Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Tasty Mexican wine history

While Mexico's wine industry has boomed rather recently, winemaking dates all the way back to the Spanish conquest, with the Spaniards surprised to find how well the vines they brought from the homeland adapted to the New World climate. In 1597, the Spaniard Don Lorenzo Garcia made the town of Santa Maria de las Parras in the northern Mexican state of Coahuila home to his Casa Madero, the oldest winery of the Americas. By the mid-17th century, however, the Spanish crown determined that the vineyards were doing too well for its taste: fearing future competition from New World wineries, it banned all vine planting and brought wine production in Mexico to a halt. Many Spanish missionaries refused to abide by the new rules, though, continuing to plant vines and produce wine on a small scale.

The Saint Thomas Mission (Mision de Santo Tomas), founded in the northern area of Baja California Norte State by Jesuit priests in 1791, reactivated the production of wine in Mexico. The mission grape brought over and planted by the Jesuits found its perfect home in an area that compares in climate to California's Napa Valley and France's Rhone Valley. In 1834, Dominican priests began growing grapes at the nearby Northern Mission of Our Lady of Guadalupe (Mision de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe del Norte), now known by the abbreviated name of the Guadalupe Valley (Valle de Guadalupe). The Guadalupe Valley is one of the few places in the world where premium wine grapes can be grown.

In 1857, after Mexico's War of Reform, the Catholic Church was stripped of its holdings and all church property became part of the state. The small wineries formerly tended to by missionaries were eventually abandoned. In 1888 the government sold the former lands of the Santo Tomas Mission to a private group, which established the Bodegas Santo Tomas, the first large-scale winery in Mexico.

In 1904, the region received an influx of immigrants known as the molokans, a pacifist religious group which opposed war and fled Russia so its men would not be drafted by the Czarist army. The Russian families purchased about 100 acres of land and dedicated a considerable portion of it to harvesting grapes for wine. They encouraged others to do the same, helping the area acquire a reputation for making good wine.

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