On a trip to Playa del Carmen last year, I was out to dinner when the chef came to talk with my group. He mentioned something that surprised all of us: "The oldest winery in the Americas is actually located in Mexico."
Seriously? The same country whose signature drinks are margaritas and mezcal, and whose people consume the most Coca-Cola in the world? That Mexico?
Indeed, as I discovered on subsequent trips, Mexico boasts a burgeoning wine culture, with established wineries such as Casa Madero (the aforementioned oldest in the Americas) and up-and-coming names. Combined with a flourishing culinary scene, this culture has created a renaissance in Mexico's wine regions reminiscent of California’s Napa Valley in the 1970s.
Because the industry is still evolving, the very person pouring your glass at these vineyards may be the winemaker himself. Most wineries usually charge $3-$5 for tasting. Some to try:
Monte Xanic: Don’t miss its excellent, unoaked whites, especially the sauvignon blanc, which are ideally suited for warm afternoons. The winery, which is located in the Guadalupe Valley, also features an amazing view.
Casa Madero: The most significant winery in the Parras Valley, Casa Madero, produces a wide range of varietals, including award-winning chardonnay, chenin blanc, and syrah. In addition, its brandies are considered among Mexico’s finest. Its wine museum is a must-see as well.
Bodegas de Santo Tómas: One of Mexico’s oldest wineries, located just south of Ensenada, Santo Tómas is a must-visit spot for learning the region’s wine making history and watching the process in action. In the tasting room, go for its Alisio chardonnay, cabernet, and tempranillo.
Hacienda La Lomita: One of the most beautiful properties in the Guadalupe Valley, the winery features 100 percent estate-grown wines made by Reynaldo Rodríguez, who trained in Rioja, Spain.
Casa de Piedra: Built in the late 1990s using reclaimed woods, rustic metals, and plenty of stone (piedra, in Spanish), this winery is the brainchild of Hugo D’Acosta, the aforementioned pioneer of Baja’s boutique wine movement.
When Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés was celebrating the conquest of the Aztecs in the early 1500s, as the story goes, he quickly ran his wine stock dry. So he ordered thousands of grapevines planted throughout Mexico, or New Spain, and eventually wine exports from Spain dropped. So Spain then banned production of wine in the New World except in service to the church. A Jesuit priest, Juan Jugarte, is generally credited for establishing the growing traditions that have continued today.
But the current emphasis on prestige wines started in the late 1980s, thanks to the efforts of internationally trained winemaker Hugo D’Acosta. He implemented a program at Santo Tomás winery to develop the region through wine and gastronomy. In 2004, D’Acosta started a wine school and custom crush facility called La Escuelita, or “little school,” and its students, along with those who worked with D’Acosta at Santo Tomás have started more than a dozen small wineries.
Nowadays, Mexican wines are becoming more widely consumed among Mexicans themselves, instead of just its visitors. “Traditionally, people in Mexico who drank wine were its immigrants,” says Sandra Fernández, a prominent sommelier in Mexico. “Now, Mexicans are drinking and approving and defending our own wines.”
Mexico’s wine regions are generally divided into three broad areas: North (Baja California and Sonora); La Laguna (Coahuila and Durango); and Center (Zacatecas, Aguascalientes and Querétaro). However, the majority of quality wine comes from the region of northern Baja California, whose Guadalupe, Calafia, San Vincente, and Santo Tomás Valleys all lie close to the Pacific Ocean. The combination of hot days and cool nights, thanks to the ocean breezes, are a classic wine-growing formula.
A wine-and-food-centric hub in Baja California is Ensenada, which is also an easy drive from southern California. The charming city was featured on No Reservations and is an ideal home base for a trip through the Guadalupe Valley, which has earned the nickname "Mexico's Napa Valley."
Though it looks a little archaic, the website Mexican Wines features lots of background on Mexican wines, plus information about up-and-coming festivals and wine-centric events. Another online resource, which focuses on the Baja California region, is Wines from Baja.
And for a taste of the breadth and variety of Mexican vino, wine enthusiasts should consider the Cancun-Riviera Maya Wine & Food Festival. Scheduled for March 13-16, 2014 in Cancun, the epicurean extravaganza features wines from all over the country, as well as the chance to meet and mingle with winemakers and other notable industry folks.