Who would’ve thought that Mexico has the oldest winemaking area in all of the Americas? More famous for their tacos, tequila, and cheap beer, Mexico’s wine history stretches way back into the 16th century, when Spanish missionaries came to colonize the New World, spread Christianity, and get drunk on local wine.
Mexican Wine: A Brief History
Long before vines were planted in California, Chile, or Argentina, Spanish settlers set up shop in the hot deserts of central Mexico. At this time, the famous region of Bordeaux in France had not even been drained – it was still a swamp! So much for “Old World” and “New World”.
Because the first vines were planted by Christian missionaries, much of the vines planted were spoken for – they were going to be used to make wine for religious and sacramental purposes. With wine being such an important part of Christian symbolism and liturgy, it is important to note what an important factor it was in keeping the winemaking traditions alive all of these years.
But, like other Spanish colonies, the local wines were great, cheap to produce, and often beat out the Spanish mainland’s juice. Spanish rulers tried to intervene, heavily taxing and then outright banning the production of wines in Mexico (most people ignored it) aside from sacramental wine.
This went on for years and years until Mexican independence in the 19th century, but by then Mexico had already established itself as more of a beer and mescal kind of a place anyways. With so much Spanish heritage, it was a bit surprising that there wasn’t more of a wine culture, but hey – what can you do.
The local industry was pretty much ignored, both from the local population and the outside world until about 20-30 years ago. European immigrants came in, excited by the potential of Mexico. At this point, production had long shifted from the hot and desert like conditions of central Mexico to the Baja Peninsula.
Quality was on the rise, and people were starting to pay attention to the cooler climate area and European style wines being made here. Within a few short decades, the number of wineries has increased significantly. Still, the wines of Mexico and Baja California fly under the radar except for those in the know.
The Baja Peninsula
Located in the far north western part of Mexico, this little peninsula juts out into the Pacific Ocean, with the Gulf of Mexico on its eastern side. More famous for the headline news coming out of border towns like Tijuana, fish tacos, and American college kids cruising down to party, the Baja has certainly gotten a bad rap over the years.
With the peninsula covering the entire area, it is Baja California that is most important here: the northern half of the peninsula.
The cooler and ocean air influence Baja California makes about 90% of Mexico’s tiny wine production numbers. With only 6,200 acres planted to grapes, being about the same amount planted as the Okanagan Valley in BC, Mexico isn’t necessarily producing a ton of grapes.
In fact, local consumption is only averaged at about a few glasses per year – yes, a few glasses of wine per person. They are definitely making up for it in beer and tequilas though, I am sure.
Back to the Baja, where the cool ocean air helps to preserve acidity in this positively warm and dry area. Diurnal temperature swings (difference between day and night) are quite high, making sure the grapes don’t fry on the vine leading to stewed flavours and excessive alcohol.
The dry air also helps to keep away pests and fungi, keeping things nice and clean for wine producers. With several organic growers, their climate and approach mirrors other arid and desert like regions such as Chile and Argentina.
But, just like them, the dry air creates some problems – irrigation is needed. These expensive systems can be costly for anyone, but for a newer wine region without a lot of foreign investment can be pricey.
All in all, the warm climate, high altitude, coupled with the dry air and ocean cooling effect creates some full bodied and spicy wines, right in line with California style with a little rustic edge. Big things are happening in Mexico here, even though there is a slight damper with some key vineyard areas being sold out to build condos and resorts.
The Wines of Baja California
With the Baja’s warm and sunny climate, it makes sense to have hearty and full bodied reds planted here. Like the state of California to the north, the following grapes are most planted:
The most important and well known of all wineries in the Baja has to be LA Cetto. Founded by Trentino (Alto Adige) born Don Angelo Cetto in 1928, LA Cetto has gone on to become one of the forerunners in the Mexican wine industry.
In fact, after hiring Italian winemaker Camillo Magoni in the 1960s, some experimental plantings of Nebbiolo were made. Decades later, it is seen as one of the great Nebbiolo based wines of the world, alongside Barolo and Barbaresco.
In addition to their Nebbiolo, LA Cetto has carved out a name for themselves with their stellar Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, as well as their “Don Luis” offerings with Viognier and Tempranillo.
The warm air and lots of sunshine properly ripen all of these grapes into full bodied and ripe wines, worthy of tracking down and trying.
Baja California In A Nutshell
With a New World history that hardly anyone but South Africa can hold a candle to, Baja California has come a long way in terms of quality and widespread recognition. But, there is lots of work to be done to increase awareness of Mexico aside from Tecate and Tequila.
With production sites expanding out beyond the Baja and Guadalupe Valley, there is lots of exciting experimentation going on in terms of site selection, altitude, grape varietals, and winemaking style to keep everyone happy and things moving in the right direction.
Sometimes all areas or regions need is a little push, and a little experimenting on the side of the consumers for things to tip over into snowball mode. Do the wine world a favour and sniff out some Mexican wine – you won’t be disappointed.