I met Fernando Mendoza at the last toll booth on the highway to Chihuahua City, three hours south of the U.S.-Mexico border. Before visiting a vineyard in the middle of the desert, I was hit with the familiar pang of returning to the place of my birth: excitement to reconnect, followed by anxiety over how foreign I felt. But overthinking my cultural identity had to wait. I was there to satiate my curiosity about how exceptional wines could be made in the scorching, mountainous desert region of northern Chihuahua—an area known for cattle, carne seca, Mennonite cheese and narco activity.
Viñedos y Bodegas Encinillas, owned by Mexican businessman and millionaire Eloy Vallina, sits across from a nature reserve (also Vallina’s) in a valley served by two naturally occurring aquifers, which explains why Vallina is even able to grow grapes, like the 16th century Franciscan monks who founded the hacienda that still stands here.
Suddenly, it happened, something I’d never experienced so sonorously in my years of wine-drinking.
Vallina began the venture about a decade ago. He wanted to see if the land could still produce the fabled monk wine he read about. But what began as a private experiment for his family eventually grew to a full-scale vineyard, producing more than 400 tons of grapes yearly.
After a quick tour of the grounds, I sampled a bottle with Mendoza, the vineyard director. He told me he didn’t usually give vineyard tours and warned that the wine needed at least six more months of bottle-aging. At first, I had to fake a smile as I drank. As he told me about the exponential growth of their operation (the wine should be available in the U.S. soon), I politely nodded, frequently swirling my glass in hopes of a miracle.
And suddenly, it happened, something I’d never experienced so sonorously in my years of wine-drinking. The liquid in the glass coalesced to form a delightful sip with hints of leathery tobacco, blackcurrant and perfectly restrained notes of alcohol. After years of wine consumption, how fitting that a vintage from the desert outside the place I was born would be the first to perform this display for me.
I never made it to my hometown of Chihuahua. I took a bus back to El Paso with some bottles to sample. The Megacero and La Casona bottlings were incredibly alluring.
But nothing could top the eureka moment brought on by that young bottle of unreleased Malbec.
I often find myself checking to see if it’s become available stateside yet, knowing that any day now, I’ll be able to have a bottle shipped to me whenever I’m yearning for a taste of Chihuahua—a taste of home.