A toast to Mexico’s better wines

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Lindajoy Fenley

Mexican wines may finally be gaining ground in a centuries-old battle fraught with political, sociological and economic challenges, not to mention the usual climatic problems.

Father Hidalgo would be proud. He reportedly launched the independence movement in the early 19th century to prevent authorities from uprooting grapevines Indians tended for him in Dolores, Guanajuato. Viceroys, enforcing a 300-year-old royal ban on new colonial vineyards, had repeatedly ripped out his plantings.

Porfirio Diaz would applaud too. One hundred years ago, Mexico’s longest reigning president attempted to boost the wine industry by granting a Northern Californian a concession to plant high-quality French varieties throughout the country. He also sent the Hungarian ambassador’s son on a tour of the country, instructing him to make sure every state had at least one vineyard.

Despite these and other efforts to improve Mexican mead, people still prefer uncorking imported bottles.

“My friends with enough money to buy wine don’t want domestic labels,” says a young, upscale Mexico City woman who acknowledges foreign wines have more snob appeal. Her view was echoed in Tepotztlán, Morelos, where a shopkeeper unabashedly offered only foreign wines.

Such affection for foreign things has a name in Mexico: malinchismo, a sociological term taking its name from the Indian Malinche who helped Hernán Cortez conquer the Aztecs.

Malinchismo aside, however, palates of those who do imbibe usually favor beer, tequila, rum or other spirits. Wine is much less popular in Mexico than elsewhere. Annual per capita consumption falls short of two 8-ounce glasses, according to industry sources. In the United States, it tops 28 glasses and in France, it’s a hearty 260.

After World War II, the Mexican government quadrupled tariffs on foreign wine to help the domestic industry, but the wave of free trade agreements has now drastically reduced that protection.

With retailers stocking low-priced Chilean, Spanish, Italian and Californian wines, competition is, and will remain, tough. The number of Mexican wineries has dropped from 82 to just 15 since Mexico opened its borders in the mid-1980s, according to Rafael Almada, general director of the National Association of Grape Growers and Wine Makers.

Those which survived the avalanche of dumping from Chile and Germany following Mexico’s entry into General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) were diversified firms producing more than just table wine, Almada explains.

One of the strongest survivors was Pedro Domecq, a diversified beverage firm that makes brandy, tequila, rum, whisky and liquors in addition to various brands of wine.

In 1972, long before the trade barriers fell, Domecq developed its Padre Kino brand to please the Mexican preference for sweetness, according to Domecq Wine Director Raul Esperón who describes Kino as “light and sweet.” He says that Domecq went on to develop more sophisticated varieties and, like others in the industry, will continue to do so as Mexican tastes become more complex.

Marc Bourreli, a Frenchman who represents California’s Wente Vineyards in Mexico, agrees that Mexican wines are improving.

“Mexican wineries began to produce better wines recently and they are improving every year,” Bourreli says. “There are a few brands such as Monte Xanic and Santo Tomás that are doing a very good job.”

If not wine, then what?

Per capita wine consumption in Mexico may be infinitesimal, but that does not mean Mexicans don’t imbibe alcoholic beverages. There are special holiday drinks such as ponche; regional beverages such as tequila; little-known intoxicants found in indigenous cultures such as pox (pronounced posh); and of course all manner of imported spirits.

Mexican beer, which is popular throughout the country, has made a bid splash abroad with Corona becoming the most popular imported beer in the United States. Here’s a short survey of some of Mexico’s unique alcoholic beverages:

  • Aguardiente: Cane liquor is common throughout most of Mexico, going by different names according to the region. For example, it is called charanda in Michoacan. In the Huasteca, it may be flavored by an aromatic herb called ticuilichi and thus go by that name. Another version in the Huasteca is called Tesgüino. In Chiapas, indigenous communities make pox, an aguardiente flavored with special herbs. It is used as the base for many other drinks.
  • Kahlua: This is the commercial name for a dark coffee liquor. There also are a variety of fruit-flavored liqueurs that may be prepared at home.
  • Mezcal: This drink made by distilling the juice of the agave plant is popular in many states, including Hidalgo, Oaxaca and Guerrero.
  • Michelada: Beer and lime juice served in a glass rimmed with salt is prepared with any of Mexico’s brews. Some people like to also add chili powder.
  • Mosquito: This beverage prepared in Toluca, State of Mexico, uses aguardiente as a base and can be flavored by a variety of fruits such as pomegranates, tejocote.
  • Ponche: This hot holiday punch served during the Christmas holidays, is prepared by boiling various fruits — tejocotes, guavas, plums, raisins, apples and sugar cane — and flavoring it with rum. One way to bring out the flavor of the fruit is to cover it with sugar and a little bit of cane alcohol and then light the alcohol before starting to cook it.
  • Pulque: The first step to making pulque, a pre-Hispanic beverage, is to siphon the juice out of the center of maguey plant which has had its crownchopped off. This liquid, known as aguamiel is then allowed to ferment. Some pulque sellers also offer curados, pulque flavored by various fruits.
  • Rompope: A thick, eggnog drink containing cane alcohol and cinnamon, rompope is served during the holidays.
  • Sotol: This corn liquor is prepared in Chihuahua.
  • Tepache: A fermented beverage made with pineapple rinds and raw sugar is fermented in clay pots or wooden barrels.
  • Tequila: A distilled maguey beverage from Jalisco has become known as the national beverage. While most Mexicans drink it straight, there are a variety of mixed drinks using it as a base including margaritas, charro negros, etc.
  • Torito: This powerful drink popular in Veracruz is made from cane liquor, milk and fruits such as guanabana or mamey. It is also prepared with peanuts.

