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PORTLAND, Ore./Troy Media/ – The Mexican wine industry is simultaneously the birthplace of North American wine and its newest frontier.
Mexico boasts the oldest winery in the New World and is one of the largest growers of grapes in the Americas, but paradoxically makes a tiny 20 million litres of wine a year. It has over 100,000 acres of vineyards, but most of these are devoted to brandy production or table grapes. (Mexico, incidentally, is the third largest producer of brandy in the world.)
Grapes in the northern hemisphere are typically grown between 30 and 50 degrees latitude. Mexico is unusual in that most of the country lies south of the 30th parallel. The combination of high-altitude vineyards and the cooling effects of wind and fog from the Pacific, however, allow grapes to thrive.
Mexico has two major grape-growing regions. The northern area has the Baja and Sonora zones, as well as the Parras Valley in the La Laguna area astride Coahuila and Durango. These are the principal production sites for fine wines, with the overwhelming majority in Baja. Much of Sonora’s wine production is slated for distillation into brandy. Aguascalientes, Zacatecas and Queretaro, in Central Mexico, mostly produce grapes for brandy and sherry production, plus a significant production of sparkling wines.
These regions generally have climates ranging from Mediterranean to desert-like. Annual precipitation ranges from 25 to 30 cm to as little as seven to 10 cm. Irrigation is unavoidable and relies on a combination of natural springs and ground water.
Baja’s vineyards have humid winters, dry and warm summers, and cooling morning fogs and sea breezes. Average summer temperatures are 30C and average winter temperatures are 5C. The climate and many of the varietals grown are similar to California’s Napa Valley, which has led many to label the region the next Napa Valley. But it’s generally warmer and drier than Napa.
This region produces around 90 per cent of Mexico’s fine wines from four principal areas in the San Antonio de las Minas zone around the port city of Ensenada: Valley of Guadalupe, Calafia Valley, San Vicente Valley, Santo Tomas Valley and, to a lesser extent, the San Rafael Valley. These valleys have complex soil: areas of decomposed granitic soils and others predominantly of alluvial sands, gravels, sandy loam and some red clay.
The principal wine producers here are L.A. Cetto, Vinos Pedro Domecq and Bodega de Santo Tomas. All produce wines that have medalled in international competitions. L.A. Cetto and Pedro Domecq account for 80 per cent of Mexico’s fine wine production. The Ruta del Vino (Wine Route) connects approximately 50 wineries in the area between Ensenada and Tecate. It runs from the U.S. border city of Tijuana, about two hours to the north.
The Parras Valley is the oldest wine making region of Mexico. The valley sits at an altitude of 1,370 metres in an otherwise desert area. Annual precipitation is between seven and 10 cm. The low humidity inhibits fungal and insect damage, while the pronounced temperature variation, some 12 degrees Celcius between day and night, promotes ripening while maintaining acidity. The valley produces Bordeaux blends, as well as single varietals of Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Merlot and Tempranillo.
In Central Mexico, most vineyards are at altitudes of 1,980 metres. In addition to sparkling wines, vinos espumosos, the region produces Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and, surprisingly, Pinot Noir. Much of the region’s grapes are earmarked for brandy production. The area’s soils are mostly clay and loam, and retain moisture well. Both summers and winters tend to be cool. The high altitude produces a pronounced diurnal variation in temperatures. Spain’s Freixenet is the largest producer in this region.
Baja wines tend to be deeply coloured and full bodied – big, powerful, heavily extracted wines with a substantial weight and mouth feel, and a propensity to taste jammy. Thicker-skinned grapes here create more intense flavours and aromas. Baja wines that are irrigated with ground water occasionally have a noticeable saline element.
Mexican wines are becoming more prevalent in Canada, especially in the larger urban wine markets. Below is a selection of Mexican wines worth trying.
L.A. Cetto, Private Reserve Nebbiolo, 2009, 13.8% ABV
This is a deep ruby wine with hints of purple throughout. On the nose, there are dried fruit aromas of dark cherry, prune and some indistinct tropical fruit elements, followed by notes of bittersweet chocolate and espresso. On the palate, there are flavours of cooked/jammy red and black fruit, with a distinct dark cherry flavour and even a bit of cranberry.
L.A. Cetto, Sauvignon Blanc, 2014, 12% ABV
This wine received a commendation at the 2014 Decanter World Wine Awards. The colour is a very pale lemon green. On the nose, however, there is a veritable explosion of aromas. You can pick out citrus notes of lime, lemon zest and a bit of orange peel, followed by indistinct floral aromas and spicy fresh herbs like cilantro, lemon grass and ginger. As it warms up, notes of stone fruit, tropical fruit and lychees emerge. On the palate, there is a pronounced lime zest note, followed by sweet mandarins, more stone fruit and tropical melon. The acidity is bright and crisp.
Bodega de San Tomas, Tempranillo-Cabernet Sauvignon, 2013, 14% ABV
The colour is a deep ruby bordering on opaque, typical of Cabernet-Tempranillo blends from warm climates. On the nose, there are pronounced ripe red and black fruit aromas of dark cherry, prune and cooked strawberry. On the palate, the fruit tastes more cooked and jammy, especially on the mid-palate where pronounced cooked strawberry notes emerge. There are notes of dark chocolate, some cola and just a hint of licorice. The alcohol is high, typical of warm climate Cabernet, with fine well-integrated tannins and medium acidity.
Mexico’s wine industry may be almost 500-years-old but it’s still in its infancy. It offers an unusual combination of terrain and climate that presents a fresh take on international wine varieties and their blends.
Although difficult to find, these wines are definitely worth pursuing, and will ultimately become important and notable additions to the international wine lexicon.
Joseph V. Micallef is an historian, best-selling author, keynote speaker and commentator on wine and spirits. Joe holds the Diploma in Wine and Spirits and the Professional Certificate in Spirits from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (London). Bottoms Up is included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.
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