The wines of Mexico

The region of Baja California is not, as the name suggests, in the US but in Mexico. Larry Walker finds out more.

The Baja peninsula
The Baja peninsula

A group of drinks professionals from the US went to Mexico in late June for a tasting to check out what gringos will be drinking next. And no, it wasn’t tequila or mezcal or beer. There was no romping on the beach or knocking back shots in a cantina. The professionals were there to taste wine. Mexican wine. 

The tasting, called Baja Uncorked, was held in Valle de Guadalupe, about 30 miles south of the US/Mexico border. Wine has been made there for centuries, although no one north of the border seemed to have noticed until very recently.

Some 30 wineries took part in the three-day tasting organised by the Mexican Vintner Marketing Alliance, a new group organised by two US importers of Baja wines, Tom Bracamontes of La Competencia Imports in Napa and Michelle Martain of La Mision Associates in San Diego. Bracamontes said the purpose of the tasting was to introduce US wine professionals to the region, the wines, the terroir, and the cuisine. “The best way of doing so was to immerse them for two and a half days in Baja wine country,” he says. “I knew that the only way to effectively pull this off was to convince the wineries of the benefits of working together.”

Bracamontes, a former record company executive, said he became interested in the wines of Baja in 2015. “I was looking for something different. I went to Baja and found over 100 brands, most of them with marketing problems,” he said. “I started with just four markets – California, Reno, Las Vegas, and Texas. Now we are in ten markets with more pending. The demand for Baja wines is happening very fast.” He adds that he believes the consumer got there before the industry did. “People who have travelled to Baja and elsewhere in Mexico and tried the wines are eager to buy them back in the States.”

Bracamontes also credits sommeliers with helping create the demand. “They are looking for new wines. Look at wine lists now: There are wines from Croatia, Uruguay, and elsewhere that were not available a few years ago. Wine consumers are looking for new tastes and Baja is supplying that.”

A long history

Confusingly, while the region is known as Baja California, it’s part of Mexico – it’s the peninsula that separates the Pacific Ocean from the Gulf of California. While wine grapes were first planted in Mexico by Spanish priests in 1597 – in the town of Santa Maria de las Parras in what is now the state of Coahuila – vine cuttings didn’t arrive in Baja until 1701, when they were brought by Jesuit missionaries (who later took wine grapes to California). Baja’s first commercial winery, Bodegas Santo Tomás, was established in 1888. It is still in operation.

Although it’s difficult to get reliable statistics on the wine industry in Mexico, it seems about 90% of Mexico’s wine is made in Baja, while most of the mainland grapes are used for brandy production. Total production in Baja is reportedly about 1.5m cases a year with the majority of that coming from three producers: L.A. Cetto with 800,000 cases, Pedro Domecq with 200,000 cases and Santo Tomás with 125,000 cases. There are about 2,428 ha of vines in Baja.

Water is a major issue. Average annual rainfall is low, with about 25 cm. Many vineyards are dry farmed as irrigation water is scarce and sometimes leads to an unwelcome salinity flavour in the wines.
Historically, the first plantings during the colonial period were Spanish varieties, including Tempranillo and Garnacha, which are still abundant. Other red varieties reflect the international trends of recent decades, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Zinfandel, Sangiovese, and Nebbiolo. White wine grapes are also common, especially Chardonnay (of course) and Sauvignon Blanc. There are still fairly extensive plantings of what is called the Mission grape, now identified as Listán Prieto, that’s also widely grown in the Canary Islands. It is sometimes used to make rosé, which is becoming increasingly popular in Baja as elsewhere.

Mexico imposes a 40% tax on domestic sales of wine, giving Baja producers a major motivation to make export sales, which are untaxed. Also, while wine consumption was up 8.5% in 2016 at 7.8 mL per capita, much of that gain came from tourist areas. Tourism is having a major impact on wine, as it’s a key factor in driving the US market, and it’s also reflected in the development of destination tourism; there has been a dramatic improvement in highways to keep pace with the number of wineries featuring fine dining and overnight accommodations.

