Vines as head money
Cortés fulfilled his mission followed by a trail of blood, and promoted wine growing by commanding that ten vines be planted for each American Indian captured – both autochthonous and imported, to get solid breeding material as quickly as possible. By the middle of the century, a stately 70,000 hectares were thus covered in vines. This, however, angered Spanish winegrowers who could no longer hold their own on the export market.
At the turn of the century, under pressure from the local economy, the royal house forbade vine exports to what was known at the time as New Spain. Growing areas even had to be cleared. The colonists only just managed to negotiate a quota for religious purposes, which served as camouflage for daily use for decades.
Jesuit monks brought winegrowing as far as the west coast, to the remote military post of San Diego de Alcalá, and so fired the starting shot for Californian wine growing. Viniculture also entered Argentina and Chile through Mexico.
Viniculture in front of a backdrop for Westerns
At 1.9 million square kilometres, Mexico is about as big as France, Italy, Spain, Portugal and California put together. The majority of the country, which sits at the same latitude as the northern Sahara, is composed of sierra – or high plateau – surrounded by mountain ranges. The climate is constant, but very hot during the day and cold at night. The driest regions only get around 200 millimetres of rain per year, which is why they are practically always irrigated. At high altitudes, such as in Parras – which even today is a centre of brandy production – conditions for wine are favourable.
Strewn across the heartland of the country, there are many other small blocks of winegrowing land, from Sonora in the north to San Juan del Rio to the north of Mexico City, and 2100 metres above sea level. Wine grapes are grown in a total of seven Mexican states. The majority are not used in wine production, but in distillation and for table grapes.
The climate of Baja California, where tumbleweed blows across the roads and one can see desert animals such as roadrunners, is significantly different. While the area can always serve as a backdrop for Italo-Westerns, the narrow peninsula – located before the west coast and being over 1200 kilometres long – is cooled by fresh breezes at night from the Pacific and the Gulf of California to the east, even in the hot summer months. This causes a moderate Mediterranean climate to emerge. Around 90% of wine production is located here, hundreds of kilometres away from the historic winegrowing regions.
With the Ruta del Vino, which links over 50 vineyards to the port town of Ensenada, and the border towns of Tijuana and Tecate, well-structured oenotourism has been established here. Small vineyards alternate with hotels and restaurants, even though the sector is suffering under the drug war. Border towns in particular – such as Tijuana to the north of Baja California – are no strangers to shootings and murders in broad daylight. At the height of the conflict, hundreds of thousands of American tourists gave the area a miss, although the Californian metropolis of San Diego is barely two-hour drive away.
High plateaus and saliferous clay
The vineyards are mostly fitted with modern equipment. Knowledge comes from neighbouring California, where the wine industry is thriving due to Mexican workers who often come from Baja California themselves. With their professional experience, many of them enter the local wine industry after returning to their homeland. Some valleys have achieved Terroir status, especially the largest sub-region of Valle de Guadalupe, over 300 metres above sea level. Since as early as the late 1980s, pioneers have been founding small vineyards here – like the Bordeaux-educated oenologist Hugo D’Acosta.
In the flat valley with its granite base, some wines grow in saliferous clay through irrigation with sea water. The best of these show complexity and length, which is why Guadalupe is often called the new Napa Valley. Many of these prognoses, however, seem to have been posited under the effect of wine and the Mexican sun. Their effect remains to be seen.
In terms of production regulations, Consejo gives its winegrowers free reign for the most part, similarly to the situation in California. The alcohol volume and wine type are usually listed on the label, such as Vino de Fruta, Vino Dolce, Vermouth and Vino Blanco. Additional information is added at the discretion of the winegrower.
The first Spanish monks planted the Listán Prieto variety. Although the qualities of this type are limited, it was perhaps not such a bad choice. The species from Castilla and La Mancha is robust, and it copes well with dryness. It spread far across the American continent, under numerous synonyms such as Criolla and Rosa del Perú. It can be found in regional grape varieties, such as some sub-species of Torrontés, as a cross-pollination partner. It is currently experiencing a small renaissance in Chile, especially under the name Pais, but no longer plays a role in either Mexico or on the Spanish mainland.
In spite of economic fluctuations, the quality and quantity of Mexican wines have been increasing since the 1980s. This is accompanied by growing customer interest in high quality items – particularly the national drinks mezcal and tequila – but also cognac, single malt whiskey, and Spanish and local brandy. A tax rate of up to 40% continues to make competition difficult for beer and spirits. The cuisine of Mexico, by far the most independent of the double continent and sometimes quite spicy, is not really a natural partner for wine. Wines are mostly imported goods, coming from Spain or Chile, Australia or New Zealand. Classic collectors in Mexico stock up on heavy red wines from Bordeaux, Rioja or Toscana. In Mexico, at any rate, it is a hobby for the super-rich.
Yet this generation is getting long in the tooth, and young wine drinkers are slowly but surely increasing, especially in the growing, highly educated middle class between 25 to 35 years old. The London market research institute Euromonitor International found this out recently. There are plenty of sales channels such as international wholesale and retail chains. In the trendy quarters of the large cities, wine and tapas bars have long been part of the cityscape.
To seriously estimate the status and development of the industry, however, important numbers are missing. There is an estimated growing area of approximately 50,000 hectares, of which the lion’s share is used for table grapes. Indeed, “more than 100 wine bars bottle over 500 labels“, explains Daniel Milmo Brittingham, president of the winegrower’s association Consejo Mexicano Vitivinícola (CMV).
In 2015, for example, 19.4 million litres of wine were estimated. In his main role as General Director of the traditional operation Casa Madero, he likes other key figures better. The whole sector with its branches already employs 12000 people – and the Mexicans like their wine. While per-capita consumption at 0.75 litres is practically underwhelming (France’s is around 50 litres), “five years ago [however], it was only 0.5 litres.” That’s 50% growth, “and especially in the middle and upper price segment. The consumer has recognised the quality of Mexican wine.” 10% growth in value since 2005, 8% in volume, to be more precise.
Above all, there is growth potential in drinking pleasure, says Milmo. Mexicans drink around 60 litres of beer per head, although almost half of the population still live in poverty. With a growing population and one of the highest per-capita gross domestic products of all emerging countries, the wine market could be a gold mine.