Mexican viticulture has a history dating back hundreds of years, yet its wines are still relatively unknown. Camille Berry discovers that the country’s winemakers are now experimenting with diferent varieties and styles, producing fascinating wines inspired by local terroir.
In the early days after Mexico won independence in 1821, wine production rose. But it subsequently succumbed to phylloxera and the Mexican Revolution (roughly 1910-1920), with its following period of unrest. Production didn’t bounce back until the 1980s when wineries such as Monte Xanic opened their doors and began crafting wines that captured international attention. Grape varieties Winemakers in Mexico aren’t beholden to the strict winemaking regulations seen in Europe. The lack of laws gives them a carte blanche. ‘People are a lot more adventurous,’ says winemaker Gustavo González of Finca la Carrodilla, one of the pioneers of organic and biodynamic viticulture in Baja. Hariri agrees. ‘There’s a lot of creativity. People are able to experiment and play. There’s a lot of young energy. It’s a really interesting blend of traditional and modern.’ As a result, you’ll encounter the usual suspects: international red grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah, plus whites including Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc. However, many wineries embrace their viticultural freedom, planting vineyards with Tempranillo, Barbera, Sangiovese and Nebbiolo. Many Mexican winemakers craft blends outside the classical European styles, not thinking twice about blending Iberian, Italian and French grapes. The results, frankly, are stunning. Listán Prieto, an original variety brought over by the Spanish, is still found in vineyards around the country. Today, it is known as the Mission grape. Winemakers such as Noel Téllez of Bichi breathe new life into this overlooked variety, introducing it to a new generation of wine lovers.
Wine regions Mexican winemaking is extreme winemaking. Across the country, irrigation is a must – a consequence of farming grapes along the Tropic of Cancer. In otherwise inhospitable climates, elevation allows vines to thrive. There’s no Mexican appellation system to speak of just yet. However, within the prominent wine-producing states, many sub-regions have distinguished themselves for their superior quality.
Baja California Accounting for between 80-90% of the country’s total wine production, Baja dominates the Mexican wine industry. The cool California Current runs along this thin strip of land, generating morning fogs which roll in o! the Pacific and funnel marine air into the coastal valleys. It’s an alchemical synthesis beautifully suited to viticulture.
Further inland, vineyards benefit from sites around 800m above sea level. Valle de Guadalupe is the epicentre of Mexican wine’s modern renaissance. A former seabed, the terroir is marked by an attractive minerality, which yields a saline character in some wines. Soils range from sand and loam near the coast to clay and granite near the mountains – perfect for accommodating a variety of grapes. Major varieties planted in Baja California include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Tempranillo, Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. But varieties such as Nebbiolo perform well here, too. ‘I’m amazed at the quality of the whites, the Sauvignon Blancs and Chenin Blancs in particular,’ says González. ‘In terms of reds, Tempranillo works really, really well there without having to do too much.’ At Bichi, Hariri is reviving Mission, Rosa del Peru and Palomino. But as she notes: ‘We want to make terroir-focused wines. We’re not so obsessed with the variety, it’s more about the expression of the terroir. The cleaner your agricultural practices are, the more your terroir will be reflected in the glass.’ The sobriquet ‘Napa of Mexico’ gets tossed around in reference to the Valle de Guadalupe, but its wines stand on their own, without need for comparisons. Beyond Valle de Guadalupe, other valleys are establishing their names on Baja’s wine scene: Calafia, Puerta Norte, Ojos Negros, plus the valleys of Santo Tomas, San Vicente and San Antonio de las Minas are a few areas to keep an eye on.
Coahuila Established in 1597, Casa Madero, the oldest winery still operating in the New World, is Coahuila’s main claim to fame. After centuries, the fertile Valle de Parras (‘valley of the vines’) remains Coahuila’s most promising region. Although situated right along the Tropic of Cancer, vineyard altitudes over 1,500m ensure a significant diurnal shift, with cool nights tempering the heat of the days here.
