Winemakers make their mark in Mexico

Jose Antonio Llaquet, enologist, left, and production engineer Javier Nieto of Spanish wine giant Freixenet's Mexican vineyard, taste a wine in the vaults of the winery in Ezequiel Montes, Mexico.Marco Ugarte / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

In the land of tequila and beer, some are raising a glass to a wine renaissance.

Mexico is the Western Hemisphere's oldest wine producer, yet its wines are little known in this country or anywhere else. And they've long had a reputation of not being very good — in the past, people who drank Mexican wines had to settle for mass-produced table varieties that were easier on the wallet than the palate.

But accomplished winemakers who have worked toward restoring respectability to Mexico since the late 1980s are getting results. Their efforts have made everyday Mexican wines more drinkable, and their premium products have won international awards, surprised food critics and are beginning to catch the eyes of importers in Europe and the United States.

"I wasn't sure they'd even be good, but, it was ... a revelation. That's the word," Marguerite Thomas, Travel Editor for The Wine News, of Coral Gables, Fla., said after touring Baja California state's wine country.

While there is debate within the wine community about whether international awards really measure quality, Mexican wines have taken home more than 110 since 1990.

"People who think it's bad should try it," said Julio Cano, a 57-year-old radio engineer who was sipping a glass of cabernet sauvignon, made by Baja California's L.A. Cetto winery, at a Mexico City bar. "It's not like it was before."

Conquistadors first planted grapes for wine in Mexico in the 16th century, but the Spanish government later banned production for all but the Roman Catholic Church. Mexican independence did little to jump-start a stagnant industry and in more recent decades, government regulations that favored wine importers limited the country to low-quality grapes for brandy or jug wine.

'New world' wines
A rebirth of "new world" wines that made previous lightweight producers like Chile and New Zealand into international stars helped Mexico snap out of its slump, prompting serious, Mexican-born, internationally trained vintners to work in Baja starting in the mid-1980s. One of the big changes they undertook was in the kind of grapes that were grown — run-of-the-mill varieties were replaced with cabernet sauvignon, merlot, petit sirah, chardonnay and chenin blanc, among others.

Lately, attempts to revive ancestral varieties of tempranillo, which was brought to Mexico from Spain, as well as the success of cabernet franc has excited international red wine enthusiasts. Mexican viogner and sauvingon blanc have turned the heads of those who prefer whites.

Demand seen rising
Mexico exports wine to more than 20 countries, mostly the United States, Germany and Great Britain. Between 1998 and 2001, the country's wine exports increased more than 25 percent to over $4.5 million a year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Foreign Agricultural Service.

They slipped again in 2003, falling to $2.2 million, but rose 60 percent during the first three months of last year compared to the same period in 2003, the most recent export figures available.

Rich Potenza, manager of The Wine Bank in San Diego, said that last year his store doubled the size of its Mexican section. The big sellers cost about $8, though more expensive bottles are also popular.

"People are coming in and asking for it in greater numbers than ever before, in many cases as much as Chilean wine, which is huge," Potenza said. "It really is excellent wine."

Away from the West Coast, however, Mexican wine is a tougher sale.

"For the longest time the joke was 'Oh, you want Mexican wine. It's called tequila,'" said Chris Bradyhouse, manager of The Wine Source in Baltimore, which sells wines from India and 20-plus other countries, but not Mexico.

Customers come in looking for Mexican wine "once in a blue moon," he said.

Mexicans drink less wine
Before domestic vineyards can conquer the world, they must win over Mexicans, who drink an average of less than half a gallon of wine a year, compared to 2 gallons for Americans or a 15-gallon per capita average in France.

Only 40 percent of the wine consumed here is Mexican. Wines from Spain, France and Chile easily outsell domestics.

"In general, you find Mexican wines that are very bad," said Celia Herrera, an advertising executive who stopped in at a department store for a bottle of Merlot.

"Wine just doesn't go with Mexico's culture, it's spicy food. We're not in Europe. So, when I drink wine, I want it to come from Europe."

Part of the problem is that Mexican wine remains expensive here largely because of tax hurdles and relatively low production.

Jose Antonio Llaquet, oenologist of Spanish wine maker Freixenet's Mexican vineyard, said Mexico's consumption rates have risen in recent years, but only because the same 60,000 wine drinkers are buying more bottles.

"Wine in Mexico needs to become more of a people's drink and less of something a few drink for status," he said, sampling mixtures of merlot and malbec in the winery's cellar.

"So-called craft wine is fine, but we need to let everyone know that wine doesn't need to be expensive to be good."

Llaquet's winery is best-known for producing sparkling whites. But even Freixenet has begun making affordable reds and non-champagne whites to grab a piece of the Mexican wine boom.

Mexico's answer to Napa Valley is Baja's Valle de Guadalupe, 65 miles south of San Diego, where more than 90 percent of the country's wine is produced. There, larger producers L.A. Cetto as well as Santo Tomas and Monte Xanic work alongside smaller wineries, most making standard lines of wines as well as top-shelf reserve varieties.

But they still face a hard sell to the Mexican public. Nursing a glass of French cabernet sauvignon at a Mexico City hotel, salesman Carlos Rodriguez said he prefers his wines from anywhere but Mexico.

"I love my country," Rodriguez said. "The wine, not so much."

Llaquet countered that many Mexicans don't discover products from their country are good until they become a hit somewhere else.

"The public ignores what this country has," he said. "Then somebody else discovers it and suddenly it's everybody's favorite."