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Unrestrained by Tradition, Mexican Wine Finds Itself at a Crossroads

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Late last year, an open letter was published in the newspaper El País that sent shockwaves throughout the worlds of Mexican wine and tourism. With a title that roughly translates to “Valle de Guadalupe Is Over,” Mexican wine pioneers Hugo d’Acosta and Natalia Badan denounced the unbridled—and often illegal—tourist development in Mexico’s largest, and arguably best, wine region. They spoke of an agricultural way of life that doesn’t pair well with large-scale resorts, bachelor parties and music festivals, warning that at current rates of land and resource loss, there would be no wine by 2037.

Those just getting turned on to Mexican wine might be surprised to hear of its imminent demise. But it points to the curious crossroads at which it finds itself. Over a million people visit Valle de Guadalupe annually (whether day trippers from Ensenada or Tijuana, or people embedded in the vibrant restaurant and boutique hotel scene of Valle de Guadalupe itself), though most wineries are independent operations making less than 5,000 cases a year, many without staff or tasting rooms. Though U.S. distribution keeps improving, it’s hard to think of another wine country with so much interest and yet so little visibility on U.S. store shelves or restaurant wine lists.

Against this backdrop one of the most progressive wine scenes in the Americas hides in plain sight. Even larger producers are eschewing production growth for smaller vinifications, sustainable farming and experiments with varieties resistant to climate change and drought. And meanwhile, other regions in mainland Mexico—some of whose vineyards are among the highest-elevation in the world—are making leaps in quality, finding their unique personalities and, in the process, U.S. importers and media attention.

A Brief History of Mexican Wine

Vitis vinifera vines were planted in Mexico following the Spanish conquest of 1521, with seeds and cuttings of the Listán Prieto grape brought from Spain. As Mexican wine and brandy began to jeopardize Spanish imports, restrictions were placed on new plantings, and in 1699, King Charles II prohibited wine production entirely, except for church use. Nevertheless, many winemaking missionaries ignored the government edicts and made wine available for secular consumption as well.

In 1683, the first grapes were planted in Baja, California, now the country’s predominant wine region. Missionary Junípero Serra, called the “father of California wine,” brought the first vines to the present-day United States in 1769.

The Mexican wine industry’s fortunes fluctuated over the following centuries largely due to economic and political factors. Great growth occurred in the 1930s and ’40s, when a national market for wine developed, and many of the vineyards planted during this time are still used today.

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The 1980s were a pivotal decade for Mexican wine, starting with a major economic crisis and competition from wine imports when Mexico joined the GATT trade agreement in 1986. Many wineries folded, but others sprouted up with a greater focus on quality, which set the stage for today’s explosion of research, investment and innovation.

There’s More Than One Valley in Valle

“Visitors are always surprised with the variety of grapes that are planted in the area,” says Lauren Plascencia, wine director for Animalón restaurant and owner of Baja Divina wine shop, both in Valle de Guadalupe. “They seem especially surprised about all the Italian grapes, like Aglianico from Paoloni and Mina Penelope, and that we have so much Sangiovese.” Sangiovese, in fact, is cited by many winemakers as an ideal grape for the region, with increased plantings and more varietal wines each year.

The lack of “signature” grapes, as well as no AVA or Denomination of Origin restrictions, has made it hard to assign an identity to Baja wines but has led to a move away from copying classic regions (as was the style until recently) and toward experimentation. There is Pouya’s orange wine from Thompson Seedless, Bruma’s “blanc de noirs” still white Carignan, canned sparkling Chenin and Sauvignon Blanc from Micha Micha, and many producers like Pijoan and Viñas del Tigre reviving the drought-loving Mission grape, which was the first wine grape brought to the New World in the 1500s.

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Part of this stylistic variety is because what is commonly called “Valle de Guadalupe” actually comprises several valleys in northern Baja with various soils and microclimates. Most are Mediterranean climates with diurnal shifts of 35 degrees or more from night to day during the growing season, but then consider the eastern valley of Ojos Negros, which has a continental climate that can reach highs of 106°F and lows of 19°F.

“This preconception that there’s only Valle de Guadalupe, and that people have no idea about all these other valleys where the terroir is different, I think that’s on us,” says Plascencia. “As a wine country, we don’t talk enough about the differences among the valleys and climate and ultimately we first need to educate ourselves more, too.”

Lightening the Load

Duoma is a small project of two winemakers who make everything from pét nats to complex red blends, all with wild yeast, transparent production practices and exuberant character. They do microvinifications from multiple vineyard sites in various valleys and are representative of a younger wave of natural-minded small producers who eschew house styles and brands in favor of seeking the best grapes at a given time. As a result, there’s strong vintage variation and ultralimited bottlings that may never appear again. (Pro tip: If your Mexican wine dealer says you should jump on something, jump).

“[This region] isn’t married to certain grapes; people are still planting new varieties, looking for what grows best,” says Duoma’s Carla Figueroa Torres. “We can keep playing, experimenting with different varieties and blends and all that is part of what we think enriches Mexican wine.”

