Baja and Beyond: Everything You Need to Know About Mexican Wine

Old vine Carignan in Valle de Guadalupe / Photo by Patrick Neri
Old vine Carignan in Valle de Guadalupe / Photo by Patrick Neri

It’s strange to think of a region with 500 years of winemaking history as “emerging,” but few areas have leaped as significantly in quality over the last several years as Mexico. While its warm climate delivers full-bodied, fruit-forward wines with ease, producers are replacing power with balance, complexity and variety experimentation. The country offers everything you’d want from a region of its size: small, independent wineries; sustainable farming; no-rules winemaking and an incredible diversity of styles.

History of Mexican wine

Vitis vinifera vines were planted in Mexico following the Spanish conquest of 1521, with seeds and cuttings of the Listán Prieto grape brought from Spain. In 1524, conquistador Hernán Cortés, the de facto ruler of “New Spain,” ordered certain Spanish settlers to plant vineyards.

The quality of Mexican wine and brandy began to jeopardize Spanish imports, which led to restrictions being placed on planting. In 1699, King Charles II of Spain prohibited wine production entirely, except for sacramental wine. Nevertheless, though wine was made mostly by missionary priests, many of them ignored the government edicts and made wine available for secular consumption as well.

In 1683, the first grapes were planted in Baja California, now the country’s predominant wine region. Missionary Junípero Serra, called the “father of California wine,” brought the first vines to San Diego from Baja California in 1769.

“In Mexico, there’s a spectrum of grape varieties and wine styles defined only by the producers’ own ideas and tastes, and quality is defined more through ethics and transparency.” —Wilton Nava, wine director, Quintonil

The Mexican wine industry’s fortunes fluctuated over the following centuries due to economic and political factors. In the early 1900s, phylloxera and the Mexican Revolution struck a dual blow. That was followed by great growth in the 1930s and ’40s, when a national market for wine developed. Many of the vineyards planted during this time are still used today.

The 1980s were a pivotal decade for Mexican wine. It started with a major economic crisis and competition from wine imports when Mexico signed the GATT trade agreement in 1986.

Many wineries folded, but others sprouted up with a greater focus on quality. Some of these producers include Monte Xanic, Mogor Badán, Casa de Piedra and Cavas Valmar.

These upstarts, along with longtime winemakers like Camillo Magoni and Hugo d’Acosta, were dogged promoters of the region’s potential, and their influence continues today.

Exterior building of Mina Penélope / Photo courtesy Neri Beso Imports
Mina Penélope / Photo by Patrick Neri

Mexican wine today

In 2006, there were less than 25 wineries in Mexico. Now, there are more than 120 commercial wineries in Baja California alone, and many other historic wine regions have been revived. A few large-scale wineries dominate production, like L.A. Cetto, which makes almost half the country’s total wine production. The rest are almost exclusively small-production boutique wineries. Most produce less than 5,000 cases annually.

Unlike other wine-producing countries, there are no formal appellations or other geographical indications. Such lack of restrictions in Mexico has encouraged experimentation. Most grapes can flourish in Mexico. More than 30 varieties have firm foundations in Baja, while Magoni has 100-plus varieties in experimental plots. Winemakers focus largely on honest varietal expression than an evasive notion of regional typicity.

“In most wine-producing countries, identity and quality are defined through traditions and customs, and protected by regulatory councils,” says Wilton Nava, wine director at Mexico City restaurant Quintonil. “In Mexico, there’s a spectrum of grape varieties and wine styles defined only by the producers’ own ideas and tastes, and quality is defined more through ethics and transparency.”

“We’re writing the story of Mexican vitiviniculture, and there are still a lot of blank pages left to fill.” —Cristina Pino Villar, winemaker, Santo Tomás

At Quintonil, Mexican wine consumption has more than doubled in the past two years.

“I think the rise in quality is [due to] mainly two factors,” says Cristina Pino Villar, former winemaker for Monte Xanic and now winemaker for Santo Tomás, the oldest continuously operating winery in Baja. “The professionalization of the industry—leading-edge technology in the wineries and vineyards, quality lab analyses, hiring experienced winemakers—and also that so many vineyards have decades of age, bringing complexity in a natural way.

“Now, we’re just starting to understand the influence of microclimates and soils,” she says. “We’re writing the story of Mexican vitiviniculture, and there are still a lot of blank pages left to fill.”

Fernando Pérez Castro, proprietor of Lomita and Finca La Carrodilla, is the former president of Provino BC, a collective of more than 60 Baja wineries. He says that terroir is key for the future of Mexican wine.

“For various reasons, the Mexican wine movement has given more importance to winemaking than its vineyard origins, with a focus on wineries and personalities more than agricultural practices, microclimates and terroir,” he says, noting an increase in organic and biodynamic projects. “Today, I see this changing, that the characteristics of the land are increasingly important, and agriculture that’s more focused on working the land than manipulating the fruit.”

