Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Mexico makes wine too, muchacho.

Mexican vineyard
A VINEYARD IN MEXICO
"Hecho en Mexico" is something you expect to see on a bottle of Tequila but never on a bottle of wine. Well, guess what? Mexico makes wine too, muchacho. People have been making wine there longer than they've made it anywhere else in the western hemisphere. At first thought that's cray cray, right? I mean, grapes prefer cool climates and Mexico is friggin hotter than Lindsay Lohan in 2004. I thought so too but it turns out, given its history, that it makes perfect sense.

To take it from the top we have to start with the infamous, trailblazing Conquistadors. If you thought you'd get out of this without getting into some heavy history: Welcome to TheWineStalker.net, my name is Joey Casco.

After the discovery of the New World, the Spanish and Portuguese collected their toughest badasses, called them Conquistadors, and put them on boats headed to Central and South America. Their job was to claim land in any way they had to and send back valuable resources and luxuries. They found gold, coffee, chocolate, corn and tomatoes to name a few. But what did they bring with them besides death and disease? Viticulture and vines.

These Conquistadors were pretty religious and also liked to party so they needed their wine, a beverage that spoils quickly and doesn't travel well. They had to plant and grow their own vines wherever they went. So along with them followed Franciscan missionaries to spread their faith, establish missions, tend to the vines, and make the wine. The grape that seemed to be their favorite was the very basic, very hardy, "black" Mission grape. It's now known as Pais in Chile and Criolla Chica in Argentina. Just as the Benedictine and Cistercian monks were crucial to the advancement of viticulture in Europe, the Franciscan and Jesuit monks were just as important for the same in the New World.

Hernando Cortes
"HEY, GIRL. YOU CAN
CONQUER MY SOUTHERN
COLONIES ALL NIGHT."
Spain's Hernando Cortes, although a greedy and arrogant dick, was pretty smart and a damn good leader. He was the guy that, while insanely outnumbered and in a not-so-favorable situation, defeated the biggest, meanest motherfuckers in Mexico... the Aztecs. In just two years (1518-1520) he managed to take the Aztec capital (modern day Mexico City) and thus the Aztec Empire and all the other tribes they controlled.

Before that, when building relations with the natives, Cortes drank the local fermented beverage made from the agave plant and immediately ordered a still from Spain so he could distill it into a hard liquor. With that, he discovered mezcal and solved the recurring problem of running out of imported brandy for his boys. Huzzah!

Why is Cortes relevant to wine? After a short stint as the Governor of Mexico he went back to Spain for a few years. He returned to Mexico in 1530 as a military authority, and he would make viticulture mandatory for the farmers and land owners of the blossoming colony. For every native slave they owned they had to plant 10 vines, and they all owned hundreds of slaves. (Some say this was one of the first things he did as governor, some say he did this in the 1530's. The timeline there doesn't match by almost a decade so I went with specified years because that's how I roll. Either way:) The military presence was growing, the colonial population was growing, and the demand for wine was growing. In 1531, King Carlos V made every ship heading to the New World carry vines to their destination for planting.

In 1595, King Philip II banned plantings of new vineyards in all Spanish colonies. Sales of wine from the actual mainland were slipping and this was his attempt to protect that industry. Because of this, a Spanish immigrant to Mexico named Don Andres Sanchez de Tagle started his own mezcal factory near the city of Tequila. He's now known, and rightfully so, as the "Father of Tequila".

Casa Madero 3V
CASA MADERO 3V
The ban didn't last very long. It halted the growth and the advancement of the Mexican wine industry for a bit but it didn't snuff it out. In fact, the oldest winery still around in the Americas was founded in 1597, two years after the ban was made law. Its name is Casa Madero and it's located in Parras Valley in the northern, landlocked Mexican state of Coahuila.

From Mexico, missionaries introduced successful viticulture and winemaking to what is now the United States. It's not like the French and English didn't try to grow grapevines up in the northeast, but they failed because they were right on the original stomping grounds of the root-destroying louse, phylloxera. The settlers didn't even know what the hell was going on, they just knew their goddamn grapevines weren't cooperating.

There was no phylloxera along the route the Spanish took. The USA dirt's first succesful vitis vinifera plantings were in Texas and New Mexico in the 1620's by the Spanish. Born in 1662, Jesuit missionary Juan de Ugarte spread vines and better viticulture practices to missions all over the place until his death in 1730. He planted the first vines in the northwestern Mexican state of Baja California in 1701. In 1769 a Spain born, Baja California based Franciscan friar named Junipero Serra founded a mission near Monterey and planted the first vineyards of the USA's California.