This taste among younger winemakers for fresher wines and minimal intervention not only aligns them with global wine trends but also smashes outdated assumptions about Mexican wines as alcoholic oaky reds, cherry-colored rosés, flabby whites and off-dry sparkling. Harvest dates have gotten earlier, lasting over a longer period with more frequent picks to find the region’s narrow sweet spot among ripeness, acidity and phenolic maturity. Vertical comparative tastings show that, in general, body and color have lightened year to year. Many producers are making delicate, pretty wines from potentially burly grapes like Petit Verdot, Mourvèdre, Syrah, Zinfandel and Malbec, as if to challenge those who still accuse the region’s wines of being intense and over-extracted.

Even the area’s larger wineries are active in changing perceptions. Santo Tomás and Monte Xanic aren’t huge by some regions’ standards but are two of the biggest in Baja, and their winemakers (Cristina Pino and Oscar Gaona, respectively) are among the most respected. Gaona came from Casa Madero in Coahuila state and embraces the terroir diversity and vintage variation that led older Baja winemakers to manipulate their wine for consistency.

“In Coahuila I played mostly with clay soil and warm days and cool nights—very interesting but without the [climate and soil] variations we can have here,” says Gaona. “Here in Baja we can talk about what a bad, good or exceptional year means, which is challenging but very rich on an enological level because we can have vintages that are forever marked in our history.”

Monte Xanic has six ranches spread throughout the region, and their limited-edition varietal wines (some with as few as 200 cases produced) explore regional distinctions. “It’s part of our DNA to be proposing, rather than following, trends in Mexico,” says Gaona. “We’re fortunate to have such diversity of soils, and as we better understand these characteristics, we’ll be able to offer more wines with very different and interesting characteristics from each other.”

X Marks the Spot

The gold rush to Valle de Guadalupe has spurred other longtime wine regions in Mexico to rethink their approaches. The state of Querétaro has long had a “wine route” but is mostly known for being the home of Freixenet Mexico since 1979. It now boasts some of Mexico’s most acclaimed wines, from Casa Vegil’s pristine Champagne-styled sparkling, Vinaltura’s Chenin Blanc and sparkling Syrah-Chardonnay rosé, and energetic, expressive natural Macabeo and Xarel-lo from Vinos Barrigones that are showing what these Cava grapes can do outside the walls of Freixenet. It’s a promising region for whites and sparkling but many winemakers cite the potential of Malbec and Merlot.

Coahuila is home to the oldest continuously operating winery in the Americas, Casa Madero, but wineries like Parvada, RG|MX and Bodega Los Cedros (whose vineyards are placed at nearly 7,000 feet) are challenging its dominance in the state. In San Luis Potosí, Cava Quintanilla is making inroads with the new vintages of winemaker Matias Utrero, who joined in late 2020. Guanajuato state has attracted attention with producers like Cava Garambullo and Octágono using ultra-natural winemaking to pursue authentic expression in a region with little vinous identity. Over two dozen varieties are planted near the border of Zacatecas and Aguascalientes at altitudes between 6,000 and 7,200 feet. And Chihuahua, a large state in the north whose eastern half falls within the Chihuahuan Desert, has several viticultural regions that encompass all five microclimates on the Winkler Scale (a method of classifying wine regions from coolest to warmest).

Ultimately, tourism will continue to fuel the rise of Mexican wine, but much like mezcal, it’s long past the point of vacation novelty as it enters the global conversation. “Mexico is known for high-quality alcoholic beverages, and wine is no exception,” says Gaona. “We’re all so passionate about what we do and we need to go and show it off to the rest of the world. It’s just a matter of getting glasses in hands.”

Where to Find Mexican Wine

U.S. distribution is improving all the time, so check your local shops, but if you are having trouble finding them, wines can be ordered through online retailers such as Patrick Neri Selections at mexicanwine.us.


U.S. IMPORTERS

Mexican Wines to Try

Adobe Guadalupe Serafiel 2017

Adobe Guadalupe 2017 Serafiel (Baja California)

White Herencia

Bodegas F. Rubio 2020 Herencia Blanco (Valle de Guadalupe)

La Carrodilla Canto de Luna

La Carrodilla 2022 Canto de Luna (Baja California)

Dominio de la Abejas Néctar de Campo Red

Dominio de las Abejas 2021 Nectar de Campo (Valle de Ojos Negros)

Rosé - Mina Penélope

Mina Penélope 2022 Rosé (Valle de Guadalupe)

Cabernet - La Lomita

La Lomita 2021 Cabernet (San Vicente)

Bruma Mezcla Ocho

Bruma 2019 Ocho Reserva Mezcla (Valle de Guadalupe)

Barrigón Charelo

Barrigón 2021 Charelo (Querétaro)

Vinaltura Chenin Blanc

Vinaltura 2020 Chenin Blanc (Valle de Colón)

Remix Pet Nat - Pouya

Pouya 2022 Remix Pet Nat (Valle de Guadalupe)

Solar Fortún Viña en Rosa 2022

Solar Fortún 2022 La Viña en Rosa (Valle de Guadalupe)

CQ RESERVE SYRAH

Cava Quintanilla 2018 Reserva (San Luis Potosi)

Duoma Vinos Pet-Nat Sparkling Rosé

Duoma 2022 Pet Nat Rosado (Valle de Guadalupe)

This article originally appeared in the October 2023 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!