Mexican food culture is etched into the fabric of American society. It’s easy to find a restaurant offering tacos, plates of molé, and chorizo-stuffed tortas in the U.S. Salt-rimmed margaritas and shots of tequila are widely available in almost every state of the country, too.
But when it comes to wine from neighbors across the border, not so much.
Thanks to its proximity to Mexico and the touristy wine trail of Baja, California affords folks in the Southwest and those on the West Coast better odds of experiencing the delights of Mexican wine. Cities close to the border like Santa Fe and San Diego have seen Mexican wines enter the market over the last few years as hot, new restaurants have lured customers in with exciting, flavorful menus.
However, on the East Coast, some parts of the South, and the Midwest, finding a good bottle of Mexican wine has been challenging.
“People on this side of the U.S. drink wine, and yet, it’s so hard to find Mexican wine in New York City and other states along the East Coast and the South. But there are a lot of really amazing, award-winning wineries in Mexico,” says Max Strygler, the director of operations and co-owner of Primos Imports, a New York City importing company focused on Mexican wine.
But things are changing.
A historic region
Casa Madero, located in Santa Maria de las Parras, was the first winery established in the New World in the 1500s — and it’s still functioning today.
However, most winemaking in Mexico ceased when King Philip II of Spain prohibited the production of wine because he feared it would compete with Spanish wine. For the next two centuries, grapes were mostly used for brandy production, though some missionaries continued to produce wine. Around 1900, most of the remaining vineyards were destroyed by phylloxera.
While a few wineries like L.A. Cetto and Santo Tomás maintained production, modern winemaking didn’t emerge in Mexico until the 1970 and ’80s when a new crop of young energetic winemakers behind Monte Xanic captured the attention of critics.
Now, the Baja Peninsula, south of California, is responsible for 90% of the country’s production, according to Karen MacNeil’s “The Wine Bible,” and there are hundreds of wineries and restaurants in the area that show off the quality Mexico has to offer. Other notable winemaking regions include the North Central states of Coahuila, Durango, and Chihuahua, south of Texas and New Mexico, and states in the center of Mexico like Zacatecas, Aguascalientes, and Querétaro.
The range of grapes grown in the country has also increased, and now includes Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Nebbiolo to Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Viognier, though many wines are made as blends.
From coast to coast
Despite the many options for good wine in Mexico and areas of the U.S. closer to the border, getting bottles to the other side of the North American map isn’t always easy. For starters, many people simply haven’t recognized that Mexico produces wine. Then there’s the issue of convincing buyers that these aren’t just cheap, mass-produced bottles.
“I’ve had the occasional buyer that expected Mexican wine to be the price of a Corona,” says Max Murphy, the co-owner of Tozi Imports in Boston.
Strygler has experienced something similar in New York.
“I’ve walked into restaurants and tried to offer Mexican wine, and right away I would get asked, ‘How much is it?’ One time, a guy told me, ‘I have Pinot Noir from Burgundy that costs less. Why would I buy your Mexican wine for more?’” Strygler recalls.
But things are changing, according to Murphy.
“Boston is a relatively younger city in terms of the younger population. There are a lot of people who are open-minded and curious about wines from regions that haven’t always received a ton of exposure and bottles they’ve never seen before,” Murphy says.
It also helps that some acclaimed winemakers have set up shop in Mexico. Henri Lurton of Château Brane-Cantenac in Bordeaux established the notable Bodegas Henri Lurton in Baja, California, in 2014. Since then, the wines have become available at prestigious restaurants like The French Laundry in Napa, California, and Chicago’s Topolobampo. Then there’s Bichi Wines — owned by brothers Noel and Jair Téllez — whose bottles stamped with a luchador wrestler caricature have become available in retail stores across America.
The success of those brands, and a handful of others, is helping build buzz around Mexican wine in markets that haven’t given the region much attention.
“We’re selling to steakhouses, Italian restaurants, Japanese restaurants along the East Coast,” says Murphy.
“It’s a slow process. It’s taking time. But look at mezcal. Ten years ago, people didn’t know what mezcal was. And now mezcal is booming. The same is happening with Mexican wine. People are discovering and coming on board.”
“It’s a slow process. It’s taking time. But look at mezcal. Ten years ago, people didn’t know what mezcal was. And now mezcal is booming,” says Strygler. “The same is happening with Mexican wine. People are discovering and coming on board.”
Not only that, but noted wine critic Jancis Robinson MW predicted that “Mexican wine will be much better known in 10 years” in a 2017 interview with Food & Wine magazine.
Some East Coast bottle shops are already noticing a growing interest.
