Los vinos de México

The wine regions of Mexico.

Editor’s Note: Wine Chat will return March 19.
As you open this morning’s paper and read Wine Chat, I will be
waking up in a cabana on a secluded beach in Xcalak, Quintana Roo,
Mexico. Xcalak (pronounced ISH-ka-lak) is a sleepy fishing village
just a few kilometers from the border with Belize, and is known for
unspoiled reefs that afford exceptional scuba diving and
fishing.
Editor’s Note: Wine Chat will return March 19.

As you open this morning’s paper and read Wine Chat, I will be waking up in a cabana on a secluded beach in Xcalak, Quintana Roo, Mexico. Xcalak (pronounced ISH-ka-lak) is a sleepy fishing village just a few kilometers from the border with Belize, and is known for unspoiled reefs that afford exceptional scuba diving and fishing. One of the things it is not known for is wine, and that holds true for most of the country of Mexico.

When thinking of Mexican adult beverages, probably the first that come to mind are tequila and cerveza. And that would be appropriate, as tequila is native to Mexico, and Mexico produces some world-class beers. Wine doesn’t even enter the equation. Let’s face it: when you’re relaxing on a white sand beach, the hot Caribbean sun glinting off the gin-clear water (just rubbing it in a little), who thinks: “a glass of Pinot Noir would go down good right about now?” Nobody. “Una cerveza, por favor” is the more likely request.

Tequila has taken its place among discerning drinkers with scotch, bourbon and other premium spirits. And rightly so: tequila has grown up. It’s no longer just the “gold” stuff sold in Costco-size jugs for frat bashes. Respected distilleries – some going back several generations – produce complex, deeply satisfying tequilas much more at home in a fine lead crystal glass than in a Day-Glo plastic party cup.

Actually, Mexico produces some respectable wines in several distinct growing regions. The country is also home to the oldest vineyard and winery on the continent. All kinds of wines are produced there, including sparkling wines from one of Spain’s most famous producers. So, in the spirit of NAFTA, I thought it might be fun to take a look at the wine industry south of the border, down Mexico way.

It turns out that there is a long tradition of winemaking in Mexico – not surprising, really, when you think about it. When the Spanish Conquistadors so politely moved into the country in the 16th century, they naturally brought with them from their native land a taste for wine. (Also a taste for murder, mayhem and genocide, but that’s a story for another type of column.)

The Parras Valley is in the northeast of Mexico in the state of Coahuila. Exploring the region west of Monterrey, Don Lorenzo Garcia found an oasis among the surrounding desert. Here he found springs and native grape vines growing in abundance. The year was 1597. Don Lorenzo established Casa Madero, a vineyard and winery that are operating to this day – the oldest winery on the continent. Casa Madero concentrates on reds, producing Cabernet, Merlot and blends of the two. Recently they planted Chardonnay and it shows promise as well.

Baja California Norte is probably the most well-known wine region of Mexico. The area around Ensenada – famous for Papas and Beer (formerly Hussong’s Cantina) – is home to several respected producers. Perhaps the best known is Santo Tomas.

Curiously, Santo Tomas claims that it is “Mexico’s oldest continuously-operating winery,” having been established in 1882. Casa Madero just claims to be the oldest. I wasn’t able to find out if there was a period of time when Casa Madero suspended production. So the controversy over who gets to be Mexico’s oldest winery rages on. Sigh.

Anyway, Santo Tomas wines are widely available in Mexico, and I’ve seen them in wine shops in different parts of the United States.

Once, on an extended visit to Loreto, Baja California Sur, my wife and I tired of margaritas and decided to try a bottle of Santo Tomas. We purchased a Santo Tomas white at Loreto’s main store and gathering place, El Pescador. That store has everything. And you know what? The wine was delicious. Not at all complicated, but perfectly suited to the weather and it went really well with the “chocolata” clams we had gathered while scuba diving earlier in the day.

It came as a surprise to me that sparkling wine is produced in Mexico. The Spanish company Freixenet – the guys that make that wine in the black bottles – produce vinos espumosos, literally “frothy wines,” under the Petillant and Sala Vive labels. They are mainly blends of Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Pinot Noir and Macabeu, a varietal widely used for blending in Spain.

Freixenet Mexico also produces several still wines – mostly red blends – under the Vina Dona Dolores and Vina Dona Dolores Vivante labels.

There’s a lot more to the story of Mexican wine. I haven’t even touched on the producers of Zacatecas, Querecaro or Sonora. Sonora grows about 50 percent of the wine grapes produced in Mexico, but for some reason, there are few wineries. The bulk of the product is sent to wineries in Baja and the United States for processing.

At any rate, the part of Mexico we’ll be visiting, Quintana Roo, is not a wine region. It’s on the Yucatan Peninsula, and is known as the home of Spring Break Ground Zero, Cancún. They sell an awful lot of that gold tequila there, but not much good wine. So I suppose we’ll have to cool off with cold Coronas and content ourselves with the knowledge that somewhere in Mexico, winemakers are busy crafting wines that will someday put that country on the map as a producer of fine wine.

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