Wines Sprouting from South of the Border
Mexican winemakers are offering robust, expressive wines that pair with a variety of food.
Sure, you’re buying wine from California, France and Italy, but did you know you can get quality offerings south of the border? Mexico has a vibrant wine region and it’s continuing to blossom.
While Mexico’s modern wine-growing business dates back to the 1970s, the country claims the oldest winery in North America, Casa Madero, where Spaniards first planted vines in 1597. The vast majority of wine production happens in Baja California, mostly in the Valle de Guadalupe.
Mexico’s arid climate and proximity to cool ocean breezes offer optimal growing conditions for mostly French, Spanish and Italian varietals, but also indigenous stock. Many restaurants across the United States have started adding Mexican wines for their diversity and compatibility with a range of food.
“It’s an exciting time right now for Mexican wines,” says Jill Gubesch, wine director for Rick Bayless’ Frontera Grill, Topolobampo and Leña Brava, all in Chicago. “Both the quality and consistency have improved greatly.”
There are more than 150 wineries in Mexico today—including Bichi, Bodegas Henri Lurton, Adobe Guadalupe and Casa Magoni—vs. 15 in 2001. They produce grenache, syrah, nebbiolo, tempranillo, cabernet sauvignon, chenin blanc, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, palomino and more. These varietals can differ in characteristic from the same grapes grown elsewhere, Gubesch says.
“They have a signature savory quality that comes across as a slight salinity on the finish,” she adds. “They are typically more fruit forward, lower in tannin and sometimes light-bodied as well.”
Obviously, these wines work well with Mexican fare, especially from Baja, which was influenced by Japanese, Chinese and Mediterranean culture, but it goes beyond that.
“I’m excited to see these wines pair with Southeast Asian food,” says Maria Bastasch, wine director of Compass Rose and Maydan, both in Washington, D.C. “You get spicy flavors and some of the cool rosés and pet-nats [pétillant-naturel, or naturally sparkling wines] and skin-contact whites work really well with that food. And food from North Africa and the Middle East—enjoying a Mexican pet-nat rosé with an Aleppo kabob would be incredible.”
Bastasch, along with restaurant owner Rose Previte, visited Baja last spring to research wine to craft a South of the Border wine list at Compass Rose (along with Peruvian and Bolivian wines). She enjoys exposing diners to wines from lesser-known regions to help increase awareness.
“Seeing an array of countries on a wine list is important so that we become more comfortable understanding there aren’t a narrow few countries that give us the ‘good’ wine,” Bastasch adds. “Mexico is not well enough represented.”
Isn’t it time to change that mindset and support our neighbor to the south?
“Seeing an array of countries on a wine list is important so that we become more comfortable understanding there aren’t a narrow few countries that give us the ‘good’ wine. Mexico is not well enough represented.”
- Maria Bastasch, Wine Director, Compass Rose and Maydan