Imbibe - February 2023

Imbibe - February 2023

Mexican Wine Is Shifting From Novelty to Mainstay

For more than a decade, Mexican wine has hovered on the verge of breaking through in the United States. Stories about Mexico’s burgeoning wine scene routinely popped up in the American press, mostly in travel sections as a point of interest that visitors already planning a trip there might enjoy. Outside of a handful of devoted restaurants, though, it was rare to come across a bottle in any zeitgeisty restaurants or stores.

But all of that might be changing. A new generation of Mexican wine is turning the heads of importers, sommeliers, wine store owners, and, most importantly, consumers. Restaurants are gradually moving Mexican wine past curiosity status and into more of a wine-world mainstay. Buoyed by an anything-goes mentality when it comes to wine, an enduring fascination with Mexican cuisine and spirits abroad, the rise of culinary travel to destinations like Mexico City and Baja, and a rapidly expanding number of wineries throughout the country, Mexican wine’s newfound popularity offers an intriguing case study in how tipping points happen in emerging regions.

Wine in Mexico is simultaneously centuries old and relatively new, depending on your frame of reference. In the 16th century, Spanish missionaries and settlers planted vineyards of European grapes like Misión (aka Listán Negroor País) across a wide swath of what is now Mexico and the Americas. Local production flourished to the point where the volume of Mexican wine eclipsed Spanish imports, which led to King Charles imposing a prohibition on grape growing in the new colonies in the 17th century. After Mexican independence, winemaking grew in fits and spurts, especially in the Valle de Guadalupe in the Baja peninsula. But with the Mexican revolution in the early 20th century, many vineyards were abandoned.

What many think of as modern Mexican wine can be traced to the 1970s and ’80s, when a new wave of big money investment concentrated in the tourist-friendly Baja region rolled in, leading it to be billed as the Napa Valley of Mexico. That growth has been accelerating exponentially as the region adds more hotels and acclaimed restaurants. In 2000, Baja had 13 wineries; today, they have 230. Because there are no long-established rules, the grape mixes and the winemaking styles are eclectic, running the gamut from prestige Cabernets and conventional international varieties to a growing cadre of experimental natural wines.

Spanish wine importer José Pastor sees the most promise in the latter, in the way that certain producers are engaging with the idea of tradition, interpreting Mexico’s layered and complicated past instead of falling back on international grape varieties. Pastor, who built a reputation for championing the less well-known regions of Spain, like the Canary Islands (which have become part of the essential modern wine canon), began importing wines from Bichi, made in Tecate in Baja, in 2016.

“[Bichi] was more interested in telling the history of how wines were made in the past, rather than trying to copy what Napa Valley is doing.”—José Pastor, Spanish wine importer

Bichi is run by winemaker Noel Telléz (his brother recently opened Mexico City’s acclaimed Amaya, which features an all-natural wine list), and its anchor wine is made from 100-year-old Misión vines. “[Focusing on an] old vineyard that was mostly planted to the Misíon grape, [Bichi] was more interested in telling the history of how wines were made in the past, rather than trying to copy what Napa Valley is doing,” Pastor says. Telléz’s stable of low-intervention, natural-yeast, amphorae-aged wine is rounded out by cuvées made from old vine Rosa de Peru (Moscatel Negro), Tempranillo, and a selection of grapes that have yet to be DNA tested. Bichi became one of the most high-profile successes in the new wave of Mexican wine, finding a home everywhere from Aldo Sohm Wine Bar to a roundup of best orange wines in Sunset magazine.

Pastor has built out his portfolio with other wineries. “We have been trying to work with people that we like,” he says about how he ended up representing wineries like La Casa Vieja, a small producer in Baja making no-added sulfur dioxide Palomino and Misíon. Pastor sees nothing but growth ahead on the natural wine side, which has exploded over the last two years. There was a natural wine fair in Mexico City last year, and he points to Brooklyn-based remote workers who fled to Mexico City during the pandemic as among the big drivers of the way the city is evolving to become a natural wine hot spot.

