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Friday, August 1, 2008

Mexico's Wine Revolution

by Steven Dryden

The Spaniards planted the first vineyards in the Americas in Mexico in the sixteenth century. From these early vineyards of Mission grapes, Jesuit missionaries send vines and cuttings to Peru, Argentina, and Chile. By 1701, the first hybrid cuttings of Vitis vinifera (European stock) were planted in Baja California at Mission San Javier on Loredo Bay. Later in 1780, Franciscan Friar Junipero Serra sent cuttings and plants from the mission vineyards in San Diego to all the Alta California mission sites reaching Sonoma by 1830.

Bodegas de Santo Tomas was the first commercial Baja California winery operation established in 1888. The quality and quantity of their wine was limited due to the use of the Mission grape. The following year, James Concannon, winery and vineyard owner in Livermore, California introduced French varietal cuttings throughout Mexico, followed in 1910 with cuttings of Zinfandel and Petite Sirah. Then in 1932, Esteban Ferro and Dimitri Tchelistcheff imported Italian varieties to include Nebbiolo, Dolcetto and Barbara into Baja California. In addition, the Cetto family brought more Italian and French vines into the region and Camillo Magoni in 1970’s to include Cabernet Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc. After acquiring more vineyard properties in 1990, Don Luis Cetto added Syrah, Sangiovese, Petite Verdot, Malbec and Viognier to his portfolio of classic grape varietals. Mexico was now blessed with an abundance of superior grapes and well on the road to creating premium wine.
These early leaders, planners and visionaries developed a wide variety of diverse vineyards of classic European varietals in selected microclimates that has led to Baja California’s “silent revolution” in creating premium wine. Ninety percent of all Mexican wine grapes are grown and produced in five distinct areas: Valle de Guadalupe, Valle de Santo Tomas, Valle de San Vicente Valle de las Palmas, and Ojos Negros. In addition, the State of Sonora has two important wine growing regions located in Hermosillo and Caborca where vineyards of Barbera, Dulce, Cardinal, Ruby Cabernet and Palomino provide juice for a handful of small boutique wineries. Further south in Coahuila, Durango, Zacatecas, Aguascalientes and Queretaro grapes are grown and wine is produced.

About the time (1980’s) many of the classic European vines were reaching maturity with the production of premium fruit, the real transformation of the Mexican wine industry began. L.A. Cetto, Bodega de Santo Tomas and Pedro Domecq wineries began accumulating international awards with wine made from those mature grapes found at various sites throughout the region. Adding to the excitement was the arrival of several small boutique wineries with a focus on creating limited production-premium wine, using state-of-the-art technology, under the direction of professionally trained enologists. Cavas Valmar (1983) was the first artisan winery in Ensenada, followed by Monte Xanic winery as the first boutique facility on the scene at Guadalupe Valley in 1988. The artisan and boutique winery movement brought in self-taught and trained enologists from Mexico City, France, Germany, Switzerland, Argentina, Chile, and other regions of Mexico.

Today, there are over thirty licensed wineries in Mexico and as many “unofficial” winery operations located throughout the country. In addition, a new artisan movement is attracting hundreds of aspiring handcrafted winemakers each year. Viticulture, viniculture and enology classes are being offered in Ensenada at the UBC and in Valle de Guadalupe, near El Porvenir, a small winemaking and artisan olive oil school is training many locals and “moonlighting” professionals.

It’s an exciting time for Mexico’s emerging wine culture. For example, at Guateque 2008, an exclusive wine event focusing on new artisan wines and winemakers, over twenty-five participants proudly displayed and shared samples of their first and second year wine releases to an enthusiastic group of over three hundred international wine lovers. And, with each year, the wine just keeps getting better and better!

Most of the wineries, wine tasting rooms, restaurants and wine country lodging facilities are centered in Valle de Guadalupe near Ensenada. This premier wine country is blessed with a Mediterranean climate, located ten to twenty-five miles from the Pacific Ocean, along the Tecate - Ensenada Highway 3. About fifteen of the twenty wineries are open on the weekends and about half of those during the week.

The most “user friendly” wineries in order as you drive from Ensenada along Highway 3 are: Vinisterra, Casa Vieja, Viña de Liceaga, Three Women, Viños Sueños, Viños Fuentes, Monte Xanic, Viños Bibayoff, Pedro Domecq, L.A. Cetto and Do–a Lupe. Those wineries requiring advance reservations are Casa de Piedra, Adobe Guadalupe Vineyards and Pau Pijoan.
Recent additions to the Guadalupe Valley wine country are two new hotels: Hacienda Guadalupe (upscale) and (budget) Hotel Plaza Fatima. Finally, gourmet coffee located in a “world class” art gallery can be enjoyed at Jardin Las Veredas, near Vinisterra winery. Several wineries are located in the town of Ensenada to include Cavas Valmar, Roganto, Bodegas de Santo Tomas and the artisan wines of Jose Louis Durand. Of course, you might know that several of Baja California’s top gourmet restaurants can be found in that port city.

Mexico’s wine industry and wine culture is “booming.” Furthermore, Ensenada is becoming the “gourmet food and wine capital” of Mexico with close proximity to the wine region, abundant fresh seafood, organic produce, gourmet cheese and artisan olive oil. Maybe, it’s time to explore some “bottled treasures of delight” from Mexico and discover our “silent revolution” in creating premium wine. Our wine region awaits your exploration and we’re here with our famous Baja California hospitality, eager to share our amazing wine culture with you, your family and friends. Viva Mexico!

Steve Dryden is a wine and food writer living in Valle de Guadalupe where he guides private wine tours for individuals, couples and small groups. He can be reached at sbdryden@hotmail.com