Mexican Wine

A new Mexican restaurant has opened in my neighborhood, an attractive place whose cuisine is miles beyond the franchise taco shops that traduce the good name of Mexican cooking. It’s been a pleasant addition for us, both of whom enjoy the warm spiciness of good Mexican dishes as an occasional change of pace from our own usual repertory. A further attraction of the restaurant is that it has an interesting wine list, exclusively of Mexican wines. In this neck of the woods, that’s a rarity, and I’ve been itching to explore it.

Mexico hosts almost the greatest acreage of vineyards of any of the Latin American countries, but very little of it is for wine; the great majority of Mexico’s grapes wind up either on the table or in brandy. One zone, however has begun developing a serious wine vocation: that is Baja California and specifically the Valle de Guadalupe, near Ensenada.

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Geographically and geologically, Baja is a continuation of California, and it is in the process of becoming so enologically also. Like many of the wine zones in California, the Valle de Guadalupe opens to the Pacific and provides a channel by which moist and cool Pacific breezes flow up the hillsides and moderate the heat of the arid land around them. This, plus some carefully managed drip irrigation, makes viticulture possible.

Since roughly the 1970s there has been a mini-explosion of serious vineyards in the Valle de Guadalupe: There are now well more than three dozen wineries in Baja, and most of them are concentrated in that single valley. Most of the winemaking has followed the example of the big, successful neighbor to the north, and the grape varieties that have been planted in Baja will sound very familiar to any drinker of California wine. A few can surprise, however: Chenin blanc is a lot more popular in Baja than it is to the north, and some of the blends will seem to California- or Europe-oriented palates a little strange – Cabernet sauvignon and Barbera, for instance.

The level of winemaking is quite decent in the Valle, but this is still a work in progress, and many of the young producers are willing to try unorthodox experiments. I’m not going to say they’re wrong: No more than grapes do in Napa or Sonoma, they don’t behave here the same way they do in their European homelands. Winemaking in Mexico is evolving in a different climate and on different soils and – I happen to think this is crucial – alongside an utterly different cuisine.

So far I’ve only had the opportunity to try four wines, three from L. A. Cetto, the largest and most important winery in Baja, and the fourth from Casa Magoni, a second-generation estate apparently specializing in combining key French varieties with significant Italian grapes. The three Cetto wines were a Chenin blanc, a Petite Sirah, and a Nebbiolo. Casa Magoni’s wine was an unusual Chardonnay/Vermentino blend. None of these wines is going to change your life, but they are all quite decent and eminently drinkable and quite interesting as examples of what’s happening in Baja. All, tasted by themselves, seemed a bit rustic, the reds even a bit coarse – but that changed completely with food, when each of them softened, mellowed, and showed much greater subtlety and nuance.

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The Chenin was crisp and bright and long-finishing, showing very characteristic varietal flavors. The unusual blend of Chardonnay and Vermentino was dominated by the Chardonnay, but lightened by some Vermentino acidity and brightness.
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Both reds – they were quite young – tasted slightly of wood. Too much wood seems to be a young vintner’s mistake all over the world. The Petite Sirah displayed appropriately rustic Durif character, feeling big and round, if still a bit tannic. The Nebbiolo of course tasted nothing like the Piedmont grape, but was nevertheless far more interesting than all but a handful of California attempts at the same variety. This is definitely New World Nebbiolo, but – like its Piedmontese ancestors – it opened quite markedly with food. It especially liked the carne asada: So did I.

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