Querétaro It is often said that exceptional wines can’t exist outside the traditional 28° to 50° latitude belt, yet producers in Querétaro defy this notion. Mexico’s most southerly wine-producing state spans dusty, cactus-studded deserts, rugged mountains and dense rainforests. The state’s most noteworthy vineyards sit upwards of 1,500m to 2,000m above sea level. Herein lies the secret of their greatness. Grapes benefit from cool nights, which preserves acidity. It’s a much-needed balancing act to slow the ripeness that comes so easily in this hot, semi-arid climate. While Bordeaux grapes, Syrah and Chardonnay often star in Querétaro’s vineyards, sparkling wine is something of a speciality. Classic Cava varieties such as Macabeo, Xarel-lo, and Paralleda make their way into delicious vinos espumosos that are some of the best in Mexico. Look out for wines from Ezequiel Montes and Tequisquiapan. The sandy-clay soils of these sub-regions o!er the best of both worlds: excellent drainage during the rainy summer and water retention when it’s dry.
Zacatecas Craggy mountains shape much of the terrain in Zacatecas. Being landlocked, the best vineyards, such as those of Tierra Adentro, are ensconced high in these mountain ranges. Some reach nearly 2,300m above sea level, placing them among the highest vineyards in the world. Bordeaux varieties, Syrah and Malbec perform well in Zacatecas, as do Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier for white wines. Beyond these states, you’ll find enclaves in Durango, Sonora, Aguascalientes, Chihuahua and Guanajuato. While more notable for their brandies and table grapes, wine production remains small but holds promise. The same is true of San Luis Potosí, Michoacán, Puebla, Nuevo León and Jalisco. As interest and production continue to develop, the future may well bring additional vineyard plantings and more high-quality wine production to these other regions.
The future of Mexican wine Mexico’s wine industry has come a long way over the past few decades. ‘The level of comprehension has increased dramatically. There’s a lot more know-how than when I started out,’ says González. While still accounting for a small portion of an emerging industry, organic and natural wines are an especially thrilling niche for Mexico. ‘Now that they have more awareness, what people are looking for is that individuality of style. I see more producers having a natural wine o!ering, maybe not the entire portfolio, but a desire to make wines that are just a little bit di!erent,’ he adds. Global recognition has been arriving in the form of hundreds of awards and accolades. But as a winemaking country, Mexico is still discovering its identity. The lack of a distinctive style is both a great strength and a great weakness. Experimentation with di!erent grapes, blending and discovering what works with the country’s terroirs make Mexican wine a delight – particularly for wine lovers on the hunt for something new and unusual. On the other hand, the lack of focus could prove challenging when introducing wines to foreign markets. Argentina has Malbec. Chile has Carménère. Perhaps Mexico would benefit from a signature style. Another issue is that outrageously high taxes drive up the cost of wine. Forced to pay a minimum of 42% tax on a bottle, it’s no wonder Mexicans drink less than a litre of wine per person, per year. But there’s hope. According to the Consejo Mexicano Vitivinícola (CMV), wine consumption has doubled over the past five years. Meanwhile, across the border in the US, consumers are beginning to embrace Mexican wines – no surprise when you consider America’s love a!air with Mexican cuisine. In major cities on both coasts of the US, wine lists featuring a Mexican bottle or two are on the rise. The best of the bunch are phenomenally food-friendly. As for the future, González leaves us with this. ‘Everyone identifies the wines from Valle de Guadalupe as being the top wines in the country. Now there’s a proliferation of other regions where people are thinking: “Why don’t we try this here?” There are a lot more up-and-coming regions, which is great to see. It goes with this level of experimentation. There’s an openness to trying other varieties that maybe tell the story of that region.’
Mexican wine: 12 great bottles to try
Finca Sala Vive, Viña Doña Dolores Brut Reserva, Querétaro, Mexico Points: 88
Created from a blend of Macabeo, Xarel-lo, and Ugni Blanc, this elegant brut from Frexinet's Mexican arm boasts orange blossom, acacia, granny smith, Bosc pear, lemon zest, and yeast. Dry with persistent bubbles makes for an easy drinking, everyday bubbly.
