Mexican Wine: Riding On The Crest Of A Wave

Posted: Mar 21, 2017

‘The epicentre of Mexico’s wine scene reminds me of nothing more than a slightly untidy Napa Valley’

None of this was here!” We heard this about every five minutes as we drove south down the California coast into Mexico. We were on our way to Mexico’s wine country in Baja California with the splendidly named Wyatt Peabody, a California wine professional.

Peabody spent much of his childhood and adolescence in Baja surfing, shooting the breeze and, eventually, falling in love with Valle de Guadalupe, epicentre of the Mexican wine scene. High-rise hotels and condominiums now line the Pacific coastline. Once we had turned into the valley, he kept squealing at signs advertising wine museums, tasting rooms and boutique hotels. All were new to him, and roads he’d known as dusty tracks were now wide and paved.

Twenty years ago he had played a part in building Adobe Guadalupe, the valley’s seventh winery. The few people involved with wine then felt like true pioneers in a country devoted to beer, brandy and tequila. Today there are about 150 wineries. The annual Vendimia harvest festival has recently been extended to a two-week celebration.

I made my first trip to Mexican wine country last month expecting to play the part of Lady Bountiful. My idea was that I would go, explore, report and publicise these little-known wines, thereby extending a helping hand to a nascent wine industry. Ha! Locals may hate the comparison but the Valle de Guadalupe reminded me of nothing more than a slightly untidy Napa Valley. There seemed to be tourists and restaurants everywhere. And money has been flowing in to the oeno-tourism business not just from the US but from Mexico City, a three-hour flight away. We were told more than once that Mexico City is a blast, home to more billionaires than anywhere else, and by no means all of that money is narco-related. The Mexican economy is booming, and so is the wine business, to judge from our short visit. Chefs at the valley’s more admired restaurants were busy setting up satellite establishments in Vancouver or New York.

We were also told that the “only thing that stopped a massive American influx was [the crash of] 2008”, but most of this rash of small wineries are Mexican-owned. The biggest by far is LA Cetto, started by an Italian family who arrived in the valley during the dying days of Prohibition. It’s still run by “Don Luis”, 82, who comes into the office every day. Cetto produces about half of all Mexico’s wine, aiming to sell 1.3 million cases this year, and owns 600ha of vines in the Valle de Guadalupe and 500ha in the cooler, less drought-stricken Valle de San Vicente to the south. It is also planning to develop a new wine region in Chihuahua, the northern Mexican state across the border from Texas.

Don Luis’s son, Luis Jr, reports that vineyard labour, traditionally undertaken by itinerant agricultural workers, is becoming a problem and he is considering mechanising many operations. In stark contrast to our time north of the Rio Grande, we hardly heard the words Trump or wall. The Mexicans we met seemed to be getting along just fine.

The more quality-conscious Baja producers are a bit frustrated by the lack of ambition shown by LA Cetto, one of the few exporters of Mexican wine. Cetto may harvest and vinify different lots separately, as is the current fashion, but then all ingredients are mixed together into vast varietal bottlings – admittedly dependable and very keenly priced, but slightly bland ambassadors. Cabernet still rules the roost in Baja where Rhône varieties are probably more suitable for the dry climate, although LA Cetto’s Nebbiolo, available in Europe, Canada, the US and Japan, would be a perfect introduction to Mexican wine.

LA Cetto’s Nebbiolo Private Reserve 2012

(£12.95 Albion Wine Shippers 020 7242 0873) is warm, earthy, leathery and very, very slightly syrupy – a good-value introduction to the delights of Mexican wine.
As a sign of the times, Cetto’s long-time winemaker Camillo Magoni has left to set up his own boutique winery, Casa Magoni, on high ground at the entrance to the valley, where the cooling Pacific influence is most marked. LA Cetto’s substantial headquarters are well inland of here at the head of the valley, overlooked by the old Domecq bodega that looks as though it has been transplanted from Jerez, where its original Spanish owners were based. Since then, it has passed through the books of multinational drinks companies Allied Domecq and Pernod Ricard and was recently sold to the family sherry company Gonzalez Byass, pausing only to divest itself of most of its vineyards.

A good 200ha of Domecq’s best and oldest vines went to Hugo D’Acosta, a Montpellier-trained Mexican, who could be credited with, or accused of, being one of the major reasons for the transformation of the Valle de Guadalupe from backwater to tourist mecca. In the late 1990s, he set up a wine school, the Escuelita in El Porvenir, to empower the locals, who he saw as impoverished and in danger of being taken advantage of by the big companies. This building, entirely constructed of rejects and recycled wine-related objects in the style of his successful architect brother Alejandro, is now swamped by applications from wannabe winemakers. Some of them, such as Phil Gregory of Vena Cava, have settled in the valley and developed their own wineries together with, in the case of the Gregorys, a boutique hotel, La Villa del Valle, a celebrated restaurant next door and, the accoutrement du jour, a food truck.

The Gregorys freely admit that they have become celebrities, and tell of being recognised on the street in Mexico City, where they are constructing a second home. Discouraged from depending on their own vines because of the valley’s chronic water shortage (relieved somewhat this year by the tail-end of the rains that have, at last, refilled California’s dams), Gregory now buys in almost all of his grapes, a mix from the valleys, and, like a painter with a palette, constructs some fascinating blends. 

I asked him, a relative veteran of the valley, how he felt about its current dynamic state. “I feel happy, sad – and a little bit guilty,” he said with a wry smile.

By Jancis Robinson
March 17, 2017
Source: Financial Times

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