Map of Mexico with its 8 primary wine regions highlighted
The primary wine-producing regions of Mexico / Illustration by designmaps

Wine regions of Mexico

Baja California, located in the northwest of the country, is the primary wine region in Mexico. Roughly 75% of Mexican wine production, and almost all of what’s available in the U.S., is from here.

However, wine is also made in several landlocked states in north and north-central Mexico. In these places, much like Argentina’s Mendoza and Salta regions, high-altitude vineyards offer optimal growing conditions, in contrast to the unrelenting heat found at lower elevations. Indeed, these Mexican vineyards are among the highest in the world.

Dry-farmed old vine Carignan in Valle de Guadalupe / Photo by Patrick Neri
Dry-farmed old vine Carignan in Valle de Guadalupe / Photo by Patrick Neri

Baja California

Baja California wine country is just 90 minutes from the U.S.-Mexico border, and within 15 miles of the Pacific Ocean. Though it’s made up of several valleys with varied microclimates and terroirs, the name of its most prolific subregion, Valle de Guadalupe, is often used to denote the entire region.

The region has a hot, dry Mediterranean climate akin to Napa Valley and the Southern Rhône, but with a strong maritime influence. Soils are mostly sand, clay and granite, and elevations range from 300 to 2,600 feet. A variety of grapes flourish here, primarily Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Tempranillo, Grenache and Syrah for reds, and Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay for whites.

For an in-depth breakdown of the Baja and Valle de Guadalupe wine regions, find more here.

With Distinctive Terroir and Varied Microclimates, Mexico's Baja California Aims to Preserve its Character

Coahuila

Coahuila is home to the oldest winery in the Americas. Casa Madero was first planted in 1597, and has made wine ever since. The name of its neighboring town, Parras, means grapevines. However, it’s an area about 100 miles east of Parras, in the mountains above the town of Saltillo, where Mexican wine cognoscenti look to the vineyards planted at 6,900 feet above sea level.

“The region of Arteaga is as close to the Alps as you can imagine,” says Carlos Solares, a.k.a. El Sosofróstico, a wine podcaster and retailer based in Monterrey. “Snowy mountains, pristine water and big diurnal shifts. Bodegas Del Viento has a young Spanish winemaker named José Trillo Rivas who’s become something of a rock star with his Pinot Noir.”

Vineyards of Bodegas Del Viento in Coahuila / Photo courtesy Bodegas Del Viento
Vineyards of Bodegas Del Viento in Coahuila / Photo courtesy Bodegas Del Viento

Querétaro

One of the first places that grapes were planted in the New World, the Querétaro wine trail stretches 30 miles from San Juan del Río to Bernal, an exceptionally beautiful part of the state with vineyards at around 6,500 feet in elevation.

“I think Querétaro could become a premier region for aromatic and food-friendly sparkling wines,” says Solares. “Jacques and Cie have a traditional-method brut nature blend of Xarel·lo, Macabeo and Parellada, like Spanish Cava, and a brut nature rosé made from Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon. And Vinaltura is doing interesting experiments with white varieties like Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling.”

Aguascalientes

This tiny state is in the high plains desert of central Mexico. Situated at elevations of more than 6,000 feet, there are vineyards planted in seven of its 11 municipalities. Vinícola Santa Elena is just 30 minutes north of the state capital, also named Aguascalientes. Look for its Sophie Blanco, a beautifully expressive blend of Chenin Blanc, Viognier and sometimes Sauvignon Blanc.

Zacatecas

There are several subregions in Zacatecas, all within an hour of the state capital. Tierra Adentro has the highest vineyards in Mexico, at 7,500 feet above sea level.

San Luis Potosí

San Luis Potosí’s Valle de Moctezuma has a desert climate where temperatures can reach the upper 90s in early summer, and dip into the 20s during winter. Cava Quintanilla manages a range of wines in this environment. These include a red blend of Malbec, Syrah and Petit Verdot; a varietal Gewürztraminer and a traditional-method sparkling rosé that adds Nebbiolo to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

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Chihuahua

Mexico’s largest state, Chihuahua has many growing regions, like Delicias, Encinillas, Bachíniva, Sacramento and its namesake capital city itself, among others. Historically, the state was a major producer of table grapes and brandy, but the last decade has seen a lot of research into its potential for wine grapes. Vinos Encinillas makes mostly Bordeaux-style red blends at 5,200 feet. Other regions have vineyards at more than 7,000 feet in elevation, among the highest in Mexico.

Guanajuato

The Mexican War of Independence kicked off in Guanajuato in 1810. Revolutionary leader Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla taught native people to cultivate vineyards for wine production as one means to encourage economic self-reliance. The government’s attempts to squash these activities, which included soldiers burning vineyards, helped spur the revolution.

The winery Cuna de Tierra started in 1995 with plantings of French varieties on one of these burned sites at 6,500 feet in elevation, just outside the charming town of Dolores Hidalgo. Imported to the U.S. by Back Alley Imports, today it’s one of the most acclaimed inland Mexican wineries.

Published on August 18, 2020
Topics: New World