King Charles II thought King Philip II had a good idea a hundred years before him and repeated the vineyard planting ban on all Spanish colonies in 1699. This time they really cracked down on Mexico and it hurt like a son of a bitch. It lasted for thirty friggin years. It was crushing (hehe, "crushing"). No seriously, it was bad. One of those "what could have been" things. It was on a roll, taking business away from the wines of Spain, only to be forced into a plateau that became a massive decline. The monks kept plugging away, refusing to conform to the laws, but Mexican wine became a secret, only known by locals for hundreds of years after the ban was lifted.

Grenache
GRENACHE
Basque immigrants, a people whose European homeland is now split down the middle by the borders of Spain and France, brought their favorite varieties to Parras Valley in the 18th century. This included Carignan and Grenache (AKA Garnacha). These varieties started to spread immediately because, not only could they handle the hot climate, but they flourished in them.

During the 1800's the missionaries were still alive and kicking, and they went on an all-out ambitious campaign to renew some life in wine production. They started growing grapes at missions that weren't growing them before and they were finding some satisfying results. The very last one of those missions, planted with vines in 1834, was in Valle de Guadeloupe (Guadalupe Valley). It's waaaay far away to the northwest of Parras, near the coast in Baja California, and it was making some awesome wines.

Before the turn of the decade that mission had to be abandoned because of a native revolt. In 1850 the church lost most of its land in the Reform War. Then phylloxera hit at the end of the century. And then Mexican winemaking was set back yet again by the Mexican Revolution of 1910. And then the kid at the Dunkin Donuts drive-thru couldn't make a regular iced coffee right, completely ruining my day. This entire paragraph is a downer, man.


United Vacations

That period of time wasn't all doom and gloom, however. Grape growing did come back to Guadalupe Valley and, believe it or not, it was still mostly planted with that Mission grape. Then in 1904 about a hundred families of draft-dodging Russian pacifists called Molokans moved to Guadalupe Valley and changed all that by planting much better options suitable for better wines. Don't be so surprised; it was Russian fishermen that first decided to make wine in Sonoma (I'm sure you've heard of Russian River). Most of the Molokans would be gone by the 1930's but they made an enormous impact in transforming what would become the heart of the Mexican wine industry.

Up until 1987 foreign wines weren't permitted to be imported into Mexico. Of course, the nation's wine industry received yet another big blow when those floodgates were opened. Wine consumers preferred all the French, Italian, Spanish and American wines that were now available. Smaller wineries dropped like flies.

The story of Mexican wine was obviously written by the heartless George RR Martin.

A LITTLE VISUALIZATION NEVER HURT NOBODY. OH WAIT, YES IT HAS.
And so here we are today. Statistically the Mexican people are beer drinkers and, surprisingly, they drink more brandy than Tequila or mezcal. Brandy, by definition, is fermented fruit that has been distilled into liquor and grapes just make the best. Most of the vineyards in Mexico today, and there are a lot, were planted in the 1960's specifically for brandy. But you don't need quality grapes to make brandy, you just need a base wine high in acid and low in alcohol. There's fertile land galore in Mexico that can pump out high yields of grapes suitable for swill and brandy, and there's plenty of small pockets here and there that can produce impressive quality wine, but not many that can really call themselves a fine wine region. And by "not many" I mean five.

Parras Valley, as you have just read, was the first. It doesn't seem like there's anything special going on with the soil and terroir, it's surrounded by desert, and has a worse than average issue with insects and other pests. Being at a much higher altitude than the desert does cool its climate, and there are water supplies from streams, but it's still a pain in the ass to grow grapes there. So it could simply be generations of experience that makes wine work in Parras. A winning culture, if you will. Casa Madero isn't the oldest winery in the America's because they don't know how to handle and overcome their shit. That, to me, makes it a very special place.

You'll find mostly Bordeaux, Rhone and Rioja style wines being made in Parras Valley. Casa Madero's Syrah, Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc have been proven to be of award winning quality by winning, ya know, awards and stuff. Their brandy is as popular as mimosa's on Easter.

Another winery out of Coahuila is Bodegas Ferrino, founded in 1860 by Campania Italy immigrant Don Miguel Ferrino.

BAJA CALIFORNIA
Up near the coast in the Ensenada area of Baja California, the Mediterranean climate from the Pacific current changes everything. This is the ideal location for winemaking in Mexico, and it produces 90% of the countries wines. This consists of Valle de San Antonio de las Minas, Valle de Santo Tomas and Valle de San Vicente... AKA "The Wine Trail".

