moderate Mediterranean climate to emerge. Around 90% of wine production is located here, hundreds of kilometres away from the historic winegrowing regions.
With the Ruta del Vino, which links over 50 vineyards to the port town of Ensenada, and the border towns of Tijuana and Tecate, well-structured oenotourism has been established here. Small vineyards alternate with hotels and restaurants, even though the sector is suffering under the drug war. Border towns in particular – such as Tijuana to the north of Baja California – are no strangers to shootings and murders in broad daylight. At the height of the conflict, hundreds of thousands of American tourists gave the area a miss, although the Californian metropolis of San Diego is barely two-hour drive away.
High plateaus and saliferous clay
The vineyards are mostly fitted with modern equipment. Knowledge comes from neighbouring California, where the wine industry is thriving due to Mexican workers who often come from Baja California themselves. With their professional experience, many of them enter the local wine industry after returning to their homeland. Some valleys have achieved Terroir status, especially the largest sub-region of Valle de Guadalupe, over 300 metres above sea level. Since as early as the late 1980s, pioneers have been founding small vineyards here – like the Bordeaux-educated oenologist Hugo D’Acosta.
In the flat valley with its granite base, some wines grow in saliferous clay through irrigation with sea water. The best of these show complexity and length, which is why Guadalupe is often called the new Napa Valley. Many of these prognoses, however, seem to have been posited under the effect of wine and the Mexican sun. Their effect remains to be seen.
In terms of production regulations, Consejo gives its winegrowers free reign for the most part, similarly to the situation in California. The alcohol volume and wine type are usually listed on the label, such as Vino de Fruta, Vino Dolce, Vermouth and Vino Blanco. Additional information is added at the discretion of the winegrower.
The first Spanish monks planted the Listán Prieto variety. Although the qualities of this type are limited, it was perhaps not such a bad choice. The species from Castilla and La Mancha is robust, and it copes well with dryness. It spread far across the American continent, under numerous synonyms such as Criolla and Rosa del Perú. It can be found in regional grape varieties, such as some sub-species of Torrontés, as a cross-pollination partner. It is currently experiencing a small renaissance in Chile, especially under the name Pais, but no longer plays a role in either Mexico or on the Spanish mainland.
Today, a whole range of Spanish, French and Italian red wine varieties – such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Tempranillo, Syrah, Zinfandel, Grenache and Cabernet Franc – are cultivated. Almost all of them have a certain resistance to heat. Due to the climate, the wines are mostly characterised by a high degree of ripeness and very sweet fruit.
Even in the coolest growing areas, heat is one of the biggest challenges, though large operations that dominate the industry have mastered the challenge. At Angelo Cetto, founded in 1928 by the Italian immigrant Angelo Cetto and therefore the oldest winery in Baja California, many things are typical. Out of 5000 hectares of grapes, 1000 hectares are used for wine. Most are made into raisins. The bottlings range from tropical-fruity Chardonnay, ripe Cabernets and Zinfandels, to a Petite Syrah.
These flavours go well with Mexican cuisine. A full bodied, fruity Nebbiolo, with its typical truffle notes, is a souvenir of the northern Italian country of origin. More personalised wines from small pioneer operations, which sound out the possibilities of the Terroirs or work biodynamically, are still the exception.
Growth through drinking pleasure
In spite of economic fluctuations, the quality and quantity of Mexican wines have been increasing since the 1980s. This is accompanied by growing customer interest in high quality items – particularly the national drinks mezcal and tequila – but also cognac, single malt whiskey, and Spanish and local brandy. A tax rate of up to 40% continues to make competition difficult for beer and spirits. The cuisine of Mexico, by far the most independent of the double continent and sometimes quite spicy, is not really a natural partner for wine. Wines are mostly imported goods, coming from Spain or Chile, Australia or New Zealand. Classic collectors in Mexico stock up on heavy red wines from Bordeaux, Rioja or Toscana. In Mexico, at any rate, it is a hobby for the super-rich.
Yet this generation is getting long in the tooth, and young wine drinkers are slowly but surely increasing, especially in the growing, highly educated middle class between 25 to 35 years old. The London market research institute Euromonitor International found this out recently. There are plenty of sales channels such as international wholesale and retail chains. In the trendy quarters of the large cities, wine and tapas bars have long been part of the cityscape.
To seriously estimate the status and development of the industry, however, important numbers are missing. There is an estimated growing area of approximately 50,000 hectares, of which the lion’s share is used for table grapes. Indeed, “more than 100 wine bars bottle over 500 labels“, explains Daniel Milmo Brittingham, president of the winegrower’s association Consejo Mexicano Vitivinícola (CMV).
In 2015, for example, 19.4 million litres of wine were estimated. In his main role as General Director of the traditional operation Casa Madero, he likes other key figures better. The whole sector with its branches already employs 12000 people – and the Mexicans like their wine. While per-capita consumption at 0.75 litres is practically underwhelming (France’s is around 50 litres), “five years ago [however], it was only 0.5 litres.” That’s 50% growth, “and especially in the middle and upper price segment. The consumer has recognised the quality of Mexican wine.” 10% growth in value since 2005, 8% in volume, to be more precise.
Above all, there is growth potential in drinking pleasure, says Milmo. Mexicans drink around 60 litres of beer per head, although almost half of the population still live in poverty. With a growing population and one of the highest per-capita gross domestic products of all emerging countries, the wine market could be a gold mine.