John Poplin on January 25, 2017 0 Comments Sipping on margaritas while digging your toes into the sandy beaches of Puerto Vallarta, enjoying the vibrant nightlife of Acapulco, snorkeling in the clear waters of lagoons, or even exploring the ruins of the Aztecs; all activities that one may envision when thinking about traveling to Mexico. However, there’s a buzz from many a writer in Southern California calling Baja California the next Napa Valley. Did you know that Mexico has been making wine for just as long as the United States? Though the country may be better known for its Tequila, Mezcal, or Aguardiente (which translates to fiery water), the popularity of Mexican spirits in the U.S. are what has enabled the wines of Mexico to steal a little bit of the spotlight in recent years. History of Mexican Wines Some of the earliest records of winemaking in modern day Mexico take us back to the 1500’s, well before Mexico or even the United States was formed. These regions were just newly discovered by Europeans, and it was the early Spanish Conquistadors mission to look for gold in what is today Mexico. After the overthrow of the Aztec Empire by Cortez, these early colonists plotted out land to cultivate the grape vines they were bringing with them, even though native grapevines were also being discovered. The indigenous grapes failing to produce the wines they desired, these early settlers focused on the vines they had brought with them, as additional vines were being sent by the motherland. This led to one of the oldest wineries in the Americas, which was planted in 1597 and is today known at Casa Madero. The region today is known as Valle de Parras; not just one of the oldest, but the largest grape growing region in Mexico. The Spanish grape Mission did exceptionally well here — in fact, cuttings from these vineyards made their way north to Napa Valley as it was forming. But just as wine in the region began to take off, it was criticized as having too much of an impact on exported wines from Spain to these new colonies. Because of this, Charles II of Spain placed a ban on its further production in 1699. The exception was with the churches, who continued to make wine for religious needs. This ban lasted until Mexico’s Independence over one hundred years later. However, in 1701 religious loopholes allowed a Jesuit Priest to plant the first vines in Baja California at the Loreto Mission. For the next one thousand years it would be the clergy that silently pushed forward the wines of New Spain. At the Santo Tomas Mission in Baja California, these Jesuit Priests attempted to resuscitate the larger scale production of wine in 1791. In 1843, Dominican Priests planted grapes on a mission in today’s Valle de Guadalupe. But just a few years later in the 1850’s the Mexican Reform War would call for many of these lands to be returned to the state, causing many smaller wineries to simply be abandoned. In 1888, the Santo Tomas Mission was sold to a group of investors that revitalized the industry, establishing Mexico’s first commercial winery, which still operates as Bodegas Santo Tomás today. Wines of Mexico started to emerge in 1980’s, from just a few to over 6,200 acres planted today. Trade regulations that prevented wines from being imported were lifted. While this may have hurt the business of the smaller operations, it also forced Mexico’s winemakers to improve the quality of their wines as a whole. Most Mexican wineries are young in the grand scheme of things, having established themselves in the 1980s. The Wine Regions of Mexico Of Mexico’s thirty one states, less than a dozen grow wine. The country’s three main wine growing regions are straddled between them. Baja California and Sonora The northern region encompasses both Baja California and Sonora. On the west coast is Baja California, which produces 90% of the countries quality wines from Valle de Guadalupe, Califia, and San Vincente sub regions. This region has a Mediterranean like climate, with its vineyards protected by mountains and the decomposed granite soils lining the valley floor. The hot days and cool nights paired with the regions soils allow varietals such as Barbera, Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel, Chardonnay, and Chenin Blanc to thrive. To the east, Sonora has two thriving sub regions of its own, Hermosillo and Caborca, the state where half of Mexico’s vineyards are located. Temperatures range between 55 to 75 degrees F, and low precipitation calls for irrigation of the vineyards. In Hermosillo, most of the region’s grapes are used for distilled products. Wines are made from 19% of the grapes harvested, leaving the remaining for eating. Caborca only uses 25% of their yield for distilling, leaving another 25% for wine, the rest made into raisins from the Thompson Seedless variety of grapes grown. La Laguna In the La Laguna region to the east (where the oldest vineyards remain), the climate is more desert like with temperatures hovering in the 60’s year round. This makes many of Mexico’s wines ripe and full bodied with plenty of spice. The vineyards of this arid climate are fed in part by the springs of nearby mountains. The first Mexican Government recognized appellation is in the La Laguna. Named Parras Valley, this appellation straddles the states of Durango and Coahulia. The region produces mainly red wines from the Bordeaux varietals Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Syrah and Tempranillo also thrive here as far as reds go, with Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Semillon and Colombard grapes planted for the white varietals. Still only about 25% of the grapes are used for wine, with the rest used for distilling or eating. An annual festival called “La Vendimia” attracts more than 400 families to the area to celebrate the grape harvest each year. Zacatecas, Aguascalientes and Querétaro Further east and more central is another region encompassing Zacatecas, Aguascalientes and Querétaro. The vineyards here are the highest, reaching 6,500 feet above sea level. The microclimate here as well as the water-retaining clay soils help grapes ripen quicker. This region is known for its sparkling wines. However, still wines are made from Pinot Noir and many of the red and white Bordeaux varietals. This is where Mexico’s well known Frexinet winery is located. The winery is known for its “vinos espumosos,” or foamy wines made in the traditional methods used by Dom Perignon. Other wineries here are much smaller and produce less than three thousand cases annually. A Bordeaux trained man by the name of Hugo D’Acosta has run a winemaking school in Mexico, his pupils often breaking out with small wineries of their own. Producers like L.C. Cetto (one of the larger producers) has garnered international attention with his red wines and has won multiple awards. Tourism, including the “Ruta del Vino” (or wine route) and locally held festivals all help these Mexican wine regions increase their visibility to the international wine market. But while the country now has over one hundred wineries, 40% tax on products made there still hinders further growth. While wine is on the rise, most natives still prefer tequila and other locally made beer. Some are quick to point out the flaws of some of Mexico’s wines, but in the grand scheme of things, growth — especially when we are talking about wine — is never a bad thing.