Monte Xanic, Chardonnay, Valle de Guadalupe, Baja California, Mexico 2021 Points: 90
A more tropical take on Chardonnay from Mexico's original boutique winery. Gorgeous papaya, mango, pineapple, heady lemon and orange blossoms, finishing with a slight nuttiness, pine needles, toasted brioche, French vanilla, nutmeg, and oak. It's fresh, with plenty of complexity to
Vinaltura, Chenin Blanc, Querétaro, Mexico, 2020 Points: 90
As the winery's name suggests, Vinaltura's vineyards are nestled some 1,950m above sea level, a site which their wines clearly benefit from. Their fragrant Chenin Blanc features gorgeous aromas of fresh-cut pineapple, orange peel, ripe stone fruits, quince, honeysuckle, and orange blossom honey.
Casa Madero, Chardonnay, Valle de Parras, Coahuila, Mexico 2018
Points: 89 The oldest winery in the Americas makes a wonderfully expressive entry-level Chardonnay with ample Granny Smith, quince, white peach, guava, and ripe mango. There's a lovely complement of floral notes – honeysuckle, citrus blossom, and chamomile, and a refreshing acidity to make Casa Madero's Chardonnay an excellent partner for tacos...
Finca la Carrodilla, Canto de Luna, Valle de Guadalupe, Baja California, Mexico 2020
Points: 92 From Mexico's first certified organic vineyards, Canto de Luna is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and equal parts Tempranillo and Syrah. Loads of ripe berries - raspberry, pomegranate, red and black cherry, and blackberry that borders on jammy, followed by dried tobacco, dried lavender.
Vinicola Adobe Guadalupe, Rafael, Valle de Guadalupe, Baja California, Mexico 2018 Points: 92
Adobe Guadalupe's 2018 Rafael is a thing of beauty. An explosion of bramble fruits, fig, black plum, Christmas spice, leather, dark chocolate, cacao nibs, vanilla bean paste, and an understated smokiness. The combination of Cabernet Sauvignon and Nebbiolo makes this wine lean towards the
Bichi Wines, Listan, Tecate, Baja California, Mexico, 2019 Points: 92 The humble Mission grape isn't often associated with exceptional wine, but natural winemaker Noel Tellez has flipped the narrative with his marvellously funky take. Made from 100-year-old biodynamically farmed vines, Listan is unfined, unfiltered, a real beauty in its naked glory. Tart strawberry, morello cherry, black peppercorn, smoke.
Bichi Wines, No Sapiens, Baja California, Mexico, 2019
Points: 91 Like all Bichi wines, No Sapiens is unfined and unfiltered. Crafted from older own-rooted vines, it shows layers of redcurrant, tart cherry, ripe blackberry, green olive brine, baked earth, a dash of cinnamon, and barnyard. Wonderfully vibrant acidity and beautifully integrated tannins.
Santos Brujos, Tempranillo, Valle de Guadalupe, Baja California, Mexico 2017
Points: 91 A prime example of just how well Tempranillo performs in Valle de Guadalupe. This biodynamic red from Viña del Sol's Santos Brujos label is packed with Bing cherry, tart red and black plums, crushed violets, tobacco, milk chocolate, espresso, vanilla, and warming baking spices. A wickedly good wine to break... Points 91
Tres Raíces, Nebbiolo Sangiovese, San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Mexico 2019
Points: 90 One of the bigger producers in Guanajuato, Tres Raíces is located in the heart of San Miguel de Allende, the leading area for quality viticulture in the state. Their Nebbiolo-Sangiovese blend unfolds with an elegant mixture of tart and ripe red fruits. Cranberry, sour cherry, strawberry preserves combined with Nebbiolo's...
Tierra Adentro, Malbec Selección Limitada, Zacatecas, Mexico 2018
Points: 90 A luscious Malbec from one of Mexico's most extreme winemaking areas. At 2,300 metres above sea level, making stellar wine is no easy feat, yet Tierra Adentro has done just that. Concentrated blackberry, blueberry, and damson, with pretty violet notes, a hint of smoked bacon, sweet tobacco, cacao, and vanilla.... Points 89
Casa Madero, 3V, Valle de Parras, Coahuila, Mexico, 2020
Points: 90 A blend of equal parts Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Tempranillo make for a terrific crowd- pleaser. Forest fruit, plum, and ripe cherry mingle with leather, tobacco, and dark chocolate. This is a generous wine with velvety tannins that give way to a lengthy oak-kissed finish.