Friday, October 10, 2008

Weekend Wine Warriors

What does a mama get when she raises a plastic surgeon, an x-ray technician, an architect, and adds a soon-to-be oenologist grandson, and turns them loose in a winery? Serious, muscular, deep, rich, thigh-slapping red vino on the dinner table, that’s what!

 

What does a Swiss-French oceanographer do in his spare time? Other than: rescuing damaged olive trees, growing organic produce, managing a farmer’s market on his property, and raising chickens and Charolais cattle? He makes lip-smacking vino!

 

In this installment, we’ll take a look at two smaller, focused, highly artisanal Valle de Guadalupe wineries producing the good juice.

 

In 1994, trace hermanos, Roberto, Abel, and Bernardo Lafarge began planting grapevines in the upper Valle under the name Vinedos Lafarga. Concentrating on four heavyweight red varietals, Cabernet Savignon, Merlot, Syrah, and interestingly, Nebbiolo, a varietal originally from northwest Bella Italia (think Barolos, and Gattinaras).

 

Loving the evenings cooled by marine breezes, and warm to hot days, the grapes thrived. Initially, production was miniscule, because consistent pruning made for small, but highly concentrated, lots. Now up to only about 1000 cases, Lafarge would have to be considered a small player in the game, but it would hard to find a group of reds with more power, extract, complexity, depth and flavor.

 

We were honored to be invited as the first ever visitors to their winery. There is no formal tasting room yet, so we stood among the barrels and we were treated some of the finest juice of the trip. A” wine thief” (a long glass tube winemakers use to draw barrel samples) was employed to taste upcoming blends. The smart thing to do would be to take a small sip and dump the rest but they were too delicious to waste. Loved ‘em all. The brothers have made two special blends named after their parents. I thought the “DJ 1905”, a 2004 Cab/Merlot/Syrah a knockout! (father Don Jose, born in 1905). Janet liked the more approachable NV Merlot/ Cab blend, “Esther” (after mama).

 

Don Jose and Esther have much to be proud of.

 

Antonio Bedan arrived in the Valle at the ripe old age of two. His father, Henri, had come to the Valle to start an olive oil business based on the abundance of olive trees thriving there. He selected a 2500 acre property “El Mogor”. Among the olive trees, Henri planted some vine shoots given to him by a friend. So, you could say, Antonio grew up in the wine business, and in the European tradition, wine was served with daily meals, but it was many years before he got the “wine bug”. A trip to Bordeaux changed all that, and he began to devote all his “free time” to studying wine (and getting a doctorate in Marine Physics all the while). Mogor-Bedan Winery was born.

 

Only two types of wine are produced: a tightly wound, intense, Bordeaux style Cabernet/Merlot blend with some Temeranillo and Cabernet Franc. And, Chassalas, a pretty, fresh, citrusy white with elegant, delicious tropical fruit flavors. A Swiss varietal, it is grown only in Switzerland, northern Germany, and at Mogor-Bedan.

 

Antonio oversees every aspect of his 600 case per year operation, from crushing the grapes to pasting on the labels. He had the labels designed using old print type from a print shop in Paris. He is totally “hands-on”.

 

His sister Natalia lives on the property and operates a weekly impromptu farmers market on the porch of the main house. As active as her brother, she has organized protests against proposed housing subdivisions, and other large scale intrusions into the Valle.

 

The recently completed wine cellar is stunning; made from rocks dug from the property and surrounding area. Armed with a generous glass of the red blend, we repaired there, sat around on the barrels and talked shop, among other things. A true Renaissance man, fluent in many subjects, he is old school, deplores “creeping gentrification”, and dumbing down of society.

 

Viva Antonio!

 

Visit www.vinoclubsma.com for information on Mexican Wines

Bordeaux in Baja - Chateaux Camou

How many people in their 40s dream about what they would like to do when they retire (@ 65+/-) and pull it off right on schedule? Ernesto Alvarez-Morphy did just that, promising to fulfill a life-long dream, when, in his mid-forties, he determined that upon retirement, he would own a winery. In 1986 he made his move on time. Combining forces with several Mexican businessmen, he purchased an existing vineyard in the Baja’s Valle de Guadalupe which had been planted in 1937.

 

The goal? Nothing less than world class wine! Anything less was not an option.