One of the first of Baja’s destination wineries is Adobe Guadalupe, established in 1998, with the first harvest in 2000. French-trained Hugo D’Acosta, the lead winemaker, has been called ‘the Robert Mondavi of Mexico’. Beyond the tasting room, Baja trippers are welcomed by a serious restaurant, an inn, a swimming pool, and other tourist treats. This emphasis on tourism is likely the key to the winery’s export sales, which have grown 20% a year for the last five years.

So, are the wines worth the visit?

Tasting response

Michelle Martain says the response to the tasting was positive. “About 50 people from all over the US showed up. They were amazed at the quality of the wines.” She said wines under $20.00 a bottle wholesale especially drew particular interest.

Martain has been active in the Baja wine market since 2004, when she started working with three wineries. Now her catalogue has grown to 25 wineries with more than 90 different labels.

“When I first started there was so little interest that I could carry my samples in a backpack, but once people tasted the wines they really opened up. Also, the culture of Mexico really opened the door. I think the market is growing and will be much bigger,” she adds. “My sales over the past three years have grown at a rate of more than 100%.”

Chicago is a growing market for Baja wines, according to Susan VanKoughnett, president of Bodin Street Wines & Spirits in Chicago. “We have had good consumer response and interest in Baja wines. Our major independent retailer in the Chicago area, Binny’s Beverage Depot, has supported a half dozen Baja labels.”

On the retail side, VanKoughnett said that the Whole Foods market has “come on board”. She adds that consumer tastings in the stores have been one key to increasing sales. In general, it’s the consumers who have visited or want to visit Baja that “have shown the most interest in purchasing the wines.” On the on-premise side, she says, “We have had good success working with sommeliers in the better steakhouses. Red wines from the region are well suited for those meat cathedrals. The majority are under 14% AC, making them especially good matches with beef.”

Another plus, according to VanKoughnett, are the white wines from Baja. “They are wonderful crisp blends that are very versatile. They go well with all kinds of dishes.” How about Mexican restaurants? “We generally avoid the neighbourhood Mexican restaurants. Mexican restaurants that will buy wines priced in the range of Baja wines are rare.”

An obvious exception are the restaurants of superstar-chef Rick Bayless, who operates half a dozen Mexican restaurants in Chicago, including Leña Brava, which features Baja cuisine. Bayless, who is also a cookbook writer, has long been an advocate of serving wine with Mexican food. “Jill Gubesch directs the wine programme for all the Bayless restaurants and has curated an excellent list of Baja wines,” says VanKoughnett.

There are 30 Baja wines on the current wine list of the Rick Bayless Frontera Restaurant group in Chicago, according to Jill Gubesch. She said customers are attracted to the Baja wines because they offer a “unique style of wine different from any other region, and they go beautifully with the cuisines our restaurants offer.” Overall, she says, the Baja wines tend to be light-bodied with good fruit. She adds that the wine prices are in line with wines from boutique wineries in the US: The 30 Baja wines on the list range in price from $50.00 to $120.00. “Our success with the wines here in Chicago has been the result of constant tasting and education,” she says. “We don’t see the wines as a short-term trend. There are wines of lasting value and we are committed to developing the category.”

In New York, the market for Baja wines is just beginning to open up, according to Victor Schwartz, founder of VOS Selections. “There is certainly an interest in these wines,” he says. “However, we are at the very beginning of the process and the market is just starting to respond.” He adds, “There is a lot to be done and much of it on the part of the wineries. They must focus on what varieties work best and they must offer better value to the market.” Schwartz notes that he has sold the wine to some tough buyers. “These wines do have legs, to what degree we will have to see.”

In the end, could the interest in Baja wines be a short-lived fad?

Bracamontes of La Competencia Imports doesn’t think so. “The market for Baja wines is at a critical tipping point,” he says. “I believe the tide is starting to turn. As long as we pay attention to quality, it will not be a fad.”

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