The growing opportunities to taste natural Mexican wine in Mexico is turning into an amplifying feedback loop for expanding the reach worldwide. Importer Zev Rovine, who has a focus on natural wines, mostly from Europe, first came across the natural Mexican wines in a bar on his travels in Mexico City, a place he visits frequently. “There’s a burgeoning natural wine scene in Mexico City right now—lots of cool little wine bars opening up all the time. It’s becoming part of the youth culture of drinking in Mexico—not just Mexican wine, but natural wine,” he says.

For three years, he’s been adding to his Mexican portfolio, picking wines mainly from Baja, like Vinos Pijoan, a family winery that recently transitioned hands to daughter Silvana Pijoan, who works with co-fermentation, carbonic maceration, and natural yeasts to keep alcohol levels low. In the U.S., Rovine sells the wines to a mix of natural wine–oriented retail, wine bars, and restaurants, like Dépanneur, a wine shop in the heart of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Rovine explains that the natural wine world tends to be more experimental, with consumers looking for good stories, rather than the older conventional model of emerging regions aligning with a grape or style (see: New Zealand and Sauvignon Blanc, Argentina and Malbec).

His sense is that as more Mexican wineries are turned over to younger generations, who’ve been raised in the culture of natural wines, we should expect to see more Mexican natural wine in the future. “If [we find] more producers working in our philosophical framework, we would definitely [expand our offerings],” he says. “I know more are coming.”

The restaurant-to-consumer pipeline is equally important for acceptance outside of Mexico, and Mexican wine is being boosted by a growing number of new-wave Mexican restaurants in the States. As beverage director for Casamata, working with the group since the opening of Cosme in New York in 2014, Yana Volfson has had a front-row seat to the rapidly evolving wine scene. Chef Enrique Olvera, who found global acclaim with Pujol in Mexico City, opened Cosme with a focus on Mexican modernist-inspired cuisine. To complement the menu’s worldly point of view, Volfson built a constantly evolving beverage list, with wine selections from Ganevat and Château de Béru, and a smattering of Mexican wines tucked in—usually standouts like Bichi and Vena Cava, a wildly popular winery with which she has a close relationship.

The restaurant-to-consumer pipeline is equally important for acceptance outside of Mexico, and Mexican wine is being boosted by a growing number of new-wave Mexican restaurants in the States.

“I think Cosme has been a point of contact for all of that, to be where we are now eight years later, and what is becoming a bigger conversation,” she says of the growing acceptance of Mexican wine. “Cosme is one of the first places where we’ve seen natural wine and Mexican food served side by side,” she says. “I think we’ve really been a fun trendsetter, seeing how the natural wine market has blown up in Mexico City, and how much more people are accustomed to finding themselves drinking wine with Mexican cuisine.”

But it’s not just the food—she says the rising culinary tide of all-things Mexican in the past decade, especially the elevation of spirits, has helped wine, too. “Mexican wine was really able to piggyback on the popularity of mezcal,” she says. Volfson notes that most Mexican wine exported to the U.S. rarely falls into the value category, because land rents and start-up costs are so high. “I think once you started to find mezcal in bars in Paris and Berlin and London, and at the price tag that mezcal [commands compared] to other spirits … [that] opened the door for Mexican wine to be introduced to the world at a certain price tag.”

For Miguel Marquez, beverage director at Portland, Oregon’s acclaimed República (and its sister properties, including a wine store and café), highlighting Mexican wine for a U.S. audience is deeply important. “When I [saw] world-recognized wine lists having zero Mexican wine in the United States, I was like, ‘Wait, what’s going on over here?’ Wine brings big aspects and histories of our past during colonization of the Americas, as wine was one of the main colonizer tools,” says Marquez. “My goal is to invite and promote curiosity, to bring more critical analysis of how we tend to miss big topics that define the world as we know it today. If we are overlooking aspects like these, what else don’t we know?”

Marquez was raised in the restaurant world in Mexico City, but he has worked in the U.S. for more than a decade at spots like Little Nell in Aspen, Colorado, and now República. “I became certified [as a sommelier] because in a heavily Eurocentric profession and market, Mexican wines and other products get overlooked, I think I bring a different perspective, a more inclusive narrative.”

