Thursday, February 3, 2011

A history of Mexico's wine regions.

This post is meant only to give a brief history of winemaking in Mexico. And for those whose interest is piqued, a book introducing the wines and wine regions of Mexico, pairing them with Mexican cuisine, and offering traditional step-by-step recipes will be published later this year. I will announce the release of the book when it is available; feel free to contact me with any questions about content or availability.


Mexico has a much more extensive history of wine than most would imagine. In fact, the first Vitis vinifera grapes brought to the Americas from Europe were planted in Mexico by the Spanish in the 1500s, long before they arrived in any other country in the New World. After unsuccessful attempts by Spanish conquistadors to grow vinifera wine grapes in the tropical areas of Mexico, cuttings were planted alongside the native varietals which grew profusely in the Parras Valley in Coahuila. Soon afterward grapes were introduced to other regions such as Puebla and Zacatecas.

There is some debate over what the initial grape varietal was that first crossed the Atlantic in the early colonial era. What is known for sure was that the grape was referred to as the “common black grape” of Spain, and that it gave rise to the Mission grape of California, the Criolla (Criolla Grande) grape of Argentina, and the Pais (Criolla Chica) grape of Chile. A side note: Pais and Criolla are now known to have a common ancestor that was a crossing between Muscat of Alexandria and Mission.

Casa Madero
The planting of vinifera grapes was ordered by Hernán Cortés in the 1520s after the supply he had brought dwindled. During the next century and a half wine production in Mexico skyrocketed. Casa Madero, the first commercial winery, was established by Lorenzo Garcia in Santa Maria de las Parras (Coahuila) in 1597 and still exists today.

remains of the Santo Tomas Mission

Eventually the demand for Spanish wine imports dissipated; this resulted in a 1699 ban on wine production in the country save for Church requirements. This ban was not officially lifted until Mexico’s independence. The ban, however, did not faze the Mexican wine producers. Juan Ugarte, a Jesuit priest, was one of the many who continued making wine despite the ban. He introduced the first vines to Baja California upon his relocation in 1701 to Loreto. The vines were transported from Loreto to the Santo Tomas Mission in 1791 by the Jesuits, then to Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe del Norte Mission in Guadalupe Valley in 1843 by Dominicans.

Bodegas Santo Tomas

During the next 50 years the Reform War had a drastic effect on winemaking in Mexico. Vineyard land was seized by the state and redistributed; in 1888 the Santo Tomas Mission was revived as a commercial winery by private investors and now operates as Bodegas Santo Tomas. From this period until 1910 winemaking spread once again.

a view of Guadalupe Valley, which currently produces 90% of Mexican wines

A group of Russian immigrants (the Molokans) fled the Czar’s army and relocated to Guadalupe Valley and its surrounding areas. There they began making good quality wines, only to be stifled by the Mexican Revolution. Since the 1980s there has been a small revival of winemaking especially in Guadalupe Valley, but foreign competition and a general lack of viticultural and vinicultural knowledge make this a difficult struggle. Nevertheless some excellent small wineries have sprung up since the 1990s and some are prophesying a new Napa Valley’s birth in Guadalupe. This is definitely an area to keep an eye on during the next few decades…

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