 

Now the hard work began. Six months later, a winery in the California mission style architecture was built overlooking the vineyards. After studying the soils and vines, the plan became to graft 60 acres and to reseed another 30 acres with the so-called “noble” French varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc.

 

The area was settled by Russian immigrants early in the 19th century, who dry farmed wheat and some still call the area “Valle de Trigo”, or Valley of Wheat. We didn’t see any wheat, but there are a lot of Russian surnames about.

 

Ch. Camou sits in what is called Canada del Trigo, surrounded by about 95 acres of Bordeaux style grape vines. Production is in the hands of winemaker Victor Manuel Torres Alegre, who trained at the University of Bordeaux. Michel Rolland, a Bordeaux winemaker, has been a consultant at the winery since 1995.

 

There are three levels of wine at Camou. Leading off at the top is the El Gran Vino Tinto, a classic Bordeaux/Meritage blend of Cab, Merlot, and Cab Franc. After fermentation, it spends about three months in used oak barrels, then into new French oak for about 15 months. The Vinas de Camou line includes a “Fume” blanc (Sauvignon Blanc) and a Chardonnay. The Flor de Guadalupe is the “value” line, and includes a Zinfandel, a Blanc de Blanc, and a “Clarete” (a Bordeaux blend). The Zin is from purchased grapes, and is blended with a tad of Cab, and a smidgen of Cab Franc. Bordeaux-heads will love these wines, with their complexity, restraint, balance, and power.

 

Alvarez-Morphy feels he has achieved his dream of world class wines. With gold medals from the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles in 2000, highest honors in “Wines of the Americas”, and “Challenge International de Vin”, Camou is hitting on all cylinders!

 

The history of Ch. Camou shows how small-to-medium producers are taking the wine making art in Mexico to new levels.

 

Federico Valentine had no idea what awaiting him when, clutching his 1874 edition of “Traite Sur Le Vin” (Treatise on Wine), he fled post war France in 1919 to seek his fortune in the New World. Arriving first in New York, he later got a job on the railroads in Mexicali, Mexico. Moving to Tijuana, he met and married the comely Guadalupe.

 

With her family’s help, the newlyweds bought a small ranch near Ensenada. No High Chaparral, it had no electricity, water, or paved roads. It had “honeymoon” written all over it! Undaunted, they began raising vegetables and cattle. He sold his wares from a small cart door-to-door. Behind the little ranch house, and being ever the good Frenchman, Federico planted a small vineyard, and, using his handbook as a guide, he made the good juice for his family’s use. He had a small wooden vat in which he pressed the grapes with his own feet.

 

Volume increased and so did the family. Federico’s sons Hector and Gontran opened a general store in Ensenada, selling all sorts of vegetables. Years later, Federico’s daughter married Fernando Martain, who happened to be the head of production at Bodegas de Santo Tomas, another up and coming winery in the Valle (we’ll have a look at Santo Tomas in a future article).

 

The family had been discussing the idea of creating a family winery, so they decided to “take the plunge”. Things began slowly and very low-tech. Wine was produced in an old garage with rustic, manually operated equipment. The whole family pitched in. Cavas Valmar was born, and off and, if not running, walking. The first production came in 1985 with a whopping 350 cases of a wide scope of varietals: Barbera, Muscatel, Lambrusco, and Nebbiolo, to name a few. With the profits, they began to upgrade the equipment and expand production. Today, production has hit about 2000 cases coming out of about 50 acres of vineyards.

 

Cavas Valmar is dedicated to pushing the envelope on winemaking in Mexico. They take pride in the fact that their wines reflect the “terroir” (the unique characteristics that the soil in which the grape vines are grown impart to the grapes) of the Valle and have minimal human intervention. In this way they avoid standardization of their production and allow Mother Nature to express herself through each vintage.

 

Bottled Up in The Baja

In this issue, we’ll plug you into two of the small, artisanal producers of the good juice from Mexico Lindo. Both have their operations in the Ensenada area in the Baja Norte.

 

Roganto Winery (officially, “Vides Y Vinos Californianos”) is located in downtown Ensenada in a most unlikely place. As a matter of fact, we got lost trying to find them. After driving up and down a busy main drag, we finally found them in a small building behind a water well services business. Seems the winery is located behind the water pumps! Go figure! (Owners are the same….vineyards are out in the country south of Ensenada). “Roganto” takes its name from the first few letters of the first names of the partners, Rogelio Sanchez and Antonio Luis Escalante.

