A Case For (Of) Mexican Wine, Please

With an increasing number of Mexican wines winning top accolades in international wine competitions around the world you’d think we’re up to something new. How can this be possible, however, when the oldest winery in the Americas (Casa Madero) is in Mexico and was founded in 1597?

A Bit of History

While it is commonly believed that the Spanish conquistadors were responsible for bringing grapes to the New World, there is evidence of wild grapes throughout the continent that predates the Spanish conquest. After the conquest, local species, such as Vitis rupestris and Vitis labrusca were identified, although these were not suitable for wine production. Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes is credited for being the main promoter of harvesting grapes for wine production, and he ordered seeds of the Spanish variety Vitis vinifera to be brought to the New World and planted. To that effect, he signed a decree in 1524 stating that all land-owning settlers with indian slaves should plant 1,000 Spanish grape plants per year for every 100 slaves.

By the 1530s, King Charles I of Spain ordered that all ships traveling to the New World should carry grapes and olives, as he thought it wise to cultivate these plants throughout the new Spanish territories in the America. Missionaries were particularly set on growing the vines as wine was required for mass. As the Spanish settlers began exploring the territory while looking for gold, they reached Coahuila, in northern Mexico, where they found grapes thriving in the wild. It is there that the first American wine was produced around 1574. Two decades later, Hacienda San Lorenzo was created with the blessing of King Phillip II. In 1597, it came to be known as Casa Madero.

By this time, over half a century had passed since Cortes had ordered grapes to be cultivated and harvested wherever possible. Spanish grapes thrived in several regions of Mexico to such extent that back in Spain, local grape producers began feeling threatened by the enormous success vineyards had in the new world. Under pressure, in 1595, King Phillip II prohibited new wine grape production in Mexico, limiting it to sacramental wine only.

It was in the late 17th century that Jesuit missionaries brought grape cultivation to Baja California, where they found a climate similar to that in Coahuila. As was common throughout Europe, vineyards were created around churches and monasteries. Without easy access to wine, most locals developed a taste for other alcoholic beverages, such as pulque, a tequila predecessor (the fermented sap of the agave plant), beer, tequila, and imported alcoholic drinks such as rum. Meanwhile, wine production in South American countries such as Argentina and Chile continued being developed.

It wasn’t until the Mexican Independence from Spain in the early 19th century that local winemaking was once again promoted, this time by Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a Mexican Roman Catholic priest and a leader of the Independence, in 1810. In 1824, three centuries after Cortes’ decree, Mexican Emperor Agustin Iturbide ordered importation taxes as high as 35 percent applied to all imported wines in order to stimulate local production. Winemakers continued settling in Coahuila, in Baja California (in an area now known as Valle de Guadalupe) and other states where dry weather allowed for the creation of wines of increasing quality.

Mexican wine production began coming of age during the third decade of the 20th century when Mexican President Abelardo L. Rodriguez purchased the Bodegas de Santo Tomas in Baja California and building a wine production plant in Ensenada. Renowned European winemakers began settling in Mexico, as was the case of Italian Angelo Cetto, who began producing wines in Valle de Guadalupe in 1936. Since then, the number of award-winning wineries in Mexico has increased exponentially, with internationally-renowned names such as Casa Madero, L. A. Cetto, Monte Xanic and Domecq showing up in international competitions, as well as the menus of some of the world’s most prestigious restaurants.

Today, and thanks to King Phillip II’s 1595 ruling, wine consumption in Mexico is not nearly as popular as beer or other beverages. In fact, Mexicans consume an average of 65 liters of beer annually, while annual wine consumption in Mexico is approximately 750ml. per person (or about 4.5 wine glasses). To make things worse for the Mexican wine industry, as much as 69 percent of the wine consumed in Mexico is imported. But this is changing. And fast.

There is no holding back Mexico’s burgeoning wine industry. A quick visit to the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles website, concoursmondial.com (also known as the United Nations of Fine Wines) reveals that their competition’s quest to seek out the world’s finest quality wines has revealed quite a few Grand Gold, Gold and Silver Medal winners in Mexico over the past few years, alongside top producers from Spain, Portugal, Italy, France and South Africa, among other countries.

Getting Started with Mexican Wines

When it’s time to resist the urge to shop for California wines as many folks from north of the border do, the best thing to do is to visit a local wine purveyor with expertise on Mexican wines. One such purveyor is Nina Goodhope, who has a small shop, Cork+Bottle, at Los Mercados in Colonia Emiliano Zapata. Not only does she carry mostly Mexican wines, but she also ongoing wine tastings open to the public by reservation. Or you can stop by her shop where you can sample some varieties before purchasing.

Here are some of her favorites:

White: Duquesa Cuvee Blanc, by Vinos de la Reina (an unoaked blend of chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and viognier)

Rosé: V, by Casa Madero (a cabernet sauvignon)

Red: Nebbiolo, by L.A. Cetto (medium-bodied, super food-friendly)