The making of wine in Mexico dates back nearly five centuries to Hernando Cortés, the first conquistador. If Spain’s mission in the New World was to Christianize the natives and spread the faith, it needed sacramental wine. The wine, of course, was useful for other forms of emotional solace. Unfortunately, in 1699 Charles II, King of Spain, banned new vineyard plantings in Mexico (except for sacramental purposes) to protect the wine industry in Spain, leaving the Mexican wine industry to wither on the vine. Promising Mexican vinifera wine had to wait until the 21st century, but it has come back with some force.
Mexico has three wine producing regions among its 31 states. The northern region includes Baja California and Sonora. The La Laguna region straddles Coahuila and Durango, and includes the Parras Valley. The center region includes the states of Zacatecas, Aquascalientes, and Queretaro.
In the Parras Valley between Coahuila and Durango, Casa Madero, built in 1597, can claim to be the oldest winery in the Western Hemisphere. In the 18th century, Basque immigrants settled in the Parras Valley. They brought Garnacha (Grenache), Mazuelo (Carignan) and other red grapes to the region. The arid valley compensates for its low latitude with formidable altitude (a mile high in some places). Springs provide the water. Today, the valley produces Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Tempranillo, Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc, as well as brandies.
Since we mentioned brandies, be it known that most of the wine produced in Mexico is designated for brandy, the most widely consumed spirit in the country. Agave-based spirits like Tequila and Mezcal come in a distant second.
As if they had a mind of their own dedicated to searching out better wine climates, the vines of the Parras Valley filtered up to the northern part of Baja California, a region that benefits from both altitude and Pacific Ocean influence. The Santo Tomas winery was founded in 1888. Italian immigrants founded the L.A. Cetto winery in 1926, which today runs a huge spread of 2500 acres in the Guadeloupe Valley, just north of Ensenada and within striking distance of Tijuana and the U.S. border. The Guadeloupe Valley and its neighbors the San Vicente Valley and the Santo Tomás Valley today produce 90% of Mexico’s wines. Guadeloupe is an area of a few large producer like Cetto who coexist with a number of boutique wineries. The valley enjoys sunny days and cool Pacific nights. Soil is deep granite. Vineyard elevations range from 650 to 1650 feet. The region is widely publicized as “La Ruta del Vino.” This beehive of vinous activity lacks a signature grape, instead growing fifty varieties, both red and white. The area has a wine school that helps draw tourists, and some makers are producing organic grapes and promoting sustainable viticulture. The proximity to the United States is a major plus.
Down in the Mexico’s center region, in Zacatecas, Aquascalientes, and Queretaro, vineyards sit at 6000 feet and can be downright cold, despite the low latitude. Spanish cava producer Freixenet has invested money in the region to produce dry sparkling wines called vinos espumsos. Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel and Pinot Noir find their way into still wine here.