Pedro Martínez Rendón, sales manager at Chateau Camou in Baja California’s Guadalupe Valley, credits neighboring Monte Xanic with boosting the quality of Mexican wines when it established vineyards in the early 1980s and issued its first wine in 1988.

“Mexico began to have top quality wines when Monte Xanic invaded this market niche that no one before dared to enter,” he says, explaining that soon after his company decided to upgrade its production methods. “Now there is the beginning of a stampede. No one wants to be left out.”

Vineyards throughout Mexico total approximately 111,000 acres and are expanding at a rate of about 6 percent per year, according to the National Association of Grape Growers and Wine Makers. Although that figure includes acreage for table grapes and grapes for jams, juices and raisins, the wine grape sector is the fastest growing, says Almada. For example, Chateau Camou expects to increase its 93 acres of quality wine grapes in Baja California to over 123 acres next year and expand them by 12 percent for each of the next five years.

Other wineries are also expanding and more are entering the business, particularly in Baja California, which accounts for 87 percent to 90 percent of all Mexican wine production. Santo Tomás, Casa de Piedra, Mogor Badan—which like Monte Xanic and Chateau Camou focus on “the AAA niche”—will soon be joined by other Baja California vintners such as Casa de Adobe and David Bybayof. These wineries, Martínez explains, are willing to expand their vineyards while reducing vine density and pruning the plants so their production drops in quantity but increases in quality.

Even some of the bigger, more commercial wineries such as L.A. Cetto and Pedro Domecq, which together account for nearly 80 percent of the 1.6 million cases of wine Mexico produces per year, have issued very good wines, according to Martínez. Both have vineyards in Baja California’s premium wine-growing region. While other wine regions may lack the ideal climate found in the Guadalupe and Santo Tomás Valleys of Northern Baja California, other states such as Aguascalientes, Coahuila, Queretaro and Zacatecas produce wine.

Mexico’s oldest winery—Casa Madero, which is also the oldest winery in the Americas—barely bothers with the domestic market. It ships almost all of its annual production of 350,000 cases to Belgium, Germany, England, Switzerland, Holland, France and the United States. Luis Fernando Otero, founder of Mexico City’s seven-year-old La Cave Club de Vino, applauds the quality of Madero’s table wine, particularly since the Parras, Coahuila, winery must maintain an expensive dam system to irrigate its vines.

Most Mexican wineries want to increase their exports as well as carve out a domestic niche with quality wines.

“We are trying to place Mexico on the map of good wines,” says Victor Manuel Torres Alegre, enologist and production manager at Chateau Camou. “And we are gaining ground against malinchismo.”

By racking up medals at major international competitions, Mexican wines are opening up new markets. Coverage in publications such as Wine & Spirits, Wine Spectator, Underground Wine and major Southern California newspapers also indicates a growing respect for Mexican wines, Martínez says.

More than 20 countries import Mexican wines, according to Fernando Favela, president of the Baja California Wine Growers Association. Exports account for as little as 1 percent at some wineries but as much as 30 percent at others, he notes.

While acknowledging that Mexico’s exports of 260,000 cases per year are just a trickle down the European gullet, Almada says the amount is laudable considering Mexico only began exporting in 1993. Today, he says, Mexico exports to 10 of the 15 European countries and has won awards for red wine in France and white wine in Germany. Exports are growing at a rate of about 30 percent per year, he adds.

Indeed, Mexican vintners are not isolated from the rest of the wine world. While winemakers may have studied agronomy in Mexican universities, virtually all of them have also studied enology abroad.

Even commercially, there are instances of cross-border cooperation.

One of the most unusual products on the market, Bourreli notes, is Dueto. This wine is the result of a joint venture between the Mexican firm, Bodegas Santo Tomas, and Wente, the California company Bourreli represents.

Dueto wine, he explains is a 50-50 blend of wine from Livermore, California and the Guadalupe Valley in Baja California. They ship crushed grapes from Livermore to Baja California, where they mix in Santo Tomás grapes and complete the process.

Between 2.5 million and 3 million cases of wine are sold in Mexico each year, with imports accounting for over half of the sales. But Mexican vintners are trying to gain market share along with greater respect.

One indication that the domestic market will grow, according to Otero, is the increasing number of young people who sign up for wine appreciation classes through his Le Cave Club de Vino. The club introduces its budding wine connoisseurs to both foreign and domestic labels.

However, there are still barriers to greater wine consumption in Mexico. Domecq´s Esperón blames the hotel and restaurant industry slowing growth.

“People who are offering wines in restaurants should have more reasonable margins,” he says. “But they mark-up wine to five times the retail price. It’s ridiculous.” Since wine selection is surrounded with a certain mystique, Esperón says that many diners faced with exorbitant prices and uncertainty about selecting the right bottle of wine opt for hard liquor or beer instead.

On the other hand, Chateau Camou’s Torres Alegre says he sees a definite trend toward selling more domestic wine in Baja California restaurants as well as in Guadalajara and Mexico City.

Published or Updated on: November 1, 1999 by Lindajoy Fenley © 1999
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