Marquez’s wine list is an intriguing mix of BIPOC winemakers outside of Mexico, and a count of 70 to 90 cuvées from Mexican winemakers to complement the tasting menu of Mexican-inspired cuisine. Because the wines don’t always have strong typicity on account of avoiding Eurocentric traditions and using experimental winemaking style, it’s best to expect the unexpected. “When I learned about Mexican wine and its history in the Americas, and its role during colonization, I had to uneducate myself about a lot of things that I knew about wine and about myself as a Mexican,” he says.

“When I learned about Mexican wine and its history in the Americas, and its role during colonization, I had to uneducate myself about a lot of things that I knew about wine and about myself as a Mexican.” —Miguel Marquez

Marquez adds that although he learned wine basics from more conventional Mexican wine, there’s a lot out there that subverts norms. Take, for example, Santo Tomás, a winery in a region that has more than 300 years of winemaking history. From there, he likes recommending a stainless steel aged Cabernet Sauvignon from winemaker Cristina Pino. “It smells like Cabernet but it drinks like a Pinot,” he says about the lack of oak in the wine.

To move the wine, Marquez says that nothing beats hand-selling for unfamiliar bottles to customers, especially in the form of wine pairings, which change frequently. Some of the standouts of the last year include a 2020 Chenin Blanc from Pouya paired with a risotto made with escamole (ant larvae), and diver scallops with a 2020 biodynamic Chardonnay from Valle de Guadelupe standout Santos Brujos. “We do at least five different labels every night, which is a good 101 on Mexican wine,” he says, noting that he wants to spread the word not just to laypeople but wine folks as well. “I was surprised at how many master sommeliers I’ve met who didn’t know that wine was made in Mexico.”

Coly Den Haan, a veteran of the Los Angeles wine scene, has been selling Mexican wine for more than a decade, starting in the days when only L.A. Cetto, a Valle de Guadalupe winery with seven generations of history, could be found. At Vinovore, a pair of wine stores she opened in 2017 that only sell wine made by women, she offers a greater selection, in part because she loves the Baja region and visits regularly. Den Haan attributes her success at moving Mexican wine in part to her Los Angeles locale. “It’s a three-hour drive away,” she says of the Valle de Guadalupe. “It’s becoming more of a destination, so people have a little bit of ownership of it. That feeling of ‘Oh, I’ve been there, I love those wines,’ or ‘I love that region.’”

Plus, she says the city’s Latin community loves to support wines from their region. “People want them,” Den Haan says, also because of the way that progressive winemakers are approaching sustainability and water usage in a dry, climate change–affected region. “Some people are doing some really good things with sustainability because water is an issue. There are some people doing older bush vines, and working with more indigenous varietals or varietals that do well with higher temperatures, and less water—that seems to be something to look out for, as well.”

Still, she says that placing the wines in context for buyers helps. She writes out winemaking info and tasting note descriptions on cards for each wine in the store, so that if people want to browse, they can find something they like, such as wines from Santo Tomas, Sierra Vita Rosé made by Ana Maria Vasques in Baja, which retails for just over $20.

Den Haan also sells limited amounts of Piquete from Octágono, a buzzy natural producer that makes wine in Mexican-made clay vessels in the Guanajuato district. The project, now helmed by winemaker Celia Morales, is part of a suite of projects from entrepreneur Marcelo Castra Vera, including a mezcal distillery, lodging, and an open-air wood-fired restaurant in the mountains. The clay vessels, made by local artisans in their own tradition—a play on Georgian-style amphorae winemaking—are a unique way of melding Mexican heritage into the process. “Right now a lot of the really cool stuff is very limited, and people do want to get their hands on it because it is kind of a hot region,” she says about the struggle to keep her shelves stocked.

Sometimes, Den Haan says, people are looking for a Mexican bottle to serve with homemade Mexican food, but others stumble upon them because the profile sounds good—and she’s always quick to recommend them. “I feel like they’re becoming less of a novelty, and more of a staple,” she says. “There’s an old stigma of Mexican wine really not being good. And unfortunately, a lot of the good stuff isn’t here yet, but I do think it is coming, so people should keep asking for it,” she says.

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