 

The very affable Antonio gives us a private tour (the winery is not open to the public) of a very modern, but modest sized winemaking operation. 1987 marked the first vintage (Antonio says “it was like a wine you might make in your garage”), of only about 200 cases which they just gave away to friends. The response was so positive “Tony” and his partner decided to go commercial with the 2001 vintage, buying all of their production from various growers in the area. Since then, they have owned their vineyards.

 

Cabernet Sauvignon and Tempranillo are the”stars” here. Deep, dark, packed with fat, intense, high extract flavors of blackberries, plums, walnuts, sweet oak, and spices, these beauties add new meaning to the word, “Wow”! Roganto bottles these reds separately and as blends.

 

Vino blancos were added to the product line in recent years. We tasted an absolutely delicious pair, a Sauvignon Blanc, bursting with honeysuckle aromas, flavors of melon and sweet spices, and a steely crisp, citrusy, non-oaked Montrachet-style Chardonnay that had a finish from here to Christmas!

 

Roganto Winery has it going! In a recent tasting held by top Mexican wine gurus, its Tempranillo was voted the 2nd best in the country!

 

Pau Pijoan Winery was a bit of a challenge to find. Not visible from the main road, no sign to mark the turn off on a dirt road leading to the winery. But hey, that’s why cell phones were invented! Finally, by “take[ing] the first left dirt road past the horse farm”, and “turn at the next dirt road”, we finally found Pau and his winery!

 

Pau Pijoan Aguade, a retired research veterinarian whose family roots go back to the Barcelona area in Spain, produces a wide range of varietals (12) which goes into making five different wines, all with a Spanish flair. We tasted the four named after his wife and three daughters.

I noticed no vineyards the area, and wondered about that until Pau informed me that all of his grapes are outsourced. He keeps his operation small at 1600 cases per year, almost all sold in the Mexico City area.

 

Mare (wife) is a robust Zinfandel blend of 2/3 Zin, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, with balance Merlot. Rich, flavorful, and intense with great mouthfeel and a long finish, she was a big glass of wine. Maybe she’s a big girl!

 

Silvana is a tasty blend of Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, and Muscatel and offered pretty floral notes on a framework of crisp, clean flavors. A “patio wine”, made for easy sippin’ as an aperitif or with light foods.

 

Paulinha is a Beaujolais Noveau style blend of Zin, Petite Sirah, and Merlot and comes across that way. Light, fruity, with candy flavors, I found it to be a little bubble-gummy and innocuous. I’m sure Paula, the wines namesake, isn’t that way!

 

Dominica must be a big girl ‘cause she got us back on track with a full-figured blend of Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Sirah. An interesting nose of perfume led onto a dark fruit bomb in the mouth, followed by a long finish. Dominica spends 13 months in oak, and tips the scales at 15.5% alcohol. She was clearly the star of the show!

 

It shows to go you what is happening right here in Mexico Lindo! 

 

Visit www.vinoclubsma.com for more info

In a Rut on the Ruta

The Ruta del Vino (wine route) is a 15 mile stretch of two lane blacktop running northeast out of the little town of El Sauzal, a handful of miles north of Ensenada on the west coast of the northern Baja.

 

Any resemblance to urban living disappears fast. A herd of goats may amble across your path, or maybe a farmer with a cart filled with firewood may slow you down. Cows amble along on the side of the road looking for lunch. But slowing down will work to your benefit, because shortly after leaving El Sauzal behind you are in the Valle de Guadalupe, where 90% of the wine made in Mexico is produced.

 

Fifteen years ago, there were only about 15 wineries operating in the Valle; now the number is close to 40. They range from the big gun, L.A.Cetto, clocking in at just under a million cases annually of maybe 15 different varietals, to the small, artesanal operation producing a handful of cases of maybe only one varietal, most of which is consumed locally.

 

In this issue of focusing on the world of Vino Mexicano, we’ll zero in on a medium-sized operation, Adobe Guadalupe, and the big boy on the block, Cetto. One produces primarily vino tinto, the other a wide variety of offerings. We’ll examine others in future articles, so stay tuned!

