Mexican wine on the rise

Here in Mexico tequila is the native drink. Beer is extremely popular, too, but tequila, made from the agave plant, and mescal, its relative, are the pride and joy. Mexican wine exists and over the years I’ve had some that has ranged from abysmal to quite good. Most have been somewhere between not drinkable and “eh,” yet they seem to be improving. As our neighbor to the south takes winemaking a bit more seriously, we might have more of its wines to enjoy in the future.

Some form of wine has been made in Mexico long before wine was made in U.S. territory. The native population used grapes, fruits and honey to make a fermented beverage before the Spanish arrived. After the country was conquered, the Spanish introduced a decree that all landowners, who were almost exclusively Spanish, had to have 100 vines per 1,000 slaves, who were almost exclusively natives or, for lack of a better term, Indians. Winemaking continued to flourish as the Spanish missions started popping up in different parts of the country. This was especially true on the Baja Peninsula, which is seen as Mexico’s leading winemaking area today. Spanish protectionism, phylloxera and the Mexican Revolution of 1910 led to the dwindling of Mexican winemaking by the early part of the 20th century.

Wine production in Mexico was pretty insignificant, both in quality and quantity until maybe the 1990s. Most grapes were, and still are, used to make brandy. However, economic measures along with a strong desire to make quality wines prompted a shift. As California and countries in South America have made strides, Mexico has hoped to jump on the bandwagon, to some extent.

Ninety percent of the wine made in Mexico comes from the Baja Peninsula. There are four subregions: the Calafia, Guadalupe, Santo Tomás and San Vincente valleys. Like other wine regions, these areas have wide disparity between day and nighttime temperatures. However, Baja is prone to very hot days, especially during the summer months. Tempranillo, which has been around since the days of the conquistadors, is grown. However, the French grapes, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, are preferred. Barbera and syrah are on the rise and both petite sirah and zinfandel, two grapes that do well in warm climates, have also proven to make good wine here.

Mexican wines are hard to find in the United States but not impossible. Without going into great specifics, here are a few of the better wines that are imported.

Bodegas Santo Tomás

Established in 1938, Bodegas Santo Tomás was Mexico’s first commercial winery. It is also one of the largest and has a wide range of products. You are more likely to find the “reserves” in the U.S. and, if you’re lucky, the prized Unicos, which is a blend of cabernet sauvignon and merlot. The wines are varietally correct — i.e., the cab tastes0 like cab — and can give some California wines a run for the money. Reserves are about $15 to $20.

Château Camou

Chateau Camou in the Guadalupe Valley is one of the easier Mexican producers to find in California. Michel Rolland, the traveling French oenologist, consulted here for a while. Chateau Camou has three labels: Château Camou, Flor de Guadalupe and Vinas de Camou. The Flor de Guadalupe Zinfandel ($18) has been surprisingly good in the past, but look for a vintage that is fairly young, as this wine does not age very well. The Gran Vino Tinto Merlot ($30) is also worth seeking.

Monte Xanic

Monte Xanic, also in the Guadalupe Valley, is rumored to be former Mexican President Vincente Fox’s favorite Mexican winery, whatever that means. I often enjoy the Vina Kristel, an inexpensive sauvignon blanc/semillon blend ($12). The winery is also known for their Bordeaux-style red blends.

Pamela S. Busch is the wine director and proprietor of CAV Wine Bar & Kitchen in San Francisco.

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