Un Poco de Vino for Mexican Independence Day!

Courtesy pixxiestalls
Courtesy pixxiestalls

September 16th is Mexican Independence Day! On this day (not Cinco de Mayo, as many would believe, that is instead the occasion of another great underdog victory against France), the church bells rang in the small town of Dolores, signifying the official start of Mexico’s War of Independence from Spain. Though the fighting continued for 11 more years until 1827, El Grito de Dolores (“the cry of Dolores”) or El Grito de la Independencia (“the cry of independence”) is considered the official pronouncement of Mexico’s freedom. To mark the anniversary each year, bells are rung at the National Palace in Mexico City at 11 pm on September 15, the Grito is repeated and the names of noted revolutionary soldiers are read to the crowd. With a cry of "¡Viva México!!!!!" the celebration begins.

This is the ideal occasion to pop open some Mexican wine! Wait, not tequila? Not mezcal? Isn't this the perfect opportunity for a great agave cocktail? Well, yes. And by all means!

But Mexico also produces some outstanding wines, and those deserve some love too.

First, a back story.

The history of Mexican wine production begins in the 1500s, when Hernan Cortes and his conquistadors exhausted their supply of wine while overthrowing the Aztecs. He ordered the colonists to plant 1000 grapevines for every 100 native... “employees” as they were referred to. (Needless to say, “that mensch” is not something you hear people say about Cortes.) The Spanish conquistadors had vines brought over for religious mass, and more likely, wash down their food. With failed attempts to grow grapes in the more tropical regions of Mexico, the first grapes, known as Criolla (the mission grape of California and the Pais grape of Chile), were successfully planted in the Parras Valley of Coahuila. Growing in Puebla and Zacatecas soon followed. The first Mexican wine estate, Casa Madero, was founded in 1597 by Lorenzo Garcia in Santa Maria de los Parras in Coahuila and still exists.

The Spaniards were doing so well with their colonized wine production, that Charles I ordered all ships traveling to “New Spain” to bring over grape and olive vines to step up production. This went great guns until the late 1500s when demand for Spanish wine took a downturn with the rise and prestige of French wine. To make matters worse, this wine from the colonies was faring better than Spanish wine. So in an effort to promote only local Spanish products, Philip II put an end to all production. Finito. This didn’t stop certain religious sects, particularly the Jesuits, from continuing to make wine, naturally for the sake of religious authenticity. Jesuit Priest Juan Jugarte is credited for leading this revolt and establishing the Santo Tomas Mission with vineyards in Baja California. The Dominicans soon set up in the Guadalupe Valley, now the center of the Mexican wine industry.

grape vines and palms in Mexico, courtesy queen esoterica
grape vines and palms in Mexico, courtesy queen esoterica

After Mexico’s War of Reform in 1857, all of the Catholic land holdings, and the vineyards, were seized by the government and became property of the state. These were then sold to a private group of investors who to this day operate as the Bodegas Santo Tomas.

The next rise in Mexican wine production came in the unlikely form of a group of spiritual Christian Russian emigres, the Molokans (a.k.a. “Jumpers”) who relocated to Guadalupe Valley to escape brutal persecution from the czar’s army. Many of them had an advanced farming background and reserved a good portion of their crops for quality wine making at the turn of the 20th century. Their legacy lives on to this day, despite an unsettling period during the Mexican Revolution in 1910.

Since the 1980s, prestige wine production in Mexico, supported by the National Viticulture Association, began in earnest with the promotion of modern techniques. Some great juice being made, and this is the perfect time to seek them out. Some to try:

Rincon de Guadelupe Palomino, San Vicente, Baja: A bone dry and citrusy white, very reminiscent of a Bordeaux style Sauvignon Blanc (a.k.a., it isn't grassy or cat-pissy.) A terrific refresher!

Casa Madero Rosado, Parras de la Fuente, Coahuila: A semi-dry, cabernet-based rosado (rosé.) Like to think of this more as an aperitif than a table wine. Great at the beginning of the meal or with light dessert. Would also be splendid in cocktails (there's where you can work in the tequila!), spritzers or splashed into something sparkly. Also ideal for a high quality sangria.

Courtesy L.A. Cetto
Courtesy L.A. Cetto

L.A. Cetto Petite Sirah, Valle de Guadelupe, Baja: Dark, inky and bold, with concentrated fruit flavors. Some floral and earthy notes round out the finish with style. L.A. Cetto was Baja winery of the year in the 2013 NY International Wine Competition. 

Jubileo Zapata Zinfandel, Valle de Guadelupe, Baja: This is the most ubiquitous of Mexican wines, and for a good reason. Yum! From one of the wineries descended from the aforementioned "Jumpers," from the Bibyoff family. A medium-bodied and surprisingly light, fruity zin that is a natural match to many foods. Great for everything from spicy takeout to barbecue to a roast chicken dinner to pasta with tomato sauce.

Monte Xanic Cabernet Sauvignon, Valle de Guadalupe, Baja: Hearty, with berry flavors and a toasty oak finish that also has some a touch of leatheriness like a good Rioja. Would be soooo good with a burger!