 

Now, pause, take a deep breath . . . think high end juice. Think in the realm of Stag’s Leap, Opus One, Caymus, and others who make powerhouse reds.

 

Don Miller, a very successful Orange County, California banker, and his Dutch linguist wife, Tru, fulfilled a dream originating from a tragedy. Tru’s son, Arlo, had been fascinated all his life with all aspects of Mexican culture. Unfortunately, Arlo died in an auto accident. Shortly after the accident, Tru, felt she had received a spiritual sign while on a trip to Paris visiting Notre Dame. Just inside the door, she saw a Mexican chair with a serape draped over it. It seemed so out of place, the image stayed with her. On a subsequent visit to Paris to lay Arlo’s ashes, she returned to Notre Dame and found that not only the chair and serape were still there, but a whole altar display dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe. These “proofs of Grace” came together when she and Don were looking up the origins of Mexican wines from the Valle. They ventured into the Valle and the site that would eventually become their winery. The dedication date on the deed of the property was the same date as Arlo’s death.

 

That was 10 years ago. Today it’s easy to feel the sense of spirituality and serenity at Adobe Guadalupe Winery and bed and breakfast. Low lying adobe buildings blend into the landscape. The theme of the winery is, appropriately, angels. Angels are everywhere. All the rooms in the B and B are named after angels. An old water tank that came with the property has sprouted wings and presides over 50 acres of vineyards planted to some ten different red varietals, from which Don produces 6,000 cases annually of four blends of Rhone style reds. All, appropriately, are named for archangels. Don and Tru preside over this special place with warmth and enthusiasm. Don gave us a private tasting of all four of his “angels” (followed by the ever-present gaggle of weimaraners). All of the wines were teeth staining, high-extract, silky-smooth, intense, Rhone style lip-smackers!

 

Don Angelo Cetto had no idea what lay ahead for him when, in the early 1920s, he left his native Italy and stepped off the boat in Veracruz. Drifting north, taking laboring jobs where he could find them, he settled in Tijuana. Somehow, he obtained a wine dealership, setting up what was to become the largest winemaking operation in the country.

 

His store, “Santa Fe”, sold all sorts of wines and liquors, plus a special item. In his back room, Angelo produced his own blend of wines from grapes from local vintners. Sales of “the back room” blend were good, so good, in fact that he began to bottle his own juice under the “Cetto” label.

 

Angelo’s second son, Luis Agustin, inherited his father’s passion for the tradition of winemaking and began aggressively expanding distribution of Cetto wines, which now had grown into several styles and blends. More vineyard lands were brought into the fold, and by the early 90s, in the Valle de Guadalupe alone, over 2,400 acres of vineyards were producing quality wines.

 

Luis brought the famed oenologist Camillo Magoni on board in the mid 60s. Camillo immediately installed state-of-the-art technology and stainless steel fermentation equipment, a revolutionary improvement at that time. Camillo and Luis insisted that all managers and workers learn and employ the latest technologies in the production process. By the mid 70s, the revitalized winery was named L. A. Cetto.

 

Today, a third generation in the form of Luis’s son, Luis Alberto, continues the tradition.  Twenty years after joining the firm, Luis Alberto has one goal: to grow as fast as possible and to occupy every market in the world. Currently, Cetto is in over 25 countries, and has won over 95 international prizes and medals.

 

The largest and probably the most powerful Mexican winery is set to face the future.

 

Dick Avery is a free lance writer and head sipper at VinoClubSMA, a wine club featuring boutique Mexican wines through free tastings. His website is www.vinoclubsma.com. He can be reached at vinoclubsma@gmail.com

 

The Grand Old Man of Mexican Wines -- Casa Madero

In 1575, the Spanish Crown appointed governor of then-to-be state of Coahuila, and the founder of San Luis Potosi, his Excellency, the estimable Francisco de Urdinola. The good governor founded the first winery in the Parras (“grapevines”) Valley, and produced the first commercial wine in the Western Hemisphere. Although not Mr. Popular among the local indigenous population, we can raise a glass to ol’ Francisco for getting the ball rolling in Mexico.

