Mexican Wine, No Joke

Paul Blow

Casa de Piedra’s delicious Vino de Piedra

Mexico has got tequila-making down pat, and it does pretty well with beer-brewing too. Why not add winemaking to the list?

Recently, I spent an afternoon with an old friend whom most people would describe as a wine snob. I think of him more as having very specific tastes, but let’s just say those tastes run to the high end. I gave him a red wine blind. The day was cold, so the deep, dark richness of the wine was appropriate. He sniffed it and then took a sip and finally said, “Not my kind of wine, but it’s delicious. Is it Spanish?”

“Not even close,” I said. “But you got the language right at least.”

“Argentina?”

“Nope. Mexico.”

Needless to say he was astonished. The wine tasted like nothing he’d had before: It was rich, yet so dry.

It came from Valle de Guadalupe, about 30 minutes over a low mountain pass from the city of Ensenada, which itself is only an hour and a half south of the U.S. border. To get there, you drive down a coastal highway as stunning as California’s Highway 1.

The mountains that separate Ensenada from Valle de Guadalupe help corral the ocean-borne cool winds and protect this idyllic place from the ravages of desert heat, aridity, and low latitude. Wine has been produced here since the 16th century, while the other historical crop is olives. If it sounds less like Mexico and more like Italy or Spain, you’re on the right track.

Wine production all but died here in the 19th century but was curiously revived at the beginning of the 20th by the Molokans, a community of religious pacifists fleeing persecution in czarist Russia. Today’s populace in the Valle is an unusual mixture of European immigrants (lots of Swiss, for some reason) and Mexicans.

What’s exciting about this wine region is that it’s producing wines of real character. It has terroir, as they say. Why? It’s hard to say. Certainly, conditions that force vines to struggle and therefore produce lower yields with more intense flavors help. But there’s also limestone, a boon for red grapes in warm climates, as it keeps the acidity in balance.

There is a salinity problem with much of the local water, so any vineyard using a lot of it to increase yields will tend to produce salty wines, which you do find at the more commercial wineries. But the best wines are not salty at all. They are delicious. The reds, made from Bordeaux varieties, are big, as you would expect, but their size and richness are offset by a very real earthiness and a depth that you don’t find as often in the highly watered vineyards of California. The whites are a mixed bag, with everything from Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc to Chardonnay. They are rarely as impressive as the reds, but I have tasted an incredibly interesting version of the Swiss grape Chasselas from a winery called Mogor-Badan (which also makes the best Cabernet blend).

The wine I gave my snob friend was from a winery called Casa de Piedra, which is small but in some ways the most significant one in the region. It was founded by Hugo d’Acosta, a Mexican winemaker trained in Bordeaux, by whose will the region has had its resurgence. A quiet, serious man, d’Acosta is by all accounts a great winemaker, as my wine snob friend, surprisingly, pointed out. The wine was Casa de Piedra’s Vino de Piedra, a blend of Tempranillo and Cabernet grown on granite-limestone soils that winemakers north of the border would kill to have.

“It was rich and fulfilling yet mineral and bracingly spare with dryness,” my friend said.

“A lot like Mexico itself,” I answered.

The best way to buy these wines in the United States right now is to contact the wineries directly, which is easy to do via this website.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.