Monday, February 13, 2006
More opinions about Mexican wines and wineries
A Tasting Tour of the New World's Oldest, Newest, and Most Promising Wineries...
Quiz time everyone! Where is the oldest winery in the entire western hemisphere (in all the Americas -- from the Arctic Circle all the way down to Tierra Fuego)? Maybe California you say? Nope. Chile? Sorry, guess again. Maybe somewhere on the east coast. Not a chance.
Surprise! It's in Mexico!
1. Yesterday's Myths vs. Today's Reality
In 1998 at the Challenge International du Vin, held in France, judges awarded gold medals to Monte Xanic 1995 Cabernet Sauvignon and to Monte Xanic 1995 Merlot. Chateau Camou 1995 Gran Vino Tinto was awarded a silver and the Prix d' Excellence (like a "best of show" blue ribbon) went to the Monte Xanic 1995 Cabernet.
My point isn't that Mexican wines are better than those of any other country, just that they can be every bit as good and complex as their better known brethren. Mexican wines can be as intense, as intriguing, and as well-made as the wines of any other country in the world.
There are some outstanding vineyards, and there are some wines that can really tickle the palate of an adventurous consumer. I'd like to help you find the better brands.
A couple brands that are consistently good include the Monte Xanic wines (which I held up as award winners a moment ago) and some of the venerable wines from Bodegas de Santo Tomas. One tip that can help you find the gems among a pile of ordinary stones is to stick to the reds.
It's no coincidence that all of the awards I mentioned a moment ago went to red wines. Red wines tend to do better in the southern parts of the northern hemisphere's wine belt, while whites do better in cooler realms. There could be exceptions, of course, but I think it's no accident that most of the wineries in Mexico will tell you that their best offerings are merlots or cabs.
Let's start off by figuring out what parts of Mexico you might want to visit if you're looking for wine.
2. Where the Wines Are.
Most wine production is in the Baja California Peninsula, but there are at least 3 mainland viticultural areas with at least a dozen small, local wineries. Let's start with Baja...
Baja California is to Mexican wineries like California is to United States wineries. By far, the lion's share of wine production (over 90 percent) happens on the west coast. There are two parts of Baja where you will likely find vineyards: the Guadalupe Valley near Ensenada, B.C. Norte and a relatively small number to the north of Los Cabos in B.C. Sur. Ensenada and Valle de Guadalupe are the points to remember here.
Ensenada is no Napa, but the region is developing something of a reputation as Mexico's "wine country". From Ensenada, it is easy to visit at least 10 wineries. While it may have once been true that only a handful of varietals were produced in Mexico, today you can find at least a dozen or more different kinds of varietals.
If you want a chance to sample a large number of different Mexican wines at one time, try to time a visit to Ensenada to coincide with the opening of their Fiesta de las Vendimias celebration. The celebration includes a "Wine Experience" tasting.
Valle de Guadalupe runs along highway 3 between Ensenada and Tecate. You can drive route 3 and stop in at several wineries (maybe cross at Tecate and drive south towards Ensenada). The wineries along this route include (roughly in order as they appear along the road from north to south) L.A. Cetto, Pedro Domecq, Bodegas Valle de Guadalupe, Chateau Camou, Monte Xanic, Vina Liceaga, and Casa de Piedra.
After doing the wine tour drive, you could plan to spend the night in Ensenada and visit a couple of wine tasting rooms in the city.
Bodegas de Santo Tomas is the oldest and most venerable winery in Baja California, having gotten its start in 1888. They run a tasting room in Ensenada at Av. Miramar 666. Cavas Valmar is about a century younger, but they also run a tasting room in Ensenada; theirs is at Av. Riveroll 1950, at the corner of Calle Ambar.
One of the more interesting developments in recent years is that Spanish vintner Freixenet (famous for their satiny black bottles as much as for their dry sparkling wines) opened a winery in Baja.
As I mentioned, the lion's share of Mexican wine is produced in Baja California. Yet it is categorically wrong to assume that Baja is the only place in Mexico where wines are made, just as it is categorically wrong to say that all American wines are from California. Knowledgable wine drinkers know that there are small local boutique wineries along the east coast and in quite a few states throughout the U.S. (even here in Texas, a land known more for scrub lands and longhorn steers, wineries proliferate especially in the rolling hills northwest of San Antonio and west of Austin).
In Mexico, wineries exist in several states, including Sonora, Zacatecas, Querataro, and Coahuila.That one winery that deserves special attention from wine connoisseurs is Casa Madero.
Casa Madero is a very special winery because it is the oldest winery anywhere in the Americas. The winery was established in 1597 in Parras de la Fuente, Coahuila. Coahuila is a rugged state in the north central part of Mexico, and Parras is a small town on Carreterra 40, about an hour west of Saltillo (figure two hours driving from Monterrey). Casa Madero is located on an old hacienda about 2 miles north of the town (on the road to La Paila). The winery welcomes visitors and a tasting room is open from 9am to 5pm.
Casa Madero produces several varietals including chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, and merlot. They also produce two reserve brandies that are generally regarded as better than any other brandies in Mexico. While none of these are held up by connoisseurs as the benchmark by which to judge all other wines, they are still very good wines of above average quality. Most critics will probably rank them as 3-1/2 to 4 star wines. I find the chardonnay to be softer than some of my favorite California chardonnays. The cabernet sauvignon has a very big, well rounded character with a lot of intense fruitiness. Their merlot is a soft, rounded red that many people regard as the best of the winery's regular brands. All three of these wines are imported to the U.S., though in very limited quantities.
Parras is a fascinating little place that's well off the tourist path. It's got a fascinating history behind it (it's the town where Pancho Villa was gunned down), but the place is interesting to me, because it is a town where wine has been made for more than 400 years. While Casa Madero is the undisputed quality leader in the area, there are also a handful of smaller wineries around the town producing mostly low-end wines (including sherry and port) for a purely local market. Like some of the Baja wineries, most of this production is destined for the stills.
If you want to sample some of the obscure wines of the region, stop at one of the bodegas in town. Ask a local for directions to either Vinos Caseros Santo Madero or Vinos Caseros Fuantos.
You can also find a small scattering of local wineries around the colonial city of Zacatecas (often called the "pink city"). I absolutely love Zacatecas, and a visit is made even better by enjoying a bottle of local red wine at dinner. There are at least four small wineries in Zacatecas, and the best-known local brand is Cachola. The winery itself is outside the city in Valle de las Arsinas at the intersection of highways 45 and 49. If you plan to visit the winery, they ask for advance notice.
Some Mexican Wines You Might Find
Here are a few of the wineries that I mentioned in this review, along with recommendations for some of their wines .
* Monte Xanic (Cabernet Sauvignon)
* Chateau Camou (Gran Vino Tinto)
* L.A. Cetto (Petit Sirah)
* Casa Madero (Merlot)
* Domecq (Cabernet Sauvignon)
* Santo Tomas (Merlot)
* Freixenet Mexico (Sala Vive)
* Cachola (Ruby Cabernet)