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It all started in Mexico...

Mexico is the first place in the New World that grapes were planted to make wine, yet their wines are only recently becoming known worldwide. Planting of vines in the land we now call Mexico was in lockstep with the expansion of the Spanish who made it mandatory to plant vines in newly colonized regions. This started in 1521, so the history of winemaking in Mexico goes back over 500 years! 

Today, five centuries later, the diversity of Mexico’s wines regions is immense. 14 states in Mexico are planted with grapes to make wine and vineyards can be found from the Pacific coast of Baja to the 9,500 ft mountain sites of central Mexico. Throughout this varied landscape, the best wines are coming from small family-owned wineries who own their own vineyards and make wines that express place. While such wineries can be found throughout the nation, there is a high concentration in Northern Baja in a region composed of 5 valleys generally referred to as Valle de Guadalupe. This is where the “boutique” winery movement started in Mexico, and the region now has over 200 wineries (though many make less than 2,000 cases annually). Called “Valle” for short, this is by far the most talked about wine region of Mexico today and where most of its wines are being made.  

The landscape in Baja’s northern viticultural region is charmingly dotted with small vineyard sites, each of which is used to make singularly expressive wines. It is, in short, a wine-lovers dream, where one finds estate after estate working with hand-picked, estate-grown fruit to make wines that express place in every bottle. 

More than Valle de Guadalupe...

Without a doubt, the best known name in Mexican wine is “Valle de Guadalupe”, yet there is widespread confusion about what the name refers to. While most people use the name to describe the whole wine region of northern Baja, it is actually the proper name of just one of the 5 valleys that are under vine. 

 

Heading south down the Pacific coast, one first arrives at Valle de Guadalupe. This is the valley closest to the US/Mexico border, it’s where the bulk of the tourism lies, and it’s consequentially the valley most widely known. Despite this, only a fraction of the vineyard sites in northern Baja are located in Valle de Guadalupe. Most of the vineyards lie further south. 

 

Continuing south from Valle de Guadalupe, one encounters the valleys of Ojos Negros, La Grulla, Santo Tomás, and San Vicente. Each dramatically different in their own unique ways, it is thanks to this diverse landscape that the wines from the region accomplish the diversity for which they are known.

It is said that the best wines in the world come from places where place matters, and this is very much the case here. This is true from vineyard site to vineyard site within each valley, and even more so from valley to valley. ​​For example, take a wine from a vineyard at the end of Ojos Negros and another made from the same grape but from a vineyard near the mouth of Valle de Guadalupe. The 80+ year old vines of Ojos Negros may be planted an elevation of 3,400ft in a harsh climate far from the ocean, in soils composed of granite and red clay high in iron and magnesium. The vines in Valle de Guadalupe could be planted at 900ft just two miles from the Pacific in soils of decomposed sandstone and some white clay. Though they might be made of the same grape, you will find in each of the two wines a completely different imprint of place. In the hands of a sensitive winemaker who is intent on letting place speak through his or her wines, the grapes from these two regions have almost no similarity in voice. The exploration of the full chorus of what each valley and each vineyard has to say is enthralling. This diversity forms the basis of what makes this such an interesting region. 

 

A wonderful extension to this diversity is the fact that there are so may different grape varieties planted here and that they all do so well. Literally every major French, Spanish, and Italian grape you can think of is represented here and finds unique expression. Among a very long list, some of the most common and successful grape varieties are: 

  • Reds - Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Tempranillo, Grenache, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Mourvedre, Syrah, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, Carignan, Listan Negro, Zinfandel, and Montepulciano

  • Whites - Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Palomino, Viognier, Vermentino, and Colombard 

It's not just about the climate and the soil.

While the region has climate and soil conditions in its favor, the boutique size of the wineries and sincerity of spirit of the families behind them is what makes them truly great. The passion runs deep here, so it’s clear we have only just begun to see what northern Baja is capable of. That said, as the boutique movement expands, and as small farmers stop selling their grapes to large consolidators, expect to see wines of exciting quality coming from many other regions in Mexico. This is already happening in several other Mexican states, and the quality is turning heads.

 

Meanwhile in northern Baja, the boutique movement is already well underway. A combination of ancient vineyard sites, (dating as far back as 1791), talented winemakers, and the development of a unique and exquisite culinary scene form the basis of a local tourism that revolves around viticulture. From this stems an orientation towards environmentally conscious land development in the local communities. 

 

Sustainable use of limited resources and preservation of a fragile environment is forming the backbone of the region’s path forward. As the wines and wineries of Mexico have begun to win hard fought positions in the global community of wine aficionados, the world is watching to see if they will continue to go from strength to strength as they have been vintage after vintage for several decades. What is clear is that they currently have everything going for them. The stage is set and the current performers are in many cases mind-bendingly good.