“Our customers were excited to see us launch Mexican wine in Massachusetts,” says Hadley Douglas, co-owner of The Urban Grape retail shop in Boston. “People want to support the regional underdog. There’s simply no reason why we won’t continue to see more and more Mexican wine on the shelves.”
So next time the mood calls for a wine adventure, consider a Mexican wine. Here are 12 worth trying:
Pavo Real Valle de Guadalupe Red 2018 (~$12)
Made in the Independence Valley region in Dolores Hidalgo, Guanajuato, this wine is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Tempranillo, and Grenache. Though the aroma is full of intense fruity flavors of black cherry, pomegranate, and dried strawberry, the palate has spicy layers of black pepper, raspberries, dark chocolate, and dried herbs.
L.A. Cetto Valle de Guadalupe Chenin Blanc 2020 (~$14)
L.A. Cetto has been dedicated to showcasing the best of Baja since the winery was founded in 1975. This light and aromatic Chenin Blanc is just one example. Ripe with citrus and tropical fruit aromas, the palate is lively and balanced with rich stone fruit fruit flavors and hints of mango and melon.
Bodegas de Santo Tomás Valle de Guadalupe Misión Tinto 2019 (~$16)
Established more than 200 years ago, Bodegas Santo Tomás was the first commercial winery in the Baja region. This particular bottle is a blend of Misión, Carignan, and Tempranillo. It features aromas and flavors of raspberry, blackberry, crushed herbs, and ground pepper.
Monte Xanic Calixa Valle de Guadalupe Chardonnay 2019 (~$16)
This bright Chardonnay is made by Monte Xanic, a winery that has existed in Mexico since 1987. The only single-varietal white wine in the company’s portfolio, this bottle exudes fragrances of banana, pineapple, mango, orange blossom, and pecan. Meanwhile, the palate is dry with high acidity and notes of pineapple, florals, baking spices.
Finca Sala Vive Vivante Sparkling Brut Rose NV (~$16)
A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Ugni Blanc, this interesting sparkler hails from the Central Mexico state of Querétaro. The wine is light and fruity and makes for the perfect party starter or dinner aperitif.
Monte Xanic Vina Kristel Valle de Guadalupe Sauvignon Blanc 2019 (~$20)
If clean, bright, and refreshing is what you’re looking for, this Sauvignon Blanc has the answer. Crisp and light, this white wine displays intense tropical fruit aromas of passionfruit, pineapple, and mango. Pronounced flavors of citrusy lime and mandarin mingle with fresh acidity on the palate.
Casa Madero Parras Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 (~$24)
Enjoy a full-bodied red wine loaded with red fruit notes and baking spices from Mexico’s oldest winery. The Cabernet is full-bodied with a silky texture that oozes with black cherry, blackberry flavors, clove, and nutmeg flavors. Well-integrated tannins are balanced with fresh acidity in the long, extended finish.
Finca la Carrodilla Canto de Luna Valle de Guadalupe Red 2020 (~$26)
This ruby red wine is made with Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, and Tempranillo. Dry with medium acidity, the wine’s aromas and flavors match with nuances of raspberry jam, blackberry, and tobacco leaves.
Bichi Tecate Rosa 2019 (~$31)
Everyone loves a little mystery, and this wine is shrouded in it. Winemakers have not identified the variety of the grapes used for this wine. Yet, it’s fresh, fruit-forward, and enjoyed by many. A natural wine, this bottle is made with no fining or filtration, meaning there’s minimal intervention from the winemakers during the winemaking process.
Bodegas Henri Lurton Valle de Guadalupe Nebbiolo 2018 (~$37)
Now here’s a wine that’s full in body but ethereally smooth. Fruity notes of cherry are complimented by flavors of forest fruits, tobacco, oak, and a hint of spice on the nose. The palate is cloaked in spicy and oaky flavors that lead to a memorable finish.
Bodegas de Santo Tomás Unico Valle de Guadalupe Gran Reserva 2015 (~$75)
Here’s the wine for your next dinner party. A blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, this wine is similar in style that’s easy to find in Bordeaux. Aromas of notes of leather and menthol lead to a velvety palate rich with ripe dark fruits. Drink it now with red meats and hearty dishes, or save it for later. This will be enjoyable years down the road.
Monte Xanic Gran Ricardo Valle de Guadalupe 2019 (~$80)
Elegance is an understatement when it comes to this wine. Intense aromas of ripe raspberry and boysenberry mingle with violet, white pepper, and oak. The palate is complex and layered with flavors of fruit, spice, and oak.