 

Shortly thereafter, in 1597, Felipe II of Spain deeded a land grant to Don Lorenzo Garcia who founded the Hacienda de San Lorenzo. In the late 19th century, Don Evaristo Madero Elizondo bought the wine production of the Hacienda from its then French owners, and Casa Madero, the oldest surviving winery in the New World, was born. Today, Jose Milmo, the great, great grandson of Don Evaristo, continues the tradition. Happily, the hacienda and wine cellar structure have been preserved in their original beautiful condition.

 

The Parras Valley, (reputed to be one of the hideouts of Poncho Villa) sits at an elevation of about 5000 ft., and has the ideal climate for grape cultivation. Quite arid, with cool nights, and warm days, its mountain spring water creates an oasis for man and vine. Primarily red wine country, with low rainfall (only about 11in.annually, and only in the harvest months of June, July, and August), superb Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, and Merlot are produced, and in the right hands, and with careful handling, delicate, delicious whites such as Chenin blanc, Chardonnay, and Semillon can wet your whistle nicely.

 

In the 70s the Milmo family, who had been producing grapes normally used in brandy, (and still do a brisk brandy business selling primarily to markets in northern Europe), began to replant some of the vineyards with popular varietals such as Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Most of the production each year still goes overseas, but Jose is anxious to shed the “Mexican Wine” label and actively markets more and more to restaurants. Currently, the product split is 60% brandies, 40% wine (thanks in no small part to Jose’s passion for wine!). 

 

The mid 70s however, were not kind to Jose and Casa Madero. The dreaded phylloxera insect, whose favorite breakfast, luncheon and dinner entrĂ©e are the roots of grapevines, virtually wiped out the vineyards over a period of time. So each year, about 100 acres were replanted with vines shoots grafted from European varieties which were free from infection. It wasn’t ‘til 2003 that all the vineyards were replanted, this time with more careful selection of varieties best adapted to the climate. Today, over 1000 acres, with highly sophisticated irrigation systems, organically produce over 350000 cases annually.   already making wine from indigenous vines at the Mission of Santa Maria

Since most Mexican wine drinkers favor European style wines, most Mexican wineries, including Casa Madero, tend to look to Bordeaux for stylistic inspiration. The Casa’s reds reflect that emphasis, with somewhat restrained and complex personalities of fruit and mineral tones. But I found the whites leaning Californian, with the fruit forward, fat, chewy flavors for which Napa, Sonoma, and the Russian River areas are known.

 

Today, Jose continues to push the envelope on quality. Each year, he invites winemakers from all over the world to spend a sabbatical summer at the winery to exchange ideas on ways to make the best wines possible. He is determined to improve his wines, increase his presence in the national market, and show Mexican consumers what Casa Madero is made of. Having met him, and sensing his commitment, I have no doubt he’ll do it.

 

“Summertime with wine and the living is easy”.

 

Dick Avery is the head sipper at VinoClubSMA, a wine club devoted to the enjoyment of “boutique” Mexican wines through free tastings. He can be reached at vinoclubsma@gmail.com. Visit the website www.vinoclubsma.com.

 

Weekend Wine Warriors

What does a mama get when she raises a plastic surgeon, an x-ray technician, an architect, and adds a soon-to-be oenologist grandson, and turns them loose in a winery? Serious, muscular, deep, rich, thigh-slapping red vino on the dinner table, that’s what!

 

What does a Swiss-French oceanographer do in his spare time? Other than: rescuing damaged olive trees, growing organic produce, managing a farmer’s market on his property, and raising chickens and Charolais cattle? He makes lip-smacking vino!

 

In this installment, we’ll take a look at two smaller, focused, highly artisanal Valle de Guadalupe wineries producing the good juice.

 

In 1994, trace hermanos, Roberto, Abel, and Bernardo Lafarge began planting grapevines in the upper Valle under the name Vinedos Lafarga. Concentrating on four heavyweight red varietals, Cabernet Savignon, Merlot, Syrah, and interestingly, Nebbiolo, a varietal originally from northwest Bella Italia (think Barolos, and Gattinaras).

 

Loving the evenings cooled by marine breezes, and warm to hot days, the grapes thrived. Initially, production was miniscule, because consistent pruning made for small, but highly concentrated, lots. Now up to only about 1000 cases, Lafarge would have to be considered a small player in the game, but it would hard to find a group of reds with more power, extract, complexity, depth and flavor.

 

We were honored to be invited as the first ever visitors to their winery. There is no formal tasting room yet, so we stood among the barrels and we were treated some of the finest juice of the trip. A” wine thief” (a long glass tube winemakers use to draw barrel samples) was employed to taste upcoming blends. The smart thing to do would be to take a small sip and dump the rest but they were too delicious to waste. Loved ‘em all. The brothers have made two special blends named after their parents. I thought the “DJ 1905”, a 2004 Cab/Merlot/Syrah a knockout! (father Don Jose, born in 1905). Janet liked the more approachable NV Merlot/ Cab blend, “Esther” (after mama).

 

Don Jose and Esther have much to be proud of.

 

Antonio Bedan arrived in the Valle at the ripe old age of two. His father, Henri, had come to the Valle to start an olive oil business based on the abundance of olive trees thriving there. He selected a 2500 acre property “El Mogor”. Among the olive trees, Henri planted some vine shoots given to him by a friend. So, you could say, Antonio grew up in the wine business, and in the European tradition, wine was served with daily meals, but it was many years before he got the “wine bug”. A trip to Bordeaux changed all that, and he began to devote all his “free time” to studying wine (and getting a doctorate in Marine Physics all the while). Mogor-Bedan Winery was born.

 

Only two types of wine are produced: a tightly wound, intense, Bordeaux style Cabernet/Merlot blend with some Temeranillo and Cabernet Franc. And, Chassalas, a pretty, fresh, citrusy white with elegant, delicious tropical fruit flavors. A Swiss varietal, it is grown only in Switzerland, northern Germany, and at Mogor-Bedan.

 

Antonio oversees every aspect of his 600 case per year operation, from crushing the grapes to pasting on the labels. He had the labels designed using old print type from a print shop in Paris. He is totally “hands-on”.

 

His sister Natalia lives on the property and operates a weekly impromptu farmers market on the porch of the main house. As active as her brother, she has organized protests against proposed housing subdivisions, and other large scale intrusions into the Valle.

 

The recently completed wine cellar is stunning; made from rocks dug from the property and surrounding area. Armed with a generous glass of the red blend, we repaired there, sat around on the barrels and talked shop, among other things. A true Renaissance man, fluent in many subjects, he is old school, deplores “creeping gentrification”, and dumbing down of society.

 

Viva Antonio!

 

Visit www.VinoClubSMA.com for more info on wines in San Miguel de Allende

Terrific Mexican Wine........Who knew?

Terrific Mexican Wine........Who knew?

 

As a fairly recent transplant from north of the border, I was seriously concerned as to how to satisfy my wine habit here in my new home. After all, who’d ever heard of a “good Mexican wine”? An oxymoron, to be sure!

 

However, a chance meeting in the lovely courtyard of an old house-turned-restaurant soon proved those fears to be unfounded. Oh, don’t get me wrong….there is plenty of Mexican plonk out there. It’s just that there is also world-class (NOT a typo) vino being made here if you know where to look.

 

A little background is in order. Just about everyone knows how grape rootstock was brought to the Americas by the Spanish missionaries, planted here, and that’s pretty much how things got started. But did you know Mexico is actually the oldest (450 years) wine producing country in the Americas?

 

Legend has it that Hernan Cortez, and his men exhausted their wine supply when celebrating the conquest of the Aztecs in the 1500s, (all that conquesting makes for a heavy thirst!) so as first governor of these new lands, ordered the new colonists to plant 1000 grapevines for every 100 natives in their service. What a guy! That couldn’t have been a hard sell, because wine had been an indispensable part of the daily life of the colonists in Spain, and that wasn’t about to change when they arrived in “New Spain” (certainly understandable!).

 

The grapes did so well that in 1531, Charles I decreed that all ships sailing to New Spain carry grapevines and olive trees to be planted here. The wine produced from these vines eventually became too good for their own good, however. The quality improved so much that wine exports from Spain to their new colony dropped dramatically. So much so that, in 1595, Phillip II decreed that ALL wine production in New Spain be terminated. It seems that Spanish wine producers and distributors were being squeezed just a little too much! (Not the first time a government sticks its nose into the free market!). The Crown’s local representatives, the Viceroys, strove to implement the 1595 decree eliminating wine production, but sometimes you just can’t keep a good idea down! Despite howls of protest from Spanish wine interests, vine cultivation, while limited, was here to stay, thanks mainly to the missionaries who maintained wine was necessary to perform religious ceremonies. When there is a will there is a way!

 

Spanish authorities continued to bear down on the fledgling industry. It became one of several sore spots in the relationship between the Crown and colony. In the early 19th century, Spanish soldiers were sent to our neighbor to the north, Dolores (later Dolores Hidalgo), with orders to destroy all vineyards. Miguel Hidalgo, the local parish priest who later became a hero of The Revolution, had still another grievance against Spanish oppression, and the battle for independence was on!

 

Fast forward to the late 19th-early 20th century. Porfirio Diaz, President of Mexico, in a campaign of modernization and industrialization, reinvigorated viticulture in the country, even inviting successful California wine makers to stimulate the wine industry.  At about the same time, the area now known as Baja California received an influx of Russian pacifists opposed to the Czarist wars. Known as the “Molokans” (literally, “milk-eaters”), they immediately began planting grapevines. (Maybe they should have been named “grape-eaters”). However, another revolution comes along in 1910, and again the industry is devastated.

 

You can’t keep a good industry down, though. After a long period of somulence, things begin to happen. In the late 40’s-early 50’s, the then secretary of Agriculture started his own wine business in Saltillo, Coahuila, and by the early 50’s controlled 25% of all grape production in the country. In 1948, the Mexican government prohibited the importation of all luxury items, including all alcoholic beverages. Here we go again with the government interfering with the marketplace! But, ironically, it served to stimulate competition among the Mexican producers, and actually revitalized the industry. The National Viticultural Association was formed to promote “….the growth, processing, and commercialization of grapes and grape-based products”.

 

The 80’s was when the modern Mexican wine industry hit its stride. A handful of adventurous, dedicated Mexican winemakers who knew they had the soils and the climate (mostly in the northern part of the country) to make good vino, became determined to produce high quality wines that could compete with world’s finest. And did they ever, employing the latest technology and techniques, and winning awards worldwide, including Chardonnay du Monde in France, Expovina in Switzerland, and The Brussels Concours Mondan.

 

No discussion about quality Mexican vino can begin without starting with the Valle de Guadalupe, the “Napa Valley” of the Mexican wine industry. Located in northern Baja, near Ensenada, it is home to about 50 wineries and produces 90% of all Mexican wines, with L.A. Cetto leading the production pack with a 50% market share. Its climate is Mediterranean with proximity to the Pacific Ocean breezes, making for cool mornings and evenings, only about 7-9 inches of rain per year, and warm to hotter-than-a-country-marshal’s-pistol-hot days. It’s primarily red wine country, but some producers, with careful handling, can make exceptional whites.

 

The Parras (grapevines) Valley in Coahuila has very special climatic conditions. Being almost a mile in elevation, it’s semi-arid. Grapevines love it, and the low humidity and cool nights means fewer grape-loving bugs and fungus. It’s home to the oldest winery in the Americas, Casa Madero, founded in 1597, which continues to this day producing a broad array of delicious varietals, including award winning Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, and Syrah.

 

Queretaro is one of Mexico’s most prosperous winegrowing areas. With vineyards at altitudes of 6500 ft., the grapes mature in extreme and unusual conditions. Queretaro boasts the Spanish sparkling wine producer Grupo Freixenet’s Mexican operation, proving good bubbly doesn’t have to be a wallet-buster. 

 

Zacatecas, in north central Mexico, wouldn’t ordinarily be considered to be “wine country” since it’s a tad south of what is considered “the global wine zone” (30-50 degree latitudes), but its vineyards are located in the high altitudes (also about 6500 ft.). So the region, with its crisp winters and fresh summer temperatures is optimal for wine growing. The clay soil, with its high moisture retention, makes for happy grapes.

 

“In Mexico Vino Est Veritas”, if I may paraphrase a bit. Mexican wines have come into their own in a big way. Delicate, crisp, flavorful whites and reds of intensity, power, richness, and complexity are available to the wine lover in Mexico. Future articles will focus on many of these and “name names”. Sooo, when you are hankering for a “copa de vino”, think locally! Your palate will thank you!

 

Dick Avery is head sipper at VinoClubSMA, a wine club dedicated to the enjoyment of boutique Mexican wines through free tastings. He can be reached at vinoclubsma@gmail.com. Check out the website at www.vinoclubsma.com.

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