Friday, October 10, 2008

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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