Saturday, June 23, 2007

Fine wine tasting awaits just across the border

by Beau Russell - The Daily Aztec

The oak barrels at Mexico's Chateau Camou winery in the Valle de Guadalupe contain gallons of fine wine. Mexico doesn't have the fame of wineries in Napa Valley or the Bordeaux region of France, but the products available are of similar quality. (Beau Russell) My girlfriend's parents were visiting from Denmark, and I offered to entertain them for a Sunday. After thinking about potential places to take them that would be both culturally educational and entertaining, I couldn't come up with anything. So I asked my brother, an insider when it comes to travel tips, where I could take them.

"Do they like wine?" he asked.
"Of course. They're European," I answered.
"Well, take them to Mexico," he said.

You're probably as bewildered as I was when he uttered "Mexico" and "wine country" in the same sentence. However, a little known but highly revered wine country has finally begun to gain the recognition of Mexican and American winos alike.

Ten years ago, the Valle de Guadalupe began to sprout vines full of grapes, transforming into the wine-producing region it is today. Wine has become the staple of the valley, and because of the expanding viniculture, restaurants and innkeepers have claimed their stakes right alongside the wine producers. With the development, the quality of the Mexican wines has risen.
"The wines are comparable to the Napa Valley or the regions of France," said Jens Nielsen, my foreign guest. "They are very fine wines."

What has drawn steady-but-not-overwhelming crowds to the region for the past few years has been an exquisite mix of fine dining and award-winning wines, without the notoriety of other regions. Even on Sundays, restaurants with gourmet menus accompanied by wines from the Valle sit half full with excellent service standing by. A day trip is easily feasible on any day of the week, with most of the wineries offering tastings from morning until mid-afternoon. Many wineries that front the Ruta del Vino (Route 3) are easily found by markings from Scenic Highway 1 along the coast of Ensenada. This scenic, well-paved, two-lane highway snakes through green hills, which become lively in the spring months after moisture is carried from the Pacific Ocean into the valley.

Our first stop of the day was the expansive L.A. Cetto winery. Around 80 percent of the valley belongs to L.A. Cetto, and it shows in the full-service wine shop. Because of the sheer size of the winery, including a large shopping boutique and friendly English-speaking employees, it is an easy introduction to the Valle de Guadalupe. Not only do they allow you to sample all of their many products, from merlot to chardonnay to their own tequila, they do it at the most reasonable of prices: free. The employees are equally knowledgeable about the other locations throughout the valley for more tasting and even tips on where to dine.

Other wineries, such as Chateau Camou, a short drive east, are more informal and a great way to explore a less commercialized side of the valley. With hallways filled with oak barrels that raise the wine to specific tastes and textures, the small Chateau sits atop a hill overlooking the valley. The tasting room is nothing more than an informal oak table set in a small room filled with the cool dry air that is essential in the wine-making process. Upon arriving, we shared the hallway with a Mexican family on vacation. Without a care, we all drank our wine and discussed the fruit and bouquets while our friends belted out Banda songs.

And this is what the Valle de Guadalupe has become: a little-known wine region that has incorporated Mexican hospitality and culture into a European tradition. Because of its relatively undiscovered status among even the most well-versed Mexican travelers, a free weekend definitely deserves consideration for an exciting mix of Mexican wine culture.

Beau Russell is a sociology junior.

History of Mexican wines (part 3/3)

Chapter 3: From the 19th century onwards

At the end of the XIX th century, the Concannon family, pioneer in the Californian state (Livermore Valley, US) convinced the Mexican government to take advantage of the viticultural potential of the country and introduced a dozen French vine types and varietals in Mexico.

In 1885, the Mexican government was worried about the extension of the vine plantation but could not develop it due to the social troubles (Revolution) in the country.

In the XXth century, the wine production suffered from two headaches in Mexico: one was the phyloxera epidemy and the revolution of 1910. The first one destroyed around 1900 a large amount of the Mexican vineyards.

The second one pushed the Concannon family to leave the country but later another Californian Wine maker, Pirelli Minetti, planted another range of vine on hundred acres near to the city of Torreon.

In the 1930's the industrial growing and production of grapes is related to the numerous arrival of the miners from European origin in the Valley of Santo Tomas. They discovered abandoned plants and equipment, they restored them and founded so in 1938 the first winery of the country called "Bodegas de Santo Tomas".
Only in the period of stability post-1940 did a modern winemaking industry emerge, helped by rigorous protectionism. There was revived interest in table wines in the twentieth century.

After World War II the government quadrupled tariffs on imported wines, and when the 1970's brought a fad for sweet, light, often sparkling bulk wines, the domestic market grew to about two million cases per year. But there were further setbacks though when the deregulation of imports in 1982 brought competition from cheap, junk quality foreign wines which forced many estates out of business.

Thanks to large investments and the work of capable foreign technicians, including many Italians, the few surviving wine estates turn out products today which compare extremely well to those from other countries with more illustrious reputations. This has led to the increased reputation of Mexican wines, undoubtedly helped by the popularity of Mexican cuisine all over the world but due also to the pleasure given to connoisseurs by the discovery of good quality wines with lots of personality.

But in 1989 free trade arrangements with the European Union caused the bottom to fall out of the domestic market. Prices and production fell by nearly ninety percent under competition from inexpensive, particularly German and Chilean, imports.

Mexico's economic crisis and devaluation of the peso in 1994 caused unemployment and other economic hardships from which the country has yet recovered. Competition from low-priced imports however is still a serious factor for developing wineries.

Nowadays the growing of grapes has three purposes: eating and wine making, production of raisins and industrial use (e.g. distilling). The end of the XX th. century has seen major changes resulting in greatly improved wines.