Just 60 miles south of Tijuana (the infamous city that I one day hope to party with Gary Busey in) is Valle de San Antonio de las Minas. Within that is the golden ticket: Guadalupe Valley. Just like Napa Valley, the fog created by the Pacific Ocean at night, burning off as the morning progresses, makes this valley an incredible place for vineyards. The water availability sucks so the vines really have to dig deep and fight for it (a good thing). The pest problem they have so much of in Parras is almost non-existent here. The sandy soil is something that phylloxera absolutely loaths and also something that Cabernet Sauvignon absolutely loves.

There's enormous industrial wineries and small family owned ones all over the place, but they say that the very best wine here is made on the property of restaurants and motels to be served to their customers and guests. Still, if you start to see a movement of Mexican wines becoming widely available then Guadalupe Valley is the place they will come from. Mostly common international varieties are grown here, especially Cabernet Sauvignon, but they also do the not-so-international Zinfandel, Nebbiolo, Barbera and Tempranillo.

Wineries in Guadalupe Valley include: L.A. Cetto, the big-boy on the Mexican wine scene, #1 in vineyard ownership. Paralelo, Mexico's second largest vineyard owner. Vinos Bibayoff, founded over a hundred years ago and now run by descendants of those Russian Molokans. Monte Xanic, created by a group of regular guys to compete with the foreign wine allowed into the country in 1987. Chateau Camou, first planted in the 1930's and specializing in Bordeaux style wines. Mogor Badan, winery of Swiss-French descent and known for their Swiss varietal Chasselas. Adobe Guadalupe, an inn that has 60 acres of vineyards. Vina de Liceaga, established in 1983 along the Tecate highway. And then there's Casa de Piedra, in San Antonio de las Minas but just outside of the Guadalupe Valley southern line, that's been highly acclaimed on an international level.

BODEGAS SANTO TOMAS IS
WICKED FRIGGIN OLD, GUY.
Not too far to the south is Valle de Santo Tomas. This is where Juan de Ugarte planted that first Baja California vineyard that you read about, like, an hour ago or something. Bodegas Santo Tomas, originally Juan's mission he planted with vines in 1701, was founded as a commercial winery in 1888. It now has vineyards in all three Ensenada regions and has partnered with another historical winery: USA California's Wente Family Vineyards. Cavas Valmar, founded in Santo Tomas in 1983 by the sons of a winemaking French immigrant, is also now in all three Ensenada regions.

Further to the south is the region of Valle de San Vicente. I'm all the way up here on Cape Cod so I scoured books and the internet for anything, grasping at straws, but I could only find acknowledgement of its mere existence as a fine wine region. Lots of acknowledgments, actually, and nothing else. So if anybody out there has information on San Vicente or anything else pertaining to the wines of Mexico then please let me know!

GUANAJUATO
GUANAJUATO
But we're not done yet! Far closer to the equator than I thought was possible to make quality fine wine is the state of Guanajuato. All the vineyards in the state are required to be organic, and there are only a handful of wineries in what is called the "Guanajuato Wine Circuit". The wines are characteristically fruit forward with subtle undertones of earth, and specifically designed to pair well with the local cuisine. The food here is also one reason why they are all organic; to follow suit with the local, organic markets.

Wineries in Guanajuato include: Cuna de Tierra, AKA Vega Manchon, located in the surrounding area of the city Dolores Hidalgo. They're considered a boutique winery focused on elegance. La Sierra de Santa Rosa is in the town of San Miguel de Allende. Rancho Santa Gloria uses the same winemaking methods as the ancient Romans and their flagship varietals are Montepulciano, Tempranillo and Grenache. Bodega Dos Buhos is all about the experience of art, from the winery to the wine. Then there's Vinicola Toyan, who claim that two meteorites found on the property give the vineyards balance and energy.

In closing, although the quality and consumption of Mexican wine has been on the rise since the 1980's, wine is still an after-thought in the country. But if things keep going in the direction that they are, you could very well be seeing the wines of Mexico popping up in your favorite wine shops in the near future. It's actually already begun, and I just can't wait until it reaches the northeast. How fucking cool would that be? Pardon my Swiss-French. (that's what is referred to as "ending with a call-back")

- Joey Casco, CSW
  TheWineStalker.net

The Wine Stalker Facebook Page actually has a very large Mexican following, and this is dedicated to them. It's especially dedicated to Caramel Patisserie, a pastry shop in Aguascalientes,  where a totally awesome person posting as Alta Reposteria Caramel is one of my biggest supporters. Thank you for liking my stuff, Pedro.

Thank you to @LoriTwistedCork on Twitter for showing me that bottle of Cuna de Tierra and thus discovering the existence of Guanajuato wine... after I thought this post was finalized ;)

References:
The Oxford Companion to Wine
The World Atlas of Wine
Wikipedia
So many different Mexican websites it's not even funny

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