Kat Odell
Aug 2020

While tequila might be Mexico’s most beloved taco companion, in the near future wine could take its place. Though the country has a long history of winemaking––Spanish missionaries first planted grapes there in the 16th century––it’s never been known for the beverage. But in the last 30 years or so, a modern Mexican wine industry has taken root, largely thanks to the country’s premier region––the Baja Peninsula’s Valle de Guadalupe, just south of San Diego—which has fostered a mini Napa Valley, proving Mexican vino deserves a place at the table. Thanks to the area’s ongoing success, more promising Mexican wine regions are developing.

Over the last decade, the central Mexican state of Guanajuato––a four-hour drive northwest of Mexico City, best known as home to the auburn- and mustard-hued tourist destination San Miguel de Allende––has emerged as one of the country’s most exciting new wine regions. Here, upstart producers are sidestepping industrial winemaking practices—such as farming grapes with chemical pesticides, commercial yeast fermentation, and using various additives to correct a wine’s flavor––to instead embrace an old-world style of low intervention, producing more natural juice.

Image courtesy of Bodega Dos Buhos

Modern winemaking practices in Guanajuato only date as far back as the early 2000s, when a new era of serious vintners began to study the region’s climate and soil. The state offers a generally ideal high-altitude climate (the average elevation is over 6,500 feet above sea level), with cold winters and hot summers conducive to low-alcohol, fruit-forward wines that Michelle Aydelotte, general manager of San Miguel de Allende’s pioneering estate winery Bodega Dos Búhos, compares in style to old-world burgundy. While local winemakers are still experimenting with grape varietals best suited to the land, so far reds like cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot and Tempranillo have proved successful, while chardonnay and Sémillon represent promising whites.

Nineteen minutes southeast of downtown San Miguel, Bodega Dos Búhos is one of the area’s oldest wineries. But the team only planted grapes in 2005, with their first harvest coming three years later, proving the region’s youth. They are also one of only two local wineries that grow their own organic grapes (many winemakers buy from farmers), with a large, whitewashed modern property well-suited to hosting visitors. Guests can sign up to taste various samples of the property’s 13 wines, paired with snacks from the on-site restaurant. (Bottle prices range from $30 to $75; Dos Búhos produces 18,000 bottles annually.) Aydelotte is excited about San Miguel’s potential, with more than 30 wineries cropping up in the last decade. And while Dos Búhos is one of the first to embrace a more natural winemaking ethos––vinifying organic grapes and fermenting with wild yeast––a slate of young producers similarly offering a more honest liquid tribute to the land is following.

Image courtesy of Cava Garambullo

Separate wine consulting projects brought food scientist Natalia López Mota and biologist Branko Pjanic from Europe to Mexico in 2012. After several years, the two debuted Cava Garambullo in San Miguel in 2017. The duo makes wine mostly from organic grapes purchased from nearby farmers, and ferments the juice with ambient yeast. They don’t filter any of their six wines––which include blends of malbec and cabernet franc and a single-varietal Syrah––and a minimal dose of the common preservative sulfur yields juice expressive of where the grapes grow, says López Mota. Bottles range from $20 to $44, and eager imbibers can visit some of San Miguel’s best restaurants, such as Áperi, for a taste.

Ulises Ruiz, proprietor of Viñedo los Arcángeles in nearby Dolores Hidalgo––40 minutes northwest of San Miguel––follows a similar hands-off approach. Keen to express the local land through his wines, in 2017 he began buying grapes from farmers to produce varietals like cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot. (Prices range from $15 to $31; he produces 5,000 bottles annually.) Just last year he was able to harvest from his own vineyard, which is open for public tastings. Ruiz says his wines are close to organic (he ferments with a mix of wild and commercial yeast), using pesticide-free grapes. He aims to be completely organic in the future, citing soil health as his motivation. Ruiz also sees the current trend of natural wine production, both in Mexico and around the world, as an important step in preserving the plant, leaving a smaller ecological footprint.

Image courtesy of Octagono

A 45-minute drive northwest in the municipality of San Felipe, Marcelo Castro Vera describes his four-year-old Octagono wine label as additive-free, composed of unfiltered wines fermented with wild yeast and zero added sulfur. Vinified from organically grown grapes he buys (Castro Vera has planted his own vineyards but has yet to harvest), these are the only wines in Mexico that are produced following the ancient Georgian tradition of fermentation and storage in large egg-shaped clay pots known as qvevri, in place of wood or stainless steel. Think varietals like Tempranillo and grenache—ranging in price from $15 to $35—which one can taste at his hip shipping-container hotel, El Nidal.

Castro Vera is making some of Mexico’s most authentically rustic, natural wines, and he, like Ruiz, believes the world’s interest in this style aligns with a rise in consciousness about preserving the planet, in addition to the habit of people consuming cleaner foods and beverages. There’s been a revival in the ancestral way of doing things, and the young generation leading Mexico’s most exciting new wine region looks forward to toasting visitors and nationals with more straightforward, honest juice. While Castro Vera admits that natural wine is the new “cool kid on the block,” this is one trend that